House of Cards is like watching a full blown power trip in real time. In the short span of a few episodes, we’ve seen Frank rise from Linda’s butt-boy, the man that the President used and then shrugged out like an itchy coat, to become the President’s right hand man, if not in title then at least in effect. Yet, any hope that the power would not go to Frank’s head has been totally dash by the episode’s end. I’ve talked before about the fractures that could bring this whole scheme, and all the little schemes within it, crashing down but this episode has left me with the opinion that it isn’t just one fracture that will topple it but the combined force of all of them. The question is: will Frank be able to keep his pawns under his control, or will they begin to reaasert their independence and tear him down in the process?
This episode showed remarkable progress on Frank’s part while simultaneously exposing his many weak points. Let’s start with his strengths, shall we? With the dirty tricks he pulled last episode winning the war for the education bill, Frank’s standing with the President has never been higher. It’s is telling that at the episode’s beginning, Frank is given all the respect and pageantry that should have gone to the Vice-President, who has been almost entirely phased out of influence. While others would rest on their laurels, even momentarily, Frank immediately puts his newfound credibility to use and pushes Russo on to the DNC and the President. Walker is not a strong man – from the little we’ve seen of him, Frank has had his number right from the get go and while that does make things a little unbelievable for me (can someone that weak really win the Presidency?) it is a sign that this particular President is only as strong as his staff and Frank is hard at work chipping away at them. With the Vice-President effectively nullified and the Majority Leader in his pocket, Frank begins undermining Linda. She seems aware of the rug being slowly pulled out from under her but it remains to be seen how she will combat her usurper. I feel confident that unlike the other saps from previous episodes, Linda will put up a fierce fight though I can’t see her standing up to the colossus of Frank Underwood.
As things turn out though, she might not have to hold out for too long. She isn’t the only one who will be working against Underwood – the prostitute from the first episode, the one Stamper paid off previously, comes back to haunt him and she knows names that should not be linked together: Douglas Stamper, Peter Russo and Frank Underwood. The trouble with buying someone off is that you often don’t have a way of keeping them bought and Stamper is in trouble. The thing with the media is that you don’t have to be right in order to make trouble – Rachel, the prostitute in question, can just make vague accusations and as long as it gets on air, the Russo campaign is will crumble and Frank’s role in the matter will come to light.
Russo, meanwhile, is a greater danger to his own campaign than anyone else. Leaving aside the fact that he’s pretty much a name that no one cared to remember, he is working uphill against his many demons. His rap sheet is as impressive as it is long and honestly, it’s only a matter of time before he cracks under the pressure. Women, drugs, alcohol; there is nothing that Pete Russo isn’t vulnerable to. Sure, Frank got Christina to be his support but it didn’t work in the past and I don’t think it’s going to work again. Frank definitely knows this, especially after Frank’s expert secret-extractor wears Russo down like so much cheap grain. “He’s an amateur”, the man below tells Frank and it’s hard to disagree. In face of the press’s relentlessness, I’ll be amazed if Russo doesn’t just give up on the spot and chug a bottle of whiskey right there and then. Corey Stoll is doing a great job in playing Russo – he is able to show Russo’s inner strength, his ambition and his passion while at the same revealing to us just how very weak this Congressman is.
We should talk a little about Zoe and Claire a little bit as well because whether or not they know it, they are both ticking time bombs in the Underwood plan. Claire has taken up making origami swans after seeing a homeless do the same in the previous episode but as usual the symbolism (if there is any) is totally lost on me. It’s seriously frustrating sometimes because I don’t think I’m totally idiotic (shut up) but try as I might I can’t really piece together a solid explanation for her actions. Either I’m overthinking it or the show is being way too subtle about it. In any case, Claire seems perfectly fine Frank continuing his affair with Zoe but I wonder whether deep down she is as fine as she appears. There seems to be something up with her health, a further reminder that not all is well (we last saw some hint of this two or three episodes ago when she was getting donations from her neighbours). I’ll comment more on that as it plays out since there isn’t much to say otherwise except that Frank has better ensure that all is well on the homefront before it explodes in his smug, dastardly face. Meanwhile, Zoe is learning the tricks of the manipulative trade from Frank. She not-so-deftly manoeuvres Janine Skorsky (her bitchy ex-colleague from the Herald) into taking a position at Slugline so that she can publish stories that Zoe can’t; a mouthpiece’s mouthpiece, really. Yet, I’m much more interested by the dynamic in Zoe and Frank’s relationship. Frank seems jealous of Lucas, though for no real reason and that jealous takes the form of a truly disturbing Father’s day phone call. Yet, Zoe is growing increasingly resistant to Frank’s control on her and I wonder how long before she goes into open rebellion. I wonder if she can keep her boss at Slugline happy without Frank’s tidbits of information.
This actually brings us to the topic of the character of Frank Underwood. To say that Underwood is duplicitous would of course be an understatement, but he says openly in this episode that he is a different person to Claire than he is to Zoe, which seems obvious but has some interesting implications. To Claire, he is supportive, loving yet unfaithful. There isn’t a contradiction in this though strange as it may seem since it’s all happening with her knowledge and apparent blessing since he tells her openly that he will end the affair the second she asks him to. To Zoe, however, he is none of these things; he is cold, demanding and manipulative and while I won’t call him outright cruel, neither is he particularly kind or affectionate. The reason I find this particularly interesting is because I think that between these two women, we get the full picture of Frank’s character, the good, the bad and the ugly. Sad as it is to say, I don’t think we’ve seen the full extent of Frank’s ugliness yet though; we got a sneak peek last episode, but we still haven’t seen him at his lowest, most desperate. Honestly, I’m not sure I’m looking forward to it.
Last but not least, we get some information on the character of Douglas Stamper. We learned last week that he is a recovering (recovered?) alcoholic and we see him at an AA meeting this week. Assuming he was being honest at the meeting, he is not as cold and ruthless as he appears at times. To be fair, there is evidence to back this up – he treats Rachel well and doesn’t seem to take advantage of her and while that is certainly holding him to a fairly low standard, I think it’s safe to say that’s a decent person if not quite a nice guy. Still, I wonder if he feels the conflict between his own inner morality and what his work sometimes demands of him. Does he ever resent Frank? Does he ever regret selling his soul to Frank’s bottomless ambition?