Without me even really realizing it, we are approaching the end of Season 1! It certainly hasn’t felt like 11 episodes have already passed us, but they have and the season is certainly building up towards its climax. This week’s episode upped the ante in a way that I could not have possibly foreseen at the show’s beginning. The events of this week’s episode are difficult to digest right away but it’s clear that they will fully redefine the show’s complexion going forward. A line was crossed this week, the line that separates the Machiavellian from the truly evil. House of Cards has always involved the highest of stakes and whether or not that represents the reality of Washington D.C. is immaterial – each week were led to believe that the characters’ various trials and tribulations were matters of life and death but it was only this week that we learned how true that is. Before we dive in to the episode properly, a small administrative note: I’m aware that season 3 of House of Cards has been released but I’m still committed to my initial, one-episode-a-week schedule, which means that I won’t hit season 3 for a good long while yet. With that in mind, I ask anyone thinking of commenting on this to spare me any spoilers.
Now, we’ll definitely get to Russo’s death in a bit, but first let me get the less dramatic bits of discussion out of the way. It’s a sign of an extremely riveting episode that Frank’s revelation that he is gunning for the Vice-President’s position is considered secondary news. Frank’s motives have been unclear to the audience for a long time now but with this episode it’s clear just how high Frank’s aspirations are. Will he stop at just the Vice-Presidency? Frank Underwood doesn’t seem like the kind of man to rest on his laurels, especially with a President as weak as this one. It’s a little unreal just how much of a pushover Walker is – is this really the man that Frank believed in way back in the first episode? It seems he is little more than a puppet that acts in Frank’s best interest. Soon to be ex-VP Jim Matthews assessment of his boss is spot-on – he might have the charm but he lacks utterly in leadership. It will be interesting to see how Frank manages to worm his way to the top of the shortlist that Linda is putting together, or indeed, if he can manage it at all. I can’t decide at this point in the story whether Frank being denied the Vice-Presidency at the final possible moment would be satisfying or not; on one hand, it would have a certain moral message behind it – murderer (or manslaughter-ers, whatever the legal term for it is) don’t win in the end, but that would fly in the face of everything else that this show has presented to us thus far. I do think we will see Frank pay for his actions in this episode and thus far, just as Peter Russo paid for his own series of blunders and poor decisions.
I think we’ll have plenty of chance to talk about Frank and his true end-game in the up-coming episodes but for now, let’s talk about Claire, the runaway wife. The last time we saw her, she seemed fairly happy – reunited with Adam, she was living a life very unlike the one she shared with Frank. She let her hair down (figuratively, of course) and was smiling and laughing as though she wasn’t every bit as ruthlessly cut-throat as her husband. This week, the honeymoon ends however – Adam is fun and Adam is free but as Claire finally tells us, it isn’t freedom she wants, it’s influence. It’s rare for a character to state something like that so openly but it’s also refreshing and a clear reminder to the audience that while Claire has taken a step back from the ‘main’ plot of the story, she will be a force to be reckoned with when she returns. I hope that one day we get to examine the intricacies of the Underwoods marriage – what exactly it was that drew these two people together and what exactly it was that held them together for all this time. It’s been touched upon a couple of times in previous episodes, but I’m not really sure I fully understand it and more importantly, I can’t be sure how honest the characters were being at the time, given who they were talking to. There is a certain poignancy in how Russo’s death reunites Frank and Claire. I don’t know how strongly Claire will react when Frank tells her about his part in Russo’s death or even if Frank will tell her at all (despite their claims that they tell each other everything) though I think her reaction to the news will tell us all we need to know about where her boundaries are vis-à-vis Frank’s. On a minor note, I really loved how Zoe waltzed into Claire’s room and invaded her private space just the way that Claire did to her a few episodes ago though it’s amusing to note that Zoe only did so after Frank said that Claire wasn’t around. It seems that Claire’s intimidation isn’t easily shrugged off.
It would be an understatement to say that Russo’s death was a shock. House of Cards committed itself very early on to continually raise the stakes for its characters. In the beginning, we dealt with small time petty politics – the spiteful sabotage of Michael Kern, the petulant disruption of the Education Reform Act and so on. Slowly but surely, the scale of events increased and the character were obliged to keep up or get left behind. Peter Russo struggled right from the beginning. He was painfully aware of his demons but dangerously less so of his own inability to combat them. Even at his finest, he always gave the impression that he was one piece of bad news away from imploding and taking everyone around him down with him. So if that’s the case, why am I so shocked that he’s dead? I was sure that Russo’s part in this story concluded last week when he turned up for a radio interview sounding drunk and his appearances this week made me think the show was trying to neatly wrap up his character arc; he would be remembered by fans as the man who tried bossing Frank around and instead had his career ruined. I guess the biggest reason that I’m surprised is that I didn’t think that this show was one would cross the boundary separating the distastefulness of dirty politics and the outright evil of murder. To be frank (heh), I don’t know how I feel about this turn of events. On one hand, it made for edge-of-your-seat television and that’s never a bad thing but upon some reflection, I wonder if the character of Frank Underwood might not have been better served by refraining from making him a murderer. This single event decidedly pushes Frank from the ‘wow, this guy is an asshole’ to the firm villain category. Technically speaking, I guess he’s still an anti-hero rather than a villain but that’s really just like winning by default.