It is make-or-break for Frank Underwood as almost an entire season’s worth of scheming and soul-mongering comes to a head. Just when he thinks his path to the Vice-Presidency is clear, Garret Walker presents him with one final obstacle – billionaire Raymond Tusk. We haven’t met Tusk before or if we have, it wasn’t for long enough for us to find out anything about him. This week episode immediately rectifies that; we meet Tusk in his charming home in St. Louis and learn just why the weak-willed President wants Tusk as his right-hand man. Meanwhile, Doug, the ever effective superhuman fixer, has several fires to put out – Janine has been asking all sorts of difficult questions while Zoe Barnes is making strong progress at reclaiming her soul from the clutches of Frank Underwood. As far as episode structure goes, this was the perfect build-up to what promises to be an explosive and eventful season finale though I wonder if the show might not have been better served by bringing Tusk into the foreground slightly earlier; as things stand his sudden, critical importance in the season’s resolution feels undeserved and rushed. Still, Tusk and Underwood make something of a harrowing duo and an absolutely fascinating example of contrasting yet complementing ideologies.
Now that the various ‘rebels’, Peter, Zoe and Claire, have been either dealt with or subdued, it’s time for us to focus our attentions on the main course – Frank’s attempt at the Vice-Presidency. This episode both introduces and explores the character of Raymond Tusk, Frank’s final opponent, the big, bad boss of this season. Tusk is an enormous part of this episode, possibly a way of reconciling the character’s importance with his very late introduction. The Tusk we see at first seems promising; a humble, self-made man, it’s not hard to see why even a President as clueless as Walker would want Tusk around. Of course, Frank and Linda have politically-based reservations about Walker and in Frank’s case, personal ones as well, but Frank disliking someone is hardly damning in any case. The episode does very well in slowly revealing Tusk’s true nature to us. It is rare that we see someone dominate and compel Frank so easily; Tusk’s every action seems designed to illustrate to Frank who between holds the reins. He gives Frank as little respect as possible (his constant evasion of direct questions, giving priority to his business, etc.) and surprisingly enough Frank takes it without complaint. At this point, it’s not surprising – Frank is in the dark and can’t risk the President’s ire just because he loses his patience. However, things get really interesting when Frank finds out that the President and Tusk have been playing him. One of the things I love about Tusk is the way his character sort of ties the whole season up very nicely; the news that Tusk was the one ultimately responsible for Frank being passed over for the Secretary of State position means that with a neat, simple stroke the writers have subtly changed the nuance of the season’s conflict from Frank vs. the general, non-specific Walker administration to a much more focused Frank vs. Tusk and his legion of proxies. It’s a simpler narrative in some sense and more condensed and compelling as a result.
I think it’s also fascinating the way that Tusk and Underwood represent two similar yet fundamentally different personalities. Both characters have a predatory ruthlessness to them – it’s clear that Tusk didn’t get to where he is by being a good-natured, jovial old man – and it would also seem that both men speak the same language. It’s fascinating, to me at least, to see that there exists an equivalent counterpart (of sorts) to Frank Underwood; in fact, Raymond Tusk seems like the corporate version of Frank. Think about it: both men like to isolate themselves from the action, preferring to controlling their pieces from the shadows, both men are self-made, having risen from the bottom to their current positions and most importantly, both men are in the business of buying the souls of their fellow men. Yet, the one fundamental way in which they differ is that while they both understand the importance of money and power, Tusk has chosen the former while Frank has kept faith with the latter. It’s a conflict that the show has tackled before – earlier in the season, Frank goes up against Remy Danton, another man who understand the value of both but still chose money. With Remy soon to make another appearance, I wonder if Frank will be able to play the two men against each other?
I guess what fascinates me the most about Tusk and the position he is in, is that it is going to force Frank to choose between his principles and ambitions. It’s strange that Frank, of all people, can be coerced into such a position or that principles are even that important to him but I suspect that pride also plays some part in Frank’s unwillingness to subordinate himself to Tusk. He refuses to be put into the same position he has put so many others into before, possibly because he is acutely aware of just how easy it is to exploit those on the receiving end of such treatment. In general, this is sound, logical advice, yet in light of what Frank stands to gain, I wonder if he can hold out against his own desires. The time has come for Frank to try to pull off a major league play – he has a week to force Tusk from a position of immense strength to one of weakness. It won’t be an easy task by any means and I suspect the next episode will be fairly stressful for Frank and especially so for poor Doug.
Meanwhile, Claire and Gillian’s partnership, which started out so promisingly, has collapsed over Claire’s cooperation with Sancorp. Gillian, for all her intelligence, cannot really see the bigger picture – Claire needed the money to make things happen in Africa. I’m not saying that Gillian doesn’t have a point, but I suspect that she is going to learn the hard way that Claire is not someone to cross so lightly. I would be very disappointed if this minor conflict ended here; so far it seems like the only reason Gillian even exists was so that Frank had someone he could use to get a favour from Linda. Still, it’s hard to really care too much about Gillian with everything that’s going on with Frank and the Vice-Presidency. I hope the show ties it all together, but I just don’t see how they will be able to. On a more relevant front then, we see Zoe fighting off Frank’s influence and regaining her morality. She and Janine are inches away from blowing the lid off all the dirty politics of this season. If Frank finds out how close they are, I wouldn’t count out a second death this season.