“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”, Isaac Asimov once wrote. It is a good rule of thumb for fiction in general; killing off inconvenient characters is a sign of lazy writing and doesn’t usually bode well for the surviving characters’ development. House of Cards is an interesting exception to this rule, it would seem. On one hand, the death of Zoe Barnes, so soon after the murder of Peter Russo, might give the impression that the writing staff at Netflix is reluctant to spend too much time and effort writing away their own characters and instead kill them off when they no longer serve their purposes, but on closer inspection, Russo’s death has very significant impacts on the characters and the plot and likewise, Zoe’s death promises to shake things up as the show moves from the corridors of Congress to the halls of the White House. In many ways, this episode feels less like the beginning of something new and more like an attempt at hastily tying up loose ends before the real season opener next week.
The Underwoods make preparation to move to bigger and better prospects; for Frank, this means appointing his successor, the capable war veteran turned Congresswoman, Jackie Sharp. Sharp gets precious little screen time in this episode, but the little the audience does see of ever only serves to confirm Frank’s impression of her. It’s honestly terrifying when Frank Underwood commends your ruthlessness practicality and determination; he is expert in both fields and clearly Sharp isn’t the meek, straight-laced career politician that she appears to be at first, though neither does she appear to share Frank’s homicidal tendencies. Hopefully, she is just smart enough to avoid Russo’s fate but not idealistic enough to share Zoe’s. Interestingly, while Frank secures his legacy in Congress, Claire is having a tough time dealing with hers. Gillian Cole is on the warpath and nothing short of Claire’s humiliation will sate her. Unfortunately for her, what Claire lacks in warmth and friendliness, she compensates for in sheer cruelty – “I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you, if that’s what it takes”, Claire tells Gillian evenly and it’s hard to even imagine the level of malevolence that someone needs to possess in order to say that without any heat. Gillian wanted entry to the big leagues but Claire has just shown her that she can’t handle the higher stakes.
Doug Stamper continues his thankless work of keeping Frank’s intricate web of lies from unravelling all around itself but Rachel Posner isn’t making things easy for him. Russo’s death already had her questioning her own involvement with the likes of Stamper and Underwood and we get the sense that she considered her debt paid when she covered up for them with Zoe. However, Stamper’s decision to take her out of the city seems extreme and unnecessary – it seems like it would be better to keep her happy than frightened. It comes down to willingness and willpower; if Rachel is happy, she would logically be free to reveal the dark secrets but she would not want to whereas if she is being bullied into submission, it would be the other way around. This is going to backfire on Doug in a major way and the only question here is how.
The question arises at this point, however, of whether House of Cards is going to make a habit of routinely killing off difficult characters. The evidence suggests not – Zoe’s death was necessary where Russo’s wasn’t. Specifically, Russo commiting suicide would have been a believable turn of events and Frank’s involvement the murder could have been avoided. In Zoe’s case though, there was no plausible way of silencing her short of killing her – character had been written such that it would have been bizzare to think that she could be bullied into silence or otherwise bought off. Yet, the fact that it is Frank himself committing these crimes raises an interesting point about just what the writers are trying to tell the audience about Frank Underwood. Claire’s reaction to the news of Zoe’s death was surprising. She showed genuine grief when news of Russo’s death broke out but she takes Zoe’s death well in stride with little more than a smirk. There can be no doubt in her mind about Frank’s involvement in her death – there simply far too many coincidences involved for Frank to not be. Yet, she shows no hint of horror at learning her husband is potentially a murderer. Is it a side of him she already knows? Or is she just every bit as cold and cruel as he is? All of this ties into Frank’s magnificent soliloquy at the episode’s end. It is filled with sneer and derision but it is Spacey, more than the words themselves, that makes the scene. The episode grips you right from the mid-way mark and it is only when Spacey offhandedly dismisses us with a “Welcome back” that the audience is finally free to truly absorb the impact of what they witnessed.