The war of attrition between Frank Underwood and Raymond Tusk moves away from the political arena and firmly into the personal one. There are two targets on the Tusk hit list – Claire’s affair with Adam Galaway and Frank’s association with Freddy, an ex-con with a volatile, temperamental son. There is something dirty about this episode, something far more twisted about the way things pan out as a result of these attacks compared to anything else we’ve seen so far this season. Previously, when the battle between these two men was limited to the political space, we could tell ourselves that it was just business as usual, that that’s the way that Washington works but even so, there was certainly a sense of loss when Linda Vasquez was essentially bullied into resigning as a consequence of this feud between Underwood and Tusk. This week though, there are more casualties but beyond that, we finally get a much clearer idea of just how warped this entire world that Frank operates in, actually is. The audience’s view of Adam Galaway might be somewhat mixed – on one hand, he seems like a genuinely nice guy but he was a willing party to adultery, and could have guessed that his actions could have political implications. Clearly, different people give that different amounts of moral mileage but Freddy, despite his history as a gangbanger, is seen almost universally as an innocent, especially in the context of the political battle going on and his ‘demise’ is much more poignant as a result.
Adam’s appeal in Claire’s life has always been ephemeral – during times of great strain and emotional loneliness, he was the one that she turned to. He represented a freedom and largess that Frank could never offer her but, as we saw in the previous season, Adam’s entire existence, from Claire’s perspective, is an utterly inconsequential one; he would live happily and die happily but no one would ever sit up and take notice when Adam walked into the room. It’s something that was painfully obvious during the confrontation between Adam and the Underwoods – Adam, despite being as angry as he could possibly get, simply could not get a word in edgewise. It wasn’t just Frank, who is understandably hostile towards him, who ran over him verbally, but Claire too. In the end, Adam is exactly what he has always appeared to be to Claire – a soft-spoken man who has a gift for photography. Like he tells her so poignantly, he does not belong to their world – he is an artist, plain and simple, and he has never wanted anything to do with their political circles. His only sin in all this was to love a woman who wasn’t quite what she appeared to be. Of course, that is the more generous interpretation. The other is that, compared to Freddy, Adam should have known that somehow, someway, this would all have come back to bite him in the ass. He knew that Claire was married and he didn’t know that Frank and Claire had an open relationship and that makes him a willing and knowing party to adultery. It takes a special kind of naïve to get involved with a politician’s wife and then be shocked when it all blows up around you. Still, even with all that, Adam did not deserve to have his reputation, credibility and dignity all so brutally stripped away from him, no more than he deserved ending up hating Claire.
The real innocent in all this, as mentioned earlier, is Freddy. Unlike Adam, Freddie didn’t, even indirectly, ask for any of this. He was just doing his job, serving Frank like he would any other customer. One of the most respectable thing about Freddie was how he never made any excuses – he fully confronted his past actions both as a father and as a criminal and tried to make the most of his increasingly cruel circumstances. His barbeque place was him making an honest living and the success that came his way was a direct consequence of that honest living. That is what makes the turn of events in this episode seem so very unfair – good things finally started happening to Freddy, a character who deserved them more than any other – only to be taken away by the powers that be. There is something to be said about how introducing Freddy’s family and taking it all away in a single episode could be seen as emotional manipulation but on the other hand, Freddy is hardly a major character and if there was ever going to be a time when you could suddenly introduce family and then conveniently dispose of them by the episode’s end, this would be it. The interesting thing here is that, unlike in Adam’s case, the audience still feels some degree of animosity towards Frank for ruining Freddy’s life. Technically speaking, it was all Raymond Tusk’s doing of course, but still, it feels that for all of Frank’s talk, he ought to be able to take care of his own when their chips are really, really down. He notes the hypocrisy of his failing to do so and you have to wonder whether he realizes that the power he so desperately craves is a hollower concept than he believes it to be.
Symbolically, the fight between Tusk and Underwood is one between money and power as routes to influence and this episode makes it clear that both have their limitations. Frank’s political power keeps him from helping Freddy no matter how much he may want to while all of Tusk’s money can’t force the issue of Adam’s fiance’s father’s execution once the US State Department got involved. Yet, this knowledge troubles Tusk much more than it does Frank; you get the sense that the latter has had time to become somewhat familiar and arguably, even comfortable, about the boundaries of what influence his power can buy but Tusk is not used to running into roadblocks – typically multi-billionaires are not accustomed to being told ‘no’. Tusk did reveal a whole new side of himself today, however. Previously, he has always been a calm if somewhat ominous force, playing the game from a detached position but this week, the incident with Skorsky-lite journalist and the wanton killing of his bird introduced the notion that perhaps Frank and Raymond are even more similar than we thought. As Tusk gets desperate, you can be sure that he’s going to start resorting to desperate measures.