House of Cards
Rachel is dead.
You may be thinking, Gee, seems like we spent an awful lot of time this season, and during this critical season finale, playing Rachelquest! What was the point of all this time if the end result was just that Rachel was out of the picture? OH WAIT, IT WAS POINTLESS. THE POINT IS THERE IS NO FREAKING POINT AT ALL.
Who thought anyone would have any interest in Rachel’s life of southwestern semi-squalor? Who thought we would need to hear about this plan for her shiny new life that we have always known will never come to pass? Who thought, given all the ratcheting-up of the plot that is happening in other quarters — Frank and Claire’s marriage, the election, Heather’s moral compromise, Jackie and Remy’s affair — that what viewers would really want to spend nearly half the season finale watching was Doug And Rachel’s All-American Murder Road Trip?
I do not, as a general rule, like to fact-check TV shows, because as long as these characters and plot machinations obey the laws of the House of Cards internal universe, I don’t care if whatever they do “could never happen” in real life. But even in the alternate reality that is HoC’s Washington, I cannot go along for a second with this series of events: The chief of staff to the president of the United States can go off the grid, to Caracas, during the primaries, to assault a known cybercriminal who is on the run from the FBI; then return to the Lower 48; buy a van from a sketchy car dealership that must have been running a special on Vehicles For Snipers and Pedophiles; go to a hardware store and pick up supplies that basically scream, “I’m just in town to kill somebody”; then dig a grave off the side of the road in no man’s land; then decide at the last minute to let this girl go live with the trees or whatever she’s dreaming of doing; then double back and kill her.
What are we even supposed to glean from this? All the time we spent watching Doug work through recovery and learning how to be a human being with his brother was all for naught? Once a sociopathic murderer with a weird thing for dark-haired prostitutes, always a sociopathic murderer with a weird thing for dark-haired prostitutes? Don’t know, don’t care, good times, everybody.
Back in the part of the story that anyone actually cares about and finds entertaining, Claire is a campaign superstar. Frank is doing that smarmy thing all male politicians do, pretending to be self-deprecating about how much better his wife is than he (“Heather won’t win because she doesn’t have Claire Underwood standing by her side!” — ugh just stop).
The direction of these scenes is fantastic. We hear the chanting of “UN-DER-WOOD!” and the thunderous applause for Frank as we watch Claire walk around the residence alone. The sound cuts out at the moment Claire shuts the doors.
She wants to go for a run, but a Secret Service agent points out that doing so will “highlight” the fact that Claire’s not in Iowa. So we get the return of the rowing machine. Frank calls Claire and she he wants her to fly back to be with him; she doesn’t have to do any events or press. She says yes in this totally hollow voice, then summons Tom to the White House.
This Tom thing is so ridiculous! She thinks he somehow has more insight into her marriage than she does. Why is Claire using him as a human BuzzFeed quiz? Anyway, Tom reminds her that she used the word hate to describe her feelings for the way she and Frank need each other.
That night, after not being able to get through to her over the phone because Claire kept pretending to be asleep, Frank finds Claire in the Oval. She’s sitting in that chair behind the desk. It looks good on her. Frank still has that black Easter egg in his drawer, where he’s taken to stashing his emergency cigarettes. He chastises her like a child for not showing up. “I had to give a victory speech alone. One way or another, I need you on that plane with me tomorrow.”
“When I said we were lying, what I meant was, for all these years, I thought we were on this path together. But it’s not what I thought it would be, what I convinced myself it would be,” she says. They’re not equals after all. “It’s your office, not mine.” Every decision she makes has to go through him. She can’t do anything without his help. “I hate that feeling. It’s not me. I don’t recognize myself when I look in the mirror.”
Over and over in this episode, people want to be seen and can’t force anyone else to see them. Rachel kept telling Doug, “Look at me,” but even when he did, it didn’t save her. Claire can’t get Frank to see her the way she wants to be seen; she can’t even see herself in her own reflection.
Claire starts to explain their night in Iowa, but Frank is so unsympathetic: He says it was “deranged” of her. “And you couldn’t even give that to me,” she says.
Frank and Claire’s relationship is endlessly interesting, even though this season I would argue the performances are carrying the writing, not the other way around. Robin Wright can flicker from murderous to vulnerable to calm to fire and back again; Kevin Spacey is so clearly having the time of his life that even when Frank’s behavior is outrageous and illogical-in-context (so, 85 percent of the time) he is still captivating to watch. I would watch these two in this these mini-plays all day every day — and, for the past two weeks, I have! — but the story just does not hold up to close inspection here.
Claire has known exactly where this path would lead not just since the day we met her three seasons ago, but the day she married Frank all those years ago. She knew the plan was for Frank to be president. What did she think that would entail on her part? She’s known, all this time, that Frank is a murderer. She knows about Zoe. She knows about Peter. Why would she have a sudden crisis of conscience over Michael Corrigan’s death, a tragedy for which she and Frank were not even responsible? Are we really supposed to believe Claire doesn’t know Frank is sexually attracted to men? They had a threesome with Meechum! Did she not notice what part of that encounter was turning Frank on? The idea that she would demand rough, passionate sex from Frank — in a hotel Iowa, all of a sudden — makes absolutely no sense. As if she hasn’t known for decades what that failed tryst supposedly revealed!
Frank takes this point of view, too, telling her that she could have “married the prom king” in Texas “if you wanted a husband who proved his manhood to you that way.” But Claire knows Frank has been blind to everything she had to give up to get him what he wants. “We used to make each other stronger, or at least I thought so, but that was a lie. We were making you stronger. Now I’m just weak, and small.” Claire is living her nightmare: powerlessness.
Frank loses his mind at the notion that what he has provided for Claire is “not enough”: the White House, being First Lady. And Claire cuts through all his noise: “No. It’s you that’s not enough.”
In response to this truth — maybe Frank runs into the truth so infrequently he has no idea how to respond when faced with it — Frank’s voice drops to a growl:
When we lose, because of you, there will be nothing. No plan, no future. We will only be has-beens … Here is the brutal fucking truth. And you can hate me, you can be disgusted, you can feel whatever it is you want to feel because frankly I’m beyond caring. But without me, you are nothing. You’re right. This office has one chair, and you have always known that, from the very beginning. And if you now can’t stomach that, well then I’m a fool for having married you in the first place.
Claire looks away from and he snarls right into her ear. He orders her to be on the plane tomorrow, to “smile and shake hands and kiss babies.” He grabs her face in his hand and forces her to look at him. “I don’t give a damn if you vomit on your own time.”
The next day, Frank asks Doug if he’s okay in the soft, gentle tone you’d think he’d want to use with his wife. Then he asks Claire if she’s ready.
“I’m not going to New Hampshire.” Have we ever seen her look sadder? “I’m leaving you.”
Will Claire use her deep well of intel to destroy Frank? Does she not even care about destroying him, so much as she needs to find her own identity and autonomy outside of this marriage? Can we finally be done with Rachel and Gavin? Will we ever see Cashew again? Leave your predictions in the comments, and thank you all for binge-watching/binge-reading with me!
Correction: A previous version of this recap incorrectly spelled “Meechum” as “Mitchum.”