The more I watch of this show, the more I think about how very appropriate its title is. We’re four chapters into this first season but we already see its structure. The titular house of cards is being carefully built up, the stakes getting higher and higher for all its inhabitants but like the literal house it’s named for, the house is inherently unstable and I suspect that by the season’s end, some of its occupants are going to realize this rather painfully. On the surface of things, this entire affair has not yet run amok; we begin to see the fractures in the integrity of Frank’s grand plans but they have not yet reached their critical mass. Perhaps it’s my own nature, but I find myself, in episodes such as these, less focused on the plot progression (which is relatively minor or at least a little unfocused at this stage) and more on the character development, specifically the way we learn so much more about the relationships between the characters.
Frank’s arc has been consistently interesting so far, but in this episode, it was Claire that really caught my attention. You might remember that in the last episode, I just couldn’t understand the way the character was being deployed. She seemed to exist just to burn some screen time and I suspected that the writers were developing something that was just clearly going over my head. I still don’t know what it is I missed in that last episode but I know for a fact that this episode was much clearer and more direct. We’ve seen hints of it before, but there really is a steel core inside Claire’s lovely silk exterior. She resists Remy’s somewhat absurd offer ($150million from nowhere? No strings? Yeah, I’d call bullshit too) out of loyalty to Frank but she resists Frank too because she feels marginalized and feels that once again her work is being forced into the backseat on account of his. She is not some meek airhead who will just cave to her husband but neither is she immature enough to sulk and throw a tantrum over it. Her unhappiness takes a more interesting form and I believe it will be the first fracture in Frank’s Master Plan. The nature of her relationship with this Adam Gallaway fascinates me. There seems to be a genuine affection there and it seems to be mutual but at the same time, her loyalty to Frank seems real as well. The thing that intrigues me most is that Frank seems to know of her relationship with Adam, or at least suspects enough though he seems to appreciate his wife’s fidelity.
So what then, does it mean when Frank chastises Russo for his hypocrisy but then proceeds to engage in an affair with Zoe? Frank’s relationship with Zoe is wildly different from all his relationships in the series so far. He has undying loyalty from his staff – at this point, I’d believe that Stamper would die for him, easily. He has Claire’s love and support, though I’m still trying to make sense of the odd marriage they have going on; are they in an open relationship? Certainly not, there’s no way to pass that off in Washington but at the same time, it seems like they are life partners on a level far surpassing brief physical flings. Then we have Peter Russo who has given Frank his soul and is only now learning just how expensive a soul can be, more on him later. Lastly, we have Zoe Barnes. Frank is Zoe’s temptation, he is the ticket to her ambitions and he is the drug that sends her on her power trips. Without him, she is still reporting minor league gossip in the middle of nowhere but with him she is a minor powerbroker in her own right. She can stand up to her boss and make threats of her own – she has traction and she knows it. What does Frank get from it? My suspicion is that he binds her to him closer. The affair isn’t really about affection – sure he admires her spunk and her firebrand, anti-authority mindset but their relationship is about power. I think at the heart of it, she believes that her beauty and sexuality gives her power over him, that sleeping with him will make him a little more biddable and even the gross power imbalance between them. It will not – Frank’s insistence of her removing her heels gave me that impression. Frank’s affair with Zoe is the second major fraction here. There are a lot of ways that this could all go wrong. Frank’s plans are based on the assumption that everyone values their ambitions over their morals; Russo will never cave and spill the beans or he would risking losing all and Zoe would never reveal her source or her career ends right there. Yet, if he keeps pushing them, something will have to give and it appears that Peter is nearing his breaking point.
Peter Russo is turning out to be a much more sympathetic character than I had expected him to be. You get the sense that he was rogue who ended up biting far more than he could ever hope to chew. He was never meant for true greatness – Congressman was the furthest he was ever meant to go and now that he’s swimming with the sharks, he’s finding life at the edge of political and career death far more draining. It was his inner demons that got him into this mess and it is to those same demons that he’s going to turn now for salvation though I don’t think either Frank or alcohol can truly save him. I can see him committing suicide from the pressure or being the mole that brings this house crashing down, perhaps working with Zoe or even Claire, though the former is much more likely. I pity Christina – it’s not easy thing to love someone who is enslaved by their demons and I speak from the experience of being on both sides of that particular sordid table – and the alcoholic Congressman’s adorable children. Meanwhile though, Zoe Barnes seems determined to be as irritating as possible. Perhaps she’s meant to be a representation of the entitlement of my generation – nothing is ever enough and she never stops to appreciate. How could she, when she honestly believes from the bottom of her heart that the world is her oyster? She has done what none of these sheep have – she has opened the corruption in DC and found her own little fountain of corruption that she can survive off of for the rest of her career. I wonder if Frank Underwood will ever rise far enough that his story might become worth more than his information.
There are a few thoughts that I couldn’t fit into the above paragraphs. As we move forward, I think we’re beginning to see the power that Frank really holds in this world. He doesn’t move in the shadows, not really, he steals in broad daylight, takes smart risks and makes bold moves. In a lot of ways, he is unsympathetic, perhaps too much so to ever be considered the ‘hero’ of his own tale, even amongst the questionable ethics of Washington DC but at the same time, he retains enough of the audience’s respect and admiration that he is safely in the category of an anti-hero. To speak in more concrete terms, his dismissal of Russo’s hypocrisy comes across as a moralization of his cruel manipulation yet you’ll notice that he also offers something (albeit something intangible and distant) to Peter in compensation. For all his brutal, ruthless manoeuvring though, his seemingly genuine affection of Freddy and his willingness to get his hands dirty still redeem him enough, for me at least. For the time being.