House of Cards
After watching the penultimate season two episode of House of Cards, there is only one logical conclusion that can be drawn: Frank Underwood is a D.C. version of Darth Vader who can use the dark side of the force to manipulate his Washington colleagues.
It’s the only way to explain how the Vice-President Who Will Probably Soon Be President was able to bend various people to his will during his now super-intense effort to take down President Garrett Walker, the man who suddenly woke up and realized Frank has been plotting his demise since the minute he was sworn in as Veep. “From this moment forward, I don’t want to hear your voice,” the president told Frank early in this episode. “I don’t want to see your face. And if I do, I will put you on your goddamn back.” When Frank left the Oval Office after that heated conversation, he looked a little panicked.
But why panic when Frank knows he can totally go Sith Lord on Secretary of State Catherine Durant, who had already been forewarned by President Walker that Frank was up to no good? When Frank suggested that Durant should grant asylum to Xander Feng — the corrupt Chinese businessman who has been involved in far shadier activities than the president has and therefore shouldn’t be granted asylum under any circumstances — she initially refused, even though Frank insisted this would somehow get the president back on his feet. “You want him on his ass, Frank,” she said, rightly. But then Frank asked her to consider how it might serve her, as well as the country, if Frank actually did bump the president out of office. We, the audience, didn’t get to hear what he specifically said to persuade her. But we can assume it involved pressing a hand to her neck, saying, “I find your lack of faith disturbing” and then telekinetically commanding her to do his bidding. Because immediately after the Underwood-Durant meeting, House of Cards flashed to a ludicrous scene in which Durant, with special prosecutor Heather Dunbar present, did exactly what Frank wanted: she offered Feng both legal immunity and asylum in the U.S., without the oresident’s consent, in exchange for information about the money laundering. “Confirm for me the existence of a money laundering scheme,” Dunbar said to Feng. “Yes,” he responded. “We used the casino to mask foreign contributions.” Well, hell, that was super-easy. Feng didn’t even wait to make sure he had his immunity and asylum agreements in writing before he coughed up his confession.
That’s how things were rolling in this House of Cards, where Frank moved quickly to position all the metaphorical toy soldiers in his orchestrated war on President Walker so he can make his final, season finale moves. Even though he was clearly on the outs with the president, both Frank and Claire — also, possibly, a Sith Lord — were able to manipulate everything that happened around them in a way that still gave them the upper hand. They secretly convinced Durant to make that outrageous asylum offer without anyone knowing the Underwoods (specifically, Frank) were the source of it. (“Inexcusable,” whispered Claire when Tricia told her how outraged the president was over Durant’s betrayal.) They were able to manipulate the media, with Frank convincing otherwise rigorous Wall Street Telegraph reporter Ayla Sayyad that he was on the president’s side, upholding his honor while others questioned his ethics. Per Frank’s advocacy for the release of the presidential and vice-presidential travel logs, the Underwoods also were able to ensure that the presidential visits to Dr. Larkin leaked out, leading to accusations that White House counsel manipulated Larkin’s testimony before the special prosecutor and, also, that Walker might not be mentally fit for office. Yes, the Republicans are now talking impeachment … impeachment because the president and his wife decided to see a marriage counselor.
That seems like an obscene leap, one that would have a hard time getting any traction anywhere other than in a House of Cards episode. Of course impeachment and removal from office are exactly what Frank wants, which is why he and Claire made their final, knock-out-punch play in this episode: offering to pass Jackie’s version of the military sexual assault bill, then asking her to clandestinely whip the Democratic votes needed to boot Walker, and his punching-bag-present, out of the Oval Office.
If the president were being attacked in this way, it seems to me that most Democrats would rally around him. It also seems like public opinion would most certainly be on his side since: (a) a private visit to a marriage counselor, even if it did involve a Xanax prescription, is hardly proof of being mentally unfit, and (b) there is no way the average American has a thorough enough understanding of Feng and the casino laundering and the bridge construction to think it merits impeachment. The fact that the president was suddenly facing such extreme punishment would seem to have emerged from somewhere left of left field; it’s hard to imagine many members of the voting public supporting it, other than the staunchest anti-Democrats.
That’s the problem with this second season of House of Cards, and also maybe its point: Everything that happens in Washington happens within a D.C. bubble that is never penetrated by the constituents that Underwood and others are supposed to serve. On one hand, that’s accurate: D.C. can feel very, very insulated from the rest of the country. But on the other hand, that’s very, very wrong: Politicians care a lot about popular sentiment because that ultimately affects their jobs. Obviously we don’t yet know how this impeachment thing is going to go down. But there’s no way Frank can lose this one, right? And if he doesn’t, and the president is impeached and thrown out of office for basically no reason, with support from Democrats who aren’t even holding up a finger to gauge the winds of public opinion, that will set a new bar for most colossally unbelievable thing to happen on a Netflix original series. (The previous bar was set by the pseudo-romance between Gob Bluth and Tony Wonder on Arrested Development. Which, come to think of it, reminds me of the Frank-Meechum situation, which didn’t come up in this episode at all. Still: It’s fun to imagine that off-camera, Frank and his stoic security guard were drinking wine and having conversations in which they constantly said, “Same.”)
Here’s what seemed at least a little bit believable in this episode. First, that Raymond Tusk — per the advice of his attorneys, otherwise known as the League of Extraordinarily Identical White, Gray-Haired Gentlemen — pleaded the fifth during his meeting with Dunbar, prompting his company’s stock to begin to plummet. That seemed realistic to me. So did Claire Underwood’s handling of her feud with Jackie Sharp, which got really ugly — “I’m going to beat this bitch down,” Jackie snarled after reading that New York Times Magazine piece in which Megan Hennessey insulted Jackie’s integrity, seemingly at Claire’s behest — until Claire dropped her bill and tried to appeal to Jackie’s power of forgiveness. “We’re deeply sorry for the way we treated you and we want to rebuild the trust we’ve lost,” she said. Once again, Claire, ruthless as she is, adopted a gentle, soft touch. When Claire Underwood says things, even though I know she’s lying, I still believe her, or at least want to. I don’t feel that way about Frank, who, as played by Spacey, is so transparently smarmy that no one can be near him without getting slimed by his unctuous ooze.
But Frank was smart enough, in the end, to appeal to Jackie Sharp using more of a Claire approach, with Claire by his side as he convinced her to whip those impeachment votes. “What we offer is progress, with the promise of more to come,” he said.
“What you’re asking is just shy of treason,” she said.
“Just shy,” Frank replied calmly, “which is politics.”
Again: It’s politics according to House of Cards, where Frank Underwood is destined to continue his ascension of power. Only three, non-political, potential exterior obstacles stand in his way at this point:
1. The possibility that Gavin Orsay — currently trying to negotiate the dropping of all charges against him, as well as Barrett Brown, a real-life journalist who has some things in common with Lucas Goodwin — will leak information about how Doug Stamper framed Lucas. (Orsay doesn’t seem to realize that by tracking Doug’s visits to Rachel’s apartment, he has the potential lead he needs to also frame the vice-president for the murder of Peter Russo. The fact that he doesn’t realize this is incredibly frustrating.)
2. The possibility that Rachel Posner — who was forced to break up with Lisa by the still Rachel-addicted Doug Stamper — will lose it and leak everything about Russo to the media herself.
3. The possibility that an unhinged Megan Hennessey, pissed off about the dropping of the sexual assault bill, will start blabbing about how she was manipulated by Claire Underwood. Of these three potential problems, Megan would probably be the easiest for the Underwoods to swiftly sweep under the nearest rug.
Which they can and, if necessary, probably will. Because this is House of Cards. There’s only one episode left in this season. And you know that Frank Underwood and the House of Cards writers would not have spent all this time meticulously crafting a sprawling scene of civil war if Frank ultimately weren’t going to win the fight.