The question of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object is an old one yet extremely pertinent to the first season finale of House of Cards. The challenge, however, is identifying who, between Raymond Tusk and Frank Underwood, is what. Despite this episode’s ending, it isn’t yet clear who has emerged from this altercation victorious. At first glance, it might appear that Frank’s nomination for the position of Vice-President, God save us all, would indicate that Frank has beaten Tusk. However, such a conclusion would ignore the fact that Tusk still very much has the President’s ear and that Frank had to fight very hard to get Tusk to budge, and Raymond Tusk does not seem like the kind of man to give in to the same person twice. Still, for all that, Frank got what he wanted from the man for the moment – a promotion he earned but doesn’t deserve and an assurance from Tusk that they will be partners rather than master and subordinate when it comes to manipulating the oddly weak-willed President Walker. Yet, just as Frank handles one crisis, it would seem another is emerging; Zoe Barnes is out for blood and Frank may yet rue empowering her as much as he did.
Fittingly, Frank’s most heinous act yet, continues to be greatest vulnerability. The death/murder of Peter Russo hasn’t been forgotten just yet and while it helped reunite the Underwoods, it has also given the anti-Underwood characters a focal point to concentrate on and investigate. I’m referring of course, to the Lucas-Janine-Zoe triumvirate that seems to exist for the sole purpose of bringing Frank down. They’re an interesting group, with each individual bringing something valuable to the team; Lucas and Janine have experience and of the two, Janine has the better instincts while Lucas is the smoother operator. Of course, Zoe isn’t too sloppy herself and makes up her inexperience with her guts and the veritable mountain of dirt she has on Frank Underwood. For now, it seems that they have yet to graduate into a problem that Frank needs to know about but it’s up in the air how long Doug can hold them off. Even Rachel Posner, once his grateful accomplice, has expressed regret in her role in Peter’s collapse and while she doesn’t know enough about the big picture to do a lot of damage on her own, she knows some of the key pieces that could bury Frank and Doug forever.
Another potential weakness in Frank’s Vice-Presidency could actually come from Claire. Russo’s death reunited the couple but we have yet to see a proper reconciliation between the two or really, any kind of discussion about the issues that drove them apart, however briefly. On one hand, it seemed clear that Claire couldn’t be with Adam Gallaway in the long run – even before news of Russo’s death hit the television, she seemed restless and unsatisfied with the unburdened but unimportant life that Adam led, while Frank seemed to finally realize how dangerous a plaything Zoe really was. On the other hand, no matter what the reasons for their ceasefire, it’s still a little surprising that they haven’t talked it out. It would seem for the moment that Claire is happy being the Vice-President’s wife though there is a sub-plot emerging in the form of her desire for children, a notion that Frank won’t even entertain, not even for a minute. She doesn’t mention the possibility of children to him though, despite her proud claim to Zoe not too long ago that she and Frank tell each other everything. It’s clear that she does not feel comfortable enough to tell Frank she wants kids and one possible interpretation of that is that it’s yet another way in which she is forced to give in to Frank’s wants and needs. As of right now, it’s difficult to care too much about Gillian’s dismissal especially since the amount of damage she can do to Claire seems very limited compared to the skeletons Frank has in his closet.
I’ve been putting off talking about Tusk too much because he’s still so much of an enigma to us. I talked before about how very much like Frank he was in the way he is able to naturally see the people around him as tools to get what he wants but this episode tells us something that didn’t previously know. While he is savvy enough to identify where Frank will attack him, he doesn’t quite realize that his own weakness is the public spotlight. Notice how quickly he buckles when Frank gets the media involved in
Personally, I found that the season ended with a whisper instead of a bang. Ideally, the season’s final scene should have been Frank’s first day in office, or him being sworn in, or something similarly momentous. Instead, we get a more low-key, ominous ending, reminders of how tall the titular house of cards has been stacked and how diligently various agents are chipping away at the foundations. I haven’t mentioned the acting as much as I could have during the last 13 weeks and that’s partly because I was just so engaged by the plot itself that I never took the time to step back and think about just how amazing the acting has been. Of course, it should go without saying that Kevin Spacey has been absolutely killing it as Frank Underwood, consistently delivering powerful performances as he captures both Frank’s faux gregariousness and his overpowering intensity. There are times when he overdoes it, where he egotistical soliloquys are a little overdone but the frequent breaking of the fourth wall is a refreshing enough device that those missteps are easily overlooked. The rest of the cast is very capable as well – Robin Wright makes for a great Claire; she started out a little stiff but got more and more human as the season progressed, while Kate Mara has been a solid Zoe Barnes. Corey Stoll had a great run too, especially in the middle of the season but looking forward to season 2, it would seem that Spacey (Underwood), Michel Gill (Walker) and Gerald McRaney (Tusk) will have to carry the show for most of the next season as our stage shifts from the corridors of Congress to the halls of the White House.