The gloves come off as Frank and Raymond’s short, turbulent partnership comes to an end. In an episode characterized by conflict both between characters and within them, what is remarkable is how pointed each of these developments are towards a bigger picture. The majority of this episode is essentially a catfight between Tusk and Underwood but on a national level – Frank wielding the constitutional authority he was so proud of in the previous episode, to force Tusk’s hand, while Tusk, in turn, uses his many billions to disable large portions of the country. Of course, neither men care about effects that their actions have on the nation or on the international relations between the US and China – as Frank states bluntly, both men are driven purely by self-interest and anything that cannot keep up will be unfeelingly tossed to the roadside. We effectively bid farewell to Lucas Goodwin who is finally forced to admit defeat after calling on every resource he possibly could and still failing to even make Frank sweat. Lucas did give Doug some chills though and Doug, for his part, turns to his own personal plaything, Rachel Posner to feel like he has some control in his life. Their relationship is disturbing in many ways and this episode sees it distort and evolve further.
The main attraction in this particularly twisted is watching Frank Underwood and Raymond Tusk engage in a wholly unseemly tug-of-war over the President of the United States. You can’t help but feel a little for Raymond as he appeals to the decency in Frank in order to reach a stalemate but Frank instinctively sees Tusk’s weakness for what it is. If there is one thing that Frank is great at, it’s exploiting weakness and seeing Tusk, finally, in a position of weakness gives Frank the confidence to continue undermining Raymond’s influence with the President. The President at this point is little more than Frank’s puppet, he does and says more or less exactly what Frank tells him to. It’s a little hard to think that the President still hasn’t caught on to Frank’s plan but at the same time, we can tell that his instincts in this matter are spot on. Repeatedly, the President tries to bring Raymond back to the table and tries to bring Tusk back into the fold. It isn’t just a matter of personal mentorship anymore; with the power outages and their implications, its a matter of national interests. Walker would have been able to successfully navigate these various challenges, even at this stage, had he just had an inkling of what his Vice-President was up to. Of course, neither Frank nor Raymond are helping matters along – after one slight too many, Raymond realizes that if the President won’t realize his value, Tusk will force him to. Frank, for his part, continues to be as uncooperative and difficult as he can, which results in Tusk going on the offensive. Why it never occurs to either Tusk or Walker to circumvent Frank and sort out the misunderstandings on their own isn’t clear but at this stage, it probably wouldn’t even have mattered; the relationship has soured and beyond a certain point, when the trust is lost, it’ll never return.
Speaking of lost and doomed to never return, it seems that Lucas’ short and painful story this season has finally reached its ill-fated conclusion. He has effectively been killed off and buried in the legal system. It isn’t stated definitively in the episode but based on his ramblings and the way Tom Hammschmidt interpreted them, it wouldn’t surprise me if he were put into a mental institute in order to work through his ‘insanity’. In a strictly moral sense, Lucas deserved better – he was fighting for justice and was doing his best to do the ‘right’ thing but he should have known better than to make paint such a large target on his back. He mistakenly believed that he was immune to the same psychological forces that led Zoey to feel the false sense of security that got her killed. Perhaps he felt that his prior experience exposing government corruption had taught him all there was to know, or maybe he was just desperate and not thinking straight, but either way it seems that yet again Doug Stamper has come through and defeated those that would slander the good name Underwood. Despite Lucas having the moral high-ground, it doesn’t feel like he is a particularly sympathetic character, largely because of how ineffectual he is. In contrast, despite Janine not fighting the good fight and doing the smart thing and staying as far away from trouble as possible, she feels like a much more ‘real’ character – like most of us, she doesn’t think that Frank is right or innocent in any way but she sees the realities of the situation in a way that Lucas’ personal involvement just doesn’t let him and react accordingly. For a moment, it did seem like all her efforts at extracting herself from this mess would be for naught, when the FBI showed up at her door. Preserving herself meant throwing Lucas under the bus but given the level of intimidation that the FBI demonstrated, it’s easy to see why she did what she did. Lucas one single win in all this was to make bring Doug down just a notch in Frank’s eyes. When Lucas roped Tom into the affair, the situation quickly escalated out of Doug’s control – if Tom printed the story, it didn’t matter if Lucas ever went to court or not, which in turn meant that Doug would need to rely on Frank’s help in ensuring Tom didn’t ever realize how close to the absolute truth he was. In the end, it was a surprisingly near thing but based on Lucas experience in the prison so far, it doesn’t seem like he will be able to continue refusing the plea for long.
It would seem that between holding Rachel down and keeping Lucas at bay, Doug is under an extraordinary amount of stress. Just in the previous episode, we saw him smash a glass out of Feng’s hand when the latter teased him just a little too much. It isn’t out of character for someone like Doug Stamper – he’s always seemed like he has some darkness stashed away beneath his carefully controlled surface – but it turns out that in the end, Stamper too is only human, with some very human needs. His relationship with Rachel Posner has every single hallmark of an abusive relationship possible. Leaving aside the fact that they are not in romantic or sexual relationship, we’ve seen them both attempt violence on each other and we’ve seen Stamper exert tremendous psychological pressure on her, to the point where he seems to have effectively crushed her spirit. Her life in the middle of nowhere is a lonely one, working at a soulless call center by day and, if Doug had it his way, coming home and doing nothing at night. She finds some solace in this church community that she has been emerging herself in recently but of course, Doug’s ultra-controlling nature sees that as nothing but a possible vulnerability and wants it to end. Rachel, fortunately, is able to mount a defence and is able to penetrate Doug’s rigid exterior by appealing to his baser instincts. That Doug feels some sort of twisted affection for and attraction towards Rachel has been clear for some time – he took care of her despite (because of?) her attempts at blackmail and in their first ever meeting paid her for her services at the time. However, this new dynamic reeks of Stockholm Syndrome from her side and understandably so. Her acceptance of the situation at the end of the episode is surprising and uncertain – did Doug’s ability to restrain himself despite her seduction impress her? Or has she just resigned herself to her fate? It doesn’t really seem like either, which is perhaps why it felt so odd and abrupt, especially coming on the heels of the biblical tale of Jacob.
We are almost halfway through the second season and it still doesn’t feel like it has the same kind of compelling momentum that the first season did. In the first season, Peter Russo gave us a somewhat sympathetic character to invest ourselves in emotionally, but this second season lacks that so far – you have characters like Tusk, Underwood and Feng who are cold and emotionless, you have the likes of Claire and Doug who are just terrifying in their actions and intents and then you have the likes of Lucas and Gavin who just seem pathetic and ineffectual. More than just the characters however, it seems like the story hasn’t really crystallized itself just yet – there isn’t a clear, unified plot line but it’s certainly shaping up slowly in the background as we wait for certain storylines to