After the slow pace of last week’s episode, we return to the main stage this week with implosions everywhere. On the home front, the tension between Frank and Claire manifests itself at the worst possible time and leaves Frank in a lurch that he would never have seen himself in before. Peter Russo’s stock has been rising pretty consistently these last few episodes with some strong wins in both the personal and professional department ever since his rock bottom near collapse at the season’s beginning. We see a rare sighting of the human side of Douglas Stamper in this episode as well though my character instincts tell me that this is not as good a thing as it might be in other scenarios. I’ve talked before of how fragilely Frank’s plans are held together and how they rely on everyone doing what their parts but in this episode we two critical threads snap and the results aren’t pretty. This episode was actually very well balanced between plot and character development and likewise, I’ll be talking equally about both aspects of the show today.
It’s the moment of truth for Russo and the Underwoods as the big Bill that they’ve been working on for the past three or four episodes gets voted on. The implications of the bills failure are going to be enormous; firstly, the Bill’s defeat leaves Frank with egg on his face in front of the President. It is a highly visible failure and given how fickle Walker seems to be, it might just mean that the credibility that Frank sunk so low to earn with the Education Bill has been lost. It also means that Frank is going to have to start taking Sancorp seriously. Mahershala Ali hasn’t gotten much screen time recently but make no mistake, Remy Danton’s influence is everywhere. When a major industry wants to protect its interests, it clearly doesn’t pull any punch and honestly, it is a testament to Frank own formidable abilities that he almost pulls it off despite the massive financial pressure Sancorp is exerting through Remy. Still, if Frank is going to recover from this, he will need a way to either neuter Remy or bring him over on his side. You would think that their working relationship would have made them a little more willing to work together but there doesn’t seem to be much love lost between the two men.
I was impressed with how the various narratives linked up so neatly by the middle of the episode. Claire’s resentment at having her work take a backseat to Frank’s has been a recurring theme this season. Previously, she was forced to fire half her staff because Frank could not get to the State Department and then she was pressured into forgoing a million dollars from Sancorp just so she wouldn’t owe Remy any favours. This episode however, was the final straw – seeing Frank not only unable to help her in any way but then seeing him turn around and ask her a favour was all the push Claire needed to stab her husband in the back. I’m reminded of the first episode where Claire says something to effect of ‘When we don’t work together, we’re in free fall’; it would seem that she wasn’t wrong – despite all the adversity Frank manoeuvred through, he would have gotten the Bill through had it not been for Claire. I don’t think Claire is the kind of woman that would try to pass the blame to someone else either – if I’m reading her character right, she’s going to tell Frank what she did and why she did it; he needs to learn that she is just as important to his success as he is and that she cannot be taken for granted. Now, while I certainly understand the sentiment, I can’t help but think it was poorly timed and more than a little petty. It feels almost like she unleashed all her pent up anger and frustration through this one small act of betrayal and defiance and the fact that she expresses her emotions in such a cold and calculated manner honestly terrifies me.
Yet her frustration doesn’t just seem to come from Frank’s dismissiveness towards her and her work. I didn’t comment on it in properly in the previous episode but the last two episodes have rather pointedly raised the issues of Underwood children. Frank tells us in no uncertain terms that he despises children (of course he does, children are just liability in the universal manipulation game that is Frank Underwood’s life) but Claire doesn’t seem so firm in her anti-child vitriol. In fact, there isn’t any anti-child vitriol from Claire in the first place. The question of why the Underwoods are childless was raised in the last episode was Adam Gallaway and I sort of assumed that Frank’s sexual orientation was part of the reason – as Zoe tells us in this episode, he never seems to get any pleasure from having sex with Zoe and we never see Claire and Frank get intimate. However, Claire’s front to the rest of the world is that she is happy without them though she seems to warm to Russo’s children fast enough and there is a frost on her face (I know, I know, how can I even tell) when Gillian mentions that she is pregnant. Is it envy? Will we see Claire lash out again because she is again forced to repress her frustrations at the life she has chosen?
Speaking of Zoe though, she decides it’s time to don her big girl pants and cut loose of her information-sugar-daddy. Frank is stoic throughout the ‘breakup’ and you wonder whether he actually isn’t full of shit when he tells us, deadpan, that the affair meant nothing to him. Yes, because that’s exactly why he got jealous when Lucas was over and that is exactly why he sulks after Zoe ends things and cut her off. Now, while on one level it is because of his emotions, and I don’t think anyone can argue that he’s so cold as to not care at all, it is also true that without the emotional/sexual side of their relationship, Frank feels like he doesn’t have control over her. He admits this himself – “Everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power”, he tells her, quoting Oscar Wilde. He enjoys controlling her, enjoys how reliant she is on him to keep her career going and he definitely enjoys the power, all of which are signs of a sociopath. Let’s look at this from Zoe’s angle though; it feels like she’s reached a point where she can no longer sustain herself in her career without insider information. The Zoe Barnes that shot to fame by always knowing what happened in Washington before anyone else cannot exist without a Frank Underwood to support her and she realizes this too late. She wants it all – she wants the self-respect of not essentially whoring herself out for information while at the same time she wants the information and the benefits it offers. It’s clear, to me at least, that the bitterness in her voice (great acting by Kate Mara, by the way) in penultimate scene isn’t just at Frank for cutting her off but mostly at herself for compromising on her principles and morals.
On a more minor note, we have the developments between Stamper and Rachel Posner. It was a nice move on Doug’s side to help Rachel keep her own job but I couldn’t help but note that he only made the move to help after she told him that she didn’t have sex with the manager. Now, giving him the benefit of the doubt, it might just be that he wanted to make sure that she has her self-respect back and is actually making some progress piecing her life together before he continues taking risks to help her. On the other hand though, we can’t forget that Doug did pay her to have sex with him the very first time they met and every subsequent helping hand that he has offered her feels like it had some strings attached to it. We’ll see where this ends up but all in all, she seems to be a liability more than anything, right now.
We haven’t talked about Russo today, but I don’t think there’s much to be said. He’s been saying all the right things and seems for the most part to have gotten his act together but it feels like the calm before the storm. His Bill has just been defeated and with it, his chances in the gubernatorial race have taken a hit too, I would think. Sure, it’s nice that Jim Matthews is endorsing him now, but then again Jim Matthews is the kind of VP that would sneak in the Oval Office to steal a pen, so I don’t think that counts for a whole lot. Peter Russo has some dark days ahead of him, it would seem and I don’t think Frank is going to be in an altruistic enough state of mind to help him out.