House of Cards: Chapter Two

“Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.”

This episode opens with a very disturbing image. We are shown a photograph of President Walker and, as we watch, a finger swipes across the photograph leaving what looks like a trail of blood. It is, however, not blood; it is barbecue sauce from the ribs that Frank is eating.

This episode picks up exactly where the previous one left off. Frank is eating ribs at an ungodly hour of the morning and paying handsomely for the privilege of doing so. The metaphor is clear -- Frank is going to draw blood very soon.

Over the course of the episode, we see Frank eviscerate two of the key elements of the President’s agenda. The first is the education reform bill. I get the impression that Donald Blythe is a Mr. Smith; he went to Washington because he genuinely thought he could change education in this country. Instead, he takes the blame for something he did not do and his twenty-five year career fades away as he allows Frank to take all the credit for his work. Work, by the way, that not even Frank does. It is done by a group of young kids who are not even allowed to shower until it is done.

The second is the President’s choice for Secretary of State. Although Blythe’s downfall was relatively out of the public eye, Michael Kern’s downfall is public and ugly. Skewered by an editorial that appeared in a university paper thirty-five years ago, Kern’s disgrace is complete because Frank manipulates Peter Russo into manipulating Roy Kapeniak into lying to Zoe.

The scene between Peter and Roy is a tour de force. In a dimly lit, dingy setting, these two men each give into his demons while Lynyrd Skynyrd plays on in the background. Roy’s demon is his long held resentment of his friend’s selling out to what he sees as the dark side. Fueled by his own demons of booze and drugs, Peter eggs Roy on. My guess is that few, if any, people really listen to Roy, let alone agree with him. Swept up in the giddiness of this new experience as well as the chemicals, Roy agrees to lie.

Doug Stamper is the one person in Frank’s orbit who makes me cringe. He blindly follows where Frank leads, going out of his way to help Frank bring down anyone and everyone. It is he who finds all the dirt; it is he who sends Frank to Roy; it is he who pays the prostitute for her silence. After spending all his time being Frank’s number two and fawning over him, Doug has to assert his authority where he can. He is a bully to Peter and he is cruel to the woman. This is not a likable man.

One of the elements that was missing from the first episode was an explanation of exactly why Frank is so upset about losing the Secretary of State post and why he would be willing to go to such lengths to ensure that the person who does hold that position is in his pocket. This episode answers that question, at least in part. Frank can be bought.

Frank has received huge amounts of money from Sancorp who believed that he would be Secretary of State. In return, they expected Frank to push through favorable offshore drilling contracts for them. Problem is, of course, Frank has not held up his end of the bargain.

Remy Danton, who used to work for Frank, now lobbies on behalf of Sancorp. He overtly threatens Frank at the beginning of the episode which infuriates Frank. This man clearly does not like to be questioned or challenged and when he is, he goes on the attack. The attack doesn’t work on Remy, who holds all the cards for now. As Remy continues to threaten, Frank literally backs into a wall and cannot meet Remy’s eyes.

He can meet ours, however and he does so as soon as Remy walks away. He launches into a soliloquy about money versus power and how Remy’s choosing the former is a waste of his talent. Clearly, Frank believes we will side with him and not respect Remy for the choices he has made. The speech, however, is vindictive and petty, especially now that we as the viewers have a better understanding of the stakes.

Claire is as coldblooded as her husband; maybe more so. From the beginning of the episode, I knew Evelyn was going to go and I was willing her to see the writing on the wall. Claire’s ambition will not allow anyone to stand in her way, even a woman with whom she has been working for ten years and who has obviously been her right hand for that time. This story is harder to stomach than either of Frank’s machinations because it is so much more personal. Frank is hurting colleagues; Claire is hurting a friend. The small scene at the end where Claire buys coffee from the older woman and a flicker of regret crosses her face was not enough to redeem her in my eyes.

Claire is also manipulating and lying to Frank. The whole manipulation around the rowing machine made no sense to me until Claire told Frank that she did not want to live without him for twenty-five years. On the surface, that sounds loving. I don’t believe it is. In their marriage, they are what they are and they have what they have because of Frank’s position, not Claire’s. If he were to drop dead, she would lose most, if not all, of the power she currently holds.

There is something else going on with her that Frank does not know, but we do. The episode opens with her running in the morning, but that evening she lies to Frank about not having done it and goes running again. Where is she running off to?

Zoe is having a meteoric rise, from puff pieces to television interviews in a few short days. The list of her achievements is Faustian, but she is so young and so ambitious that she cannot see it. Janine, on the other hand, can and she is going to stop this young upstart if she is able to. Although I hate the idea of an older woman stepping on a younger one, Janine’s jealousy and resentment are easy to understand.

At one point in the story, Frank says to Doug that all of this has been “too easy.” So far, it has. As witnesses to the narrative, there has been very little conflict and very little tension to date. Everything that Frank has set out to do has been done. What we don’t have yet is the reason we should cheer him on. I have been fascinated watching all the pieces fall into place and I love watching Frank play puppet master to those around him. Eventually, however, we will all need more.

A very good episode, but I need the stakes to be raised soon. Three out of four rowing machines in the basement.

Trump Cards:

-- This Week with George Stephanopoulos is a weekly news show that airs on ABC. I find it ironic that he has such a show as he was less than successful at handling journalists when he was a member of the Clinton White House.

-- The ADL is the Anti-Defamation League. It’s mission is to "to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people.”

-- I loved the whole montage of the talking heads (some of whom are real journalists) debating Catherine’s nomination as Secretary of State. The power of the press was fun to watch, but even more was Frank’s conversation with Linda.

-- Zoe’s television interview is the first time we have seen her with her hair down and wearing make-up. Like the push-up bra and the v-neck last episode, she is not above using her youth and her femininity to its advantage.

-- The scene with Frank and the homeless man was odd. We already know that Frank can talk just about anybody into just about everything. His talking down such a sad figure felt like overkill to me.

Speaking Frankly:

Frank: “Discuss is probably the wrong word. They talk while I sit quietly and imagine their lightly salted faces frying in a skillet.”

Frank: “Sancorp helps me purchase loyalty, and in return they expect mine. Degrading, I know, but when the tit’s that big everybody gets in line.”

Frank: “What a martyr craves more than anything is a sword to fall on, so you sharpen the blade, hold it at just the right angle, and then 3, 2, 1…”

Frank: “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.


Anonymous said...

The opening scene confused me at first as well. I was just rolling my eyes by the thought of another president assassination. Luckily it was no crazy killer, only Frank and his BBQ fingers.

They way Frank sets his plan into motion is scary but also intriguing. Peter is the perfect puppet for Frank`s plan but I am always annoyed with people that you expect to be smart (he is in politics!) but then they have not the slightest clue when being played.

I understand that you have problems with Doug. But I like him, I suspect because I like the actor so much (loved him in Generation Kill).

Claire gives me shivers. Boy, that women is cold and quite strange. Somehow her relationship with Frank is strange. They don`t give me the feeling of love and passion.

Anonymous said...

Claire and Frank's marriage seems to be one of convenince and reaching mutual goals rather than a love match.

Sooze said...

So glad you are reviewing this one. My husband and I watched the whole series in about 2 weeks. Yup, I said my husband and I...this is the first show I have ever been able to talk him into watching with me (other than The Big Bang Theory). It is a fabulous show. As you said, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are both excellent, as is the supporting cast.
I am sure you know, even though you haven't said yet, that this series is filmed in Maryland - with our lovely Baltimore standing in for D.C. Baltimore does actually have some beautiful parts - for those of you who have only seen it via "The Wire". The main studio is in Harford County - north of Baltimore. Havre De Grace is a beautiful little town that sits on the Susquehanna River at the head of Chesapeake Bay. The Herald scenes are a set that they made inside the Baltimore Sun building. We had some fun trying to figure out where things were filmed (hey, that's the Meyerhoff!)
The one issue we have with watching all at once, is that we're sure to forget some of the details before series 2 comes on, and may end up re-watching. I guess that's what old age does to you...and I suppose re-watching something so well done is not a bad thing!
Anyway, I won't say anything else about the show in order to not spoil folks...

sunbunny said...

Claire is an interesting character played by an interesting actress and I just hate her. I don't even love to hate Claire, I just hate her. She runs a charity but does not do so because she actually cares about the charitable work. She wants power, she wants press. That's made clear by the extreme actions she takes to expand. The scene with her getting coffee didn't make me change my opinion at all. In fact I might even hate her more because even after feeling sorry for the older woman working the register, she didn't tip her. That's just rude.

I like that the show uses some real world journalists. It makes everything realer. Aside from Stephanopoulos, all the journalists they used were from CNN. I wonder if that was an intentional choice or if NBC and Fox wouldn't release their news people for shows they had nothing to do with.

Josie Kafka said...

This show really doubles down on the awful people, doesn't it? Janice was the one that got to me when she asked Zoe who she was having sex with. Such an awful way to put it. (I'll have more to say about that on the next review.)

I also saw Evelyn's firing coming a mile away. There's a complicated SanCorp/Water in Africa thing going on, right? Is this all one big manipulation to get the Underwoods wealthy?

ChrisB said...

UPDATE: Another excellent director's commentary. This one carried much of the discussion from the previous episode forward and gave some real insight into the acting choices made.

Highly recommended.

Billie Doux said...

Claire is frightening. Who can fire 19 people that you've worked with for ten years and feel nothing? Is she a sociopath? I was almost expecting her to smile afterward, but that would have been too obvious. I actually thought she was going to say something cruel to the older woman at the coffee shop.

I see that thing with the rowing machine like you did, Chris. She sees Frank as the necessary source of her power and wants him to stick around. But I also think she wanted to make Frank do what she wanted. It was (again) power.

Billie Doux said...

I'm going to watch The West Wing now. House of Cards feels like an evil "Mirror, Mirror" universe version of The West Wing.

Marianna said...

I just started watching this show, and I am entranced by it.

One quick correction: Zoe's jealous coworker's name is Janine, not Janice.

I also hate Claire, which was obviously the intention. (Although, Sunbunny, being the etiquette nerd that I am I have to say it is not rude to not tip at a cafe.) I actually enjoy what her character brings to the show. There have been shows before where the evil main character has a naive wife who is unaware of what her husband is capable of (The Shield, Breaking Bad). It can get tiring watching the wife's obliviousness. In this case I thought "Oh! She knows he's evil and doesn't care because she's evil too!" If this type of dynamic between a married couple has been done on TV before, I don't know of it.

ChrisB said...

Marianna -- thanks for commenting. I have fixed the name.

While it may not be rude to forego a tip in a cafe, as someone who has worked in the food service industry for the past two years, it will always be greatly appreciated.

I hope you enjoy the series. Do comment from time to time to let us know what you think of it. Thanks again for the comment.