Photo: Nathaniel E. Bell/Netflix
At the end of the House of Cards season-two finale, it finally happened. Frank Underwood, the most ruthlessly ambitious man in Washington, stood on the threshold of the Oval Office, which he was about to enter for the first time as President of the United States of America.
“Come on,” he said to his wife Claire, now the First Lady, just moments after kissing her and telling her he loved her. “We’ve earned this together.” She demurred. “Take a few moments for yourself first,” she advised softly.
It was a sweet, almost romantic moment. Or it would have been if it were possible to forget all the lies, betrayals, backstabbings, back-channeling (let us never forget the back-channeling!), Raymond Tusk threats, cockamamie casino counter-plans, forced Chief of Staff resignations, weird threesome moments, presidential undermining, and cold-blooded murders that put Frank and Claire Underwood in the position they had just attained. But who could possibly forget that? Not House of Cards viewers, especially when they saw Frank walk into that office, shove his chair out of the way, place both fists on his desk, and look straight into the camera in a menacing fashion that said, “I’m in charge now, American people. And it’s entirely possible I will shove all of you right into the path of an oncoming Metro train.” Subtle: It ain’t Frank Underwood’s strong suit.
But Frank Underwood is strong, apparently strong enough to get exactly what he wanted via a series of breakneck-speed plot twists that improbably allowed him to become president in less time than it usually takes to get through half of a State of the Union Address.
Good God, all of that happened fast. Suddenly, Raymond Tusk was violating his plan to plead the fifth in front of the Judiciary Committee, blurting out, “He knew” — he meaning President Walker — and qualifying it with some blather about how he ordered and facilitated a “mechanism” that allowed for political contributions within the boundaries of the law, and that the president was aware of it. Honestly, the guy was barely speaking comprehensible English. Yet instantly, Tusk was busy working out a plea deal, articles of impeachment were being sent to the House and President Walker — who, I cannot stress this enough, was never definitively shown to have committed an impeachable offense — was resigning from office and ushering Vice-President Underwood, along with his “virtue” and “courage,” into his new role as leader of the free world.
Ten seconds after that resignation speech ended, Underwood was immediately sworn in, and ten seconds after that, Frank immediately got busy solving all of the problems, including the matter of wrongly asylumed Xander Feng. Poor Feng, man. The dude was kicking back with his feet up, probably thinking about calling a couple prostitutes and strapping the ol’ plastic bag onto his head, when suddenly, some guys from the Justice Department broke into his suite to tell him his asylum time had just expired.
“But … I have it in writing,” Feng said. “It’s permanent, right? Okay, can’t you guys at least give me, like, 15 minutes?” You know what? Good riddance to Feng. He should be the least of anyone’s concerns Instead, let’s focus on a few of the many unbelievable things about the Impeachment of Garrett Walker.
* The Democrats-supporting-impeachment math. Even with the president’s approval ratings on an upswing, Jackie Sharp argued that the Democrats had to support his impeachment, otherwise they would lose their House majority in the midterm elections. The rationale, aside from the fact that Jackie was acting at Frank’s behest: Even if the Dems held on to a slim majority, that majority would be threatened by the inevitable Republican attack ads targeting members who voted against impeachment. I wasn’t quite sure I followed that logic — won’t the Democrats be smacked with attack ads if a member of their own party gets impeached? In either scenario, the party will seem vulnerable and potentially weakened. But the logic tracked or not, what was more troublesome was how readily Donald Blythe, Chief Capitol Hill Hater of Frank Underwood, bought into a scenario that would put Underwood in the Oval Office. “I don’t like Frank but I hate being in the minority more,” he said, also noting that he wanted to support Jackie because she wasn’t like Frank, even though she’s clearly behaving pretty much like Frank. Plus: Supporting Jackie because she’s allegedly not like Frank only results in Frank having more power! Sweet mother of political alliances, why is any of this happening?
* Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to Linda Vasquez? When Walker advised Linda to offer Raymond a presidential pardon in exchange for throwing Frank to the Judicial Committee wolves, Tusk was totally onboard. He was ready to do it. Frank Underwood would probably have gone to jail as a result. But then Frank had to write that letter to the president, which gave the president second thoughts, prompting him to call Linda and rescind the Tusk deal, which in turn led to Tusk throwing the president under the Judicial Committee bus instead. “Now that we’ve gone down this road, we should stick to it,” Linda advised Walker during that phone call. He ignored her. And once again, by ignoring Linda Vasquez, President Walker ended up in greater peril than he would have if he had listened to her. Seriously: The only person on House of Cards who might be qualified to actually serve as president, at least based on both ethics and common sense, is Linda Vasquez. Naturally, she’s the one who isn’t working in the White House anymore.
* The fact that public opinion plummeted so low so quickly regarding President Walker. After the speech the Walkers gave at the end of the previous episode, the president’s approval ratings were back on an upswing. But as soon as Tusk said the magic words — “He knew,” which, in addition to being a lie, wasn’t substantial, unqualified proof of anything — suddenly there were protesters in front of the White House, petitions circulating, and articles of impeachment going to the House floor. There wasn’t this level of swift outrage when President Clinton admitted that he had lied to the American people about his affair with Monica Lewinsky and also committed perjury. Would there be such a public clamor over unproven, complicated, and, frankly, kind of boring allegations that corrupt Chinese VIPs were funneling money to political PACs, especially when the president accused of wrongdoing is clearly the blandest, least threatening person walking planet Earth? It seems unlikely.
* How did everyone in Congress get behind impeachment so damn fast? I understand that Jackie was whipping her House votes in favor of impeachment because Frank promised her bigger things in exchange for her support. I also understand that Senator Michael Kern played the same role for Frank in the Senate because Kern believed that once Frank became president, he’d make Kern Secretary of the Treasury. Fine. But how is it possible that so many House members — in a body that’s majority Democrat — and so many Senators were so willing to jump in line behind the impeachment effort? Even President Clinton managed to stay in office despite being impeached on two counts in the House. And that was when both houses of Congress were majority Republican. It stretches credibility way too far to think Frank could exert this much control, even with the help of people like Sharp and Kern.
* The unbearable forgiveness of President Garrett Walker. One episode ago, the president concluded that Frank had actively been undermining and betraying him for months on end. That’s, uh, kind of a big deal. Yet he managed to forgive Frank for everything, all because of a heartfelt letter from Frank that was obviously heartfelt because Frank typed it on an old-fashioned typewriter. Frank even banged out a typewritten confession in which he owned up to knowing all about the money laundering, telling the president that, even though it wasn’t true (which it was), Walker could use it to hang Frank and save himself. And Walker didn’t take advantage of it! Instead, he somehow became convinced that Frank was really the nicest guy ever and decided not to even bother fighting the completely false allegations against him. President Walker’s political judgment just sucks. If he’s this clueless and wimpy, maybe he really shouldn’t be in office.
Another point about that letter: Frank would not have written to the president at all if it weren’t for Claire. “Seduce him,” she commanded her husband. “Give him your heart. Cut it out and put it in his fucking hands.” Frank listened to her, and it worked out for him. President Walker didn’t listen to Linda and it didn’t work out for him. This is further proof that some of these women are the ones who really should be running the show.
Even though Frank’s rise to presidentialness didn’t make much sense, it’s a done, irreversible deal. Which leads to the question: Where does he go in season three? He spent the first House of Cards season trying to scrap his way into the vice-presidency, which he did. He spent this second one trying to assume the presidency, which he did. There’s nowhere higher to climb now, which is why I suspect the third season will be all about Frank’s desperate attempt to cling to his power. In addition to the fact that his treasonous approach to becoming president could potentially be exposed, there are other problems that threaten his status.
They include Megan Hennessey, who tried to commit suicide in this episode and is clearly no fan of Claire Underwood. She could easily turn into a troublemaker for the president and First Lady.
More importantly, there’s the matter of Rachel Posner, who beat Doug Stamper to death with a rock in this episode, then sped off, finally free, in his car. That’s right: Doug is dead, and I honestly can’t say I’m that sad about it. With no reins on Rachel, her connection to both Underwood and the late Peter Russo could be revealed, especially now that — third problem for Frank Underwood — we know Gavin Orsay actually realized Doug had been visiting Rachel, and that Rachel might have some juicy information that Underwood would prefer to keep private. One of the most irritating things about season two was how tidily both the murders of Russo and Zoe were swept aside in service of other story lines. House of Cards has to address both of those deaths again. Hopefully it will in season three. But above all else, what this show really needs to do is to become a more consistently compelling drama whose characters demonstrate enough shades and layers to make them worth a binge-watch investment.
House of Cards is a show about soulless people that, in season one, managed to give us a character with an actual soul: Peter Russo. Thanks in large part to Corey Stoll’s performance, he was flawed, recognizable and, most importantly, apparently interested in politics because he actually cared about building a better reality for his constituents. Was he corruptible and did he get corrupted? Sure. But we could see that there was still some potential for purity — or at least purity to the extent that it can exist in politics — in the guy.
That’s what compelled many people to race through those season one episodes as if we were trying to set a new world record for streaming video consumption: because we cared about what happened to Peter, and were rooting for him as a rare ray of light among the shadowy, Machiavellian schemers prowling Capitol Hill. With no Russo and no similarly dimensional, fully realized character to replace him this season, there wasn’t as much to care about here. House of Cards felt kind of empty. The closest it came to feeling emotionally rich was when it focused on Claire. Once again, in this finale, we saw a vulnerable side of the frosty now-first lady. After that phone call with Tricia Walker, who assured Claire she was “a good person,” she completely broke down. Naturally, she got herself back together and dried her tears pretty quickly. Whatever guilt or remorse she felt about hurting the Walkers or Megan Hennessey was repressed and replaced by her chilly ambition. But still: We could see the humanity in Claire, and the fact that there’s potential for her to break. She has become a far more interesting character than Frank to such a degree that I really hope season three makes her the protagonist instead of her husband. It won’t. I know this. But House of Cards would be a better show if it did.
Even more than in season one, House of Cards season two relied on the presumption that the Underwoods could wield enough influence over an entire town to rocket right to the top of its hierarchy. The problem is that didn’t ring true, which matters on a show that, tonally, takes itself pretty seriously. We all know that Congress and the executive branch can be startlingly ineffective. That’s because so many of the people working within those branches are doing so at cross-purposes, with conflicting missions and a stubbornness that makes compromise and swift action next to impossible. No single politician — be it an exceptional and ethical leader, or a swamp rat like Frank Underwood — has been able to cut through all of that b.s. effectively and quickly enough to make the whole operation work entirely to his very specific advantage. Not in decades. But House of Cards asked us to buy that Frank Underwood could and did. In the end, at least for this writer, that was a change I simply could not believe in.