The first drops of blood have been spilt as Frank declares war on his former ally, Raymond Tusk. Their confrontation has been a long while coming – since the conclusion of last season, it’s been obvious that there just isn’t enough space in the Oval Office for both Underwood and Tusk. Frank, as always is playing a dangerous game, carefully prying the President from his decades long mentor. The episode introduces a wild card into the mix, in the form of one Xander Feng, a Chinese billionaire with a fortune to rival Tusk’s. Frank negotiates an agreement between the US and China by using Feng as a back channel, or at least, he appears to; what Frank is actually doing is deliberately miscommunicating the messages in order to heighten the conflict, not alleviate it. It’s an obvious ploy, you would think, but Garett Walker remains as clueless as ever as to what exactly is going on. This episode is good deal more complicated than the episodes in season one – not only is there a lot more going on with regards to the multiple storylines (Lucas’, Claire’s and the Frank’s) but the stories themselves are delving more and more into the details of the various institutions. It’s not necessarily a bad change, but it does necessitate a larger attention span.
Let’s start this week’s discussion by chastising Claire. Her decision to massage the truth in her revelation last week really damages what could have been a much stronger moment for her. It could have been the moment where she decides that she could stand for something regardless of its political implications but instead, she chooses to gamble. The gamble has worked out for now but it keeps the audience from really rooting for her. Yes, it took an incredible amount of courage to admit something like that on national television but the fact that she used it to mask her abortion for personal gain somewhat sullied it. Already, the truth has been discovered, and once a secret like this gets out, it will be impossible to contain it. Seth Grayson’s entry into this was unexpected, but it shouldn’t have been – Connor Ellis isn’t Doug Stamper; he is neither slick nor thorough enough for his assurance that the secret has been contained to mean anything. To some extent, you have to feel for him, though. This entire affair has spiralled out of control; first Claire goes renegade and reveals the sexual assault without them discussing it and then she explicitly tells him that there are no loose ends when in fact, there are. Perhaps he is partially to blame for not investigating thoroughly enough, but Connor Ellis has a really uneviable client in Claire Underwood. Grayson is a remarkably less promising candidate at his interview than Connor was – where the latter was warm and confident, Grayson seemed relatively shifty and uncertain. However, the one thing that he has going for him is that he was willing and able to get down and dirty and that indicates, more than anything else, that his methods align with the Underwoods’. Of course, Grayson has his own agenda here – you don’t take this much trouble for a position you don’t desperately want – but whether that will play a part in the overall plot remains to be seen.
It seems that Lucas’ part in this play is drawing to a close. He never came close to suspecting that Gavin, if that’s even his real name, was playing him for a fool the whole time. He wasn’t doing it willingly, of course, and that is perhaps the only thing keeping this entire storyline from crumbling on itself. Gavin the hacker is an interesting character conceptually, but he falls flat in his execution. The character’s central conflict is fascinating – he is a new age rebel, fighting The Man from his armchair, behind his screen but after, as he says, ‘poking the bear one too many times’, he has become a dog on a leash. Watching Doug’s FBI friend exert his utterly influence over Gavin is terrifying in some ways just because of how utterly he dominates him. The conflict of whether to cave in to the FBI’s pressure or stand up for his morals is a classic one but no less entertaining for it. However, Jimmi Simpson, who plays Gavin, hams it up a little too often and turns the character into a caricature of himself. Gavin’s rant about being a ‘soldier’ felt less like a bold declaration of intent and more like the insecure insistence of an internet troll. Likewise, him barking sarcastically to demonstrate what a good little doggy he was, felt far too melodramatic for the situation and a little too on-the-nose for my tastes. Still, in the end, he did as he was told, despite all his moral and ethical objections to it and it seems we have seen the last of Lucas Goodwin for a while. Perhaps at some point Janine will realize that this is fight worth fighting but that seems highly unlikely now that even Lucas has managed to get himself busted. Things are certainly looking up for Team Underwood.
Xander Feng is a man of varied interests. The first time we meet him, we learn rather graphically that he has an interest in erotic asphyxiation and he later declares that he intends to experience all life has to offer before he dies. When you have a cool $50 billion lying around, that’s not an impossible dream to achieve. Feng is in DC not because he wants to watch Civil War reenactments but because he is serving as a back-channel for the Chinese Government, to whom he has close connections. This back-room wheeling and dealing comes as no surprise after everything we’ve seen of Washington in this show but what does surprise is Frank decision to make a bold move. Frank knows that Feng and Tusk both stand to gain millions from the deals being proposed, he knows that these deals will also benefit the President politically and he knows that he can use both these pieces of information to wean the President off of Raymond Tusk’s advice. By implying that Tusk and Feng are not dealing in good faith, he able to create a gridlock in the negotiation, isolating everyone from everyone else in the process. Tusk knows what’s going on however; he’s no man’s fool but for all of his intelligence and business savvy, he lacks Frank’s assiduous, manipulative touch. Frank doesn’t come out of this episode smelling like roses – he has damaged his own reputation in the Oval Office in the process, but where the President thinks Frank incompetent, he now believes Tusk to be duplicitous. Will Tusk try to redeem himself in the President’s eyes or will he get even with Frank? Ideally, he would kill both birds with one stone but with his influence waning, it will be interesting to see if he still has the tools to do so.