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House of Cards (US, 2013): Chapter 5 (Review)

Friends make the worst enemies

– Frank Underwood

There is a sense now that House of Cards has figured out what it wants to be and how it wants to go about being that sort of thing. After the first three episodes were surprisingly non-committal, the fourth and fifth episodes make it clear that Frank has a plan for revenge against those who betrayed him, one that stretches a bit further than scuttling Michael Kern’s chance to be Secretary of State. There’s a wonderfully understated moment in the middle of this fifth episode where it looks like Frank has finally figured everything out, the pieces have aligned in such a way that he is positioned to speed up what is likely to be a pretty far-reaching payback scheme.

A name you can trust...

A name you can trust…

Early on in the show, it seemed like House of Cards was trying to fit everything in while lining up the arc for the year ahead. Indeed, Peter Russo felt a bit like a third wheel in the early episodes, eating up screen time that might have been better spent with Frank and Claire, and even Zoe. In the past couple of episodes, Pete’s place in the grand scheme of things seems much more obvious. He’s still a pawn, but he’s more than a convenient message boy for dodgy fact-finding. Instead, he’s a political operator who is nothing more than a tool in Frank’s schemes.

The scenes between Frank and Pete are superb. After spending three episodes getting to know Frank, it feels like the gloves are finally off. His manipulation of Pete is cold and cynical, a calculated way of accomplishing his own goals while giving Pete the illusion of free choice in the matter. It’s quite obvious that Pete himself isn’t the endgame here, and it seems likely that Frank is merely lining him up to sacrifice at some point, making this manipulation and exploitation all the more cynical. Frank has complete and utter control of Pete, and it’s more than mere blackmail or the threat of prison time or impeachment. What could Frank force Pete to do?

I love it when a plan comes together...

I love it when a plan comes together…

The relationship between Frank and Zoe feels a little superfluous. It’s a bit of mechanical plot work that feels more necessary than compelling – we need them to get close so that the inevitable betrayal by one or the other feels more personal. There is still some creepy “daddy issue” subtext here. When Frank asks for leverage to prove he can trust her, she suggests, “Pictures. The kind I wouldn’t want my father to see.” Earlier, he establishes himself as something of a “sugar daddy” to her. “Don’t worry,” he offers. “I’ll get you a new phone. I’ll get you two. One for work and a burner for play.”

The show isn’t explicit about that subtext though, and it feels like it is pulling its punches here. Underwood is, after all, a stern paternalist authoritarian. Zoe’s attraction to him is down to the power he holds, but she admits she has always had a thing for powerful older men. There’s a wealth of creepy sexual politics at play here, but it feels like the show is really just treating their sexual relationship as a plot point, rather than anything granting particular insight into two highly disturbed individuals.

Taking a bath on this one...

Taking a bath on this one…

Of course, Zoe and Frank aren’t the most interesting couple in the cast, not by a considerable margin. Frank and Claire are a fascinating power couple, and I actually think that the American show has done a much more interesting job with Claire than the British show did with Elizabeth. Elizabeth was kept in the background, in the shadows, manipulating and steering Francis, but without too much of her own agency – at least until The Final Cut. Claire, as played by Robin Wright, is a much more interesting and compelling character.

The marriage between Frank and Claire is fascinating. They seem to except that sex is – like power – currency in Washington, and Claire is remarkably cool with Frank’s remarkable candour about his relationship with Zoe. “She can be controlled,” Frank assures his wife, as if reporting to his boss. “The moment you want me to end it,” he adds. Indeed, the only explicit suggestion that she is uncomfortable with it emerges as she asks, “Just this once?”

You can check out any time you want...

You can check out any time you want…

What’s remarkable about the show’s portrayal of Claire is that it refuses to explicitly clarify the terms of their relationship. There are times when it seems more like a mutually beneficial working relationship. They just co-habit to make the meetings more efficient. “I’m going to bed,” she tells him at one point. Pointing to the mess of papers on the table, she instructs, “Don’t move any of this around.” And yet, despite that, there is some obvious loyalty and affection. Though they accept the use of sex to keep Zoe in line, their marriage isn’t “open”, it isn’t a farce. Claire hesitates to cheat on Frank, despite the temptation.

Frank himself also works a lot better here, a lot more fluid. There’s a much clearer sense that Frank is really just a massive hypocrite, even if we’re not entirely sure whose conscience his justifications are intended to sooth – ours or his. Like in the third episode, Frank takes offence his enemies refusing to act politely towards him. There he protested the refusal to offer some ice tea from a political rival, but here he takes offence to the fact that his wife has been drawn into all this.

We need to talk about Kevin Spacey...

We need to talk about Kevin Spacey…

“He can go after me all he likes,” he tells us. “Going after my wife? No class.” Of course, Frank uses his wife’s business for his own ends. He’s not above using her as a prop. He’s also not too worried about collateral damage in his own campaigns. It feels a bit trite to protest Claire being brought into the line of fire after he destroyed thousands of jobs to suit his own political gambits. It’s nice, because House of Cards seems to be finally acknowledging that Frank can be a truly reprehensible person while still being a compelling and strangely alluring leading man. The justifications he offers are shifting from attempts to excuse his actions to hypocritical pettiness.

There’s also a sense that Frank has a bigger plan. He toppled the incoming Secretary of State in the second episode. We can only imagine what he could do over thirteen whole episodes. The show has, again, been surprisingly non-committal in its portrayal of Frank’s end game, but it seems like he finally has one. It does feel a little bit late – Urquhart was already Prime Minister by this point in the BBC show – but at least it’s there, and at least Underwood is confirming that his schemes are going somewhere big.

Well, at least his stubble is all the same length...

Well, at least his stubble is all the same length…

“It isn’t just about this race,” he tells Stamper. “Expand your thinking.” If this is going where I think it is going, I am very interested, and it seems like Underwood may yet prove an equal to his British predecessor. After all, the American Executive is much more stable than the British Parliament, so upsetting the apple cart takes a great deal more effort. I think that I can see what Underwood is planning, and it represents a massive up-swing in either his ambition or his ability, depending on whether he always had the goal or if he’s taking advantage of a convenient set of circumstances or both.

Spacey is fantastic. There’s a wonderful sequence in the episode, when Russo is announced as an eligible candidate, and you can literally see Underwood running through the possibilities in his head. Spacey and the cast have generally been great here, even if the writing has struggled a bit to define what the show wants to be about. Spacey is one of the finest actors of his generation, and when the show gives him the material he shines.

Phone alone...

Phone alone…

Unfortunately, this episode also sees the show returning to the evils of new media, fixated on how the web is diminishing discourse rather than democratising it. It’s a valid argument, but it’s one that needs to made well, particularly when that old chestnut has been dragged out quite often in the past decade or so. House of Cards suffers because it seeks to label one side of the debate entirely right while the other is entirely wrong.

New media wins out in the show, but the series doesn’t think that this is a good thing. Even when Washington Herald editor Thomas Hammerschmidt is forced to resign, the show plays it as a grand tragedy. “Know this,” he advises the paper’s owner. “Zoe Barnes. Twitter. Enriched media. They’re all surface. They’re all fads. They aren’t the foundation that this paper was built on, and they aren’t what will keep it alive. We have a poor readership that craves hard news. Those are the people I work eighty hours a week for. I won’t be distracted by what’s fashionable.”

Dialling down the rhetoric...

Dialling down the rhetoric…

We’re very clearly meant to feel sorry for him, and for society in general. His stubborn refusal to change is portrayed as tragically noble rather than conservatively pathetic. In fact, the scene closes with the suggestion that perhaps Hammerschmidt isn’t entirely defeated, despite the fact he had to resign. Despite referring to one of his female reporters using a loaded sexist pejorative, he still has his pride and the respect of his publisher. They share a drink afterwards, as if facing dignity in defeat.

In contrast, the triumph of new media is treated as one built on impulse and irresponsibility. Zoe writes for “Slugline”, apparently the new Politico, as if to confirm to the audience that, yes, it is all just a fad. It’s people writing “what they want when they want.” Indeed, her new editor tells her, “You don’t have to send me things before you post.” It’s clear that the organisation is more concerned with sensationalist headlines then fact-checking or accuracy.

The scheme of things...

The scheme of things…

Of course, this is a bit of a problem, because it suggests that newspaper journalism is inherently more ethical and more valuable. At one point, Zoe confesses can’t write speculation about inside gossip without Frank’s help. This is fine, but the irony is that the show seems to think that’s a bad thing, that a better journalist would be able to turn in 600 words of pure guess-work about who is going to do what in the new cabinet, and would call that inside baseball and speculation “news.” It would be nice if the show was willing to be anywhere near as critical as the print media as it seems to be of on-line journalism, which makes it look a bit disingenuous.

Still, House of Cards has found its feet. It is going from strength to strength. And I’m actually very much looking forward to the next episode.

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