The ascension is complete. In the space of a few years, Frank Underwood has risen from a lowly minor league politician to become one of the most powerful men in the world. Watching his rise from Congress to the White House to the leader of the free world it’s interesting to note that not once was a vote cast in his name, a testament to the sheer efficacy of his wheeling and dealing. His movements in this episode exemplify everything about him that makes him such a terrifying opponent; beyond his ruthlessness and cold practicality, Frank has an amazing instinct for understanding what toes he can trample on and what toes are sacrosanct. There is much to say about Francis Underwood but the short version is that he has a keen understanding of his and his opponents’ strengths and weakness and knows just how to leverage that knowledge to his advantage. Given how this season ends, we ought to also spend some time looking at just how the various characters played out from the political fall of the mighty Raymond Tusk to the moral and physical fall of Douglas Stamper. This season ended up being one that was more defined by its endgame than it was by the sluggishness of its middle – in light of all the shocking twists and turns of this episode, the relative drudgery of the trade war and politicking of the middle section seems much more forgivable.
Let’s take a look at exactly how Frank Underwood went from having the game stacked against him to pulling off a major upset. Individually, Frank was by far the weakest of the Underwood-Walker-Tusk triumvirate but he was able to play both sides just enough to emerge victorious. It’s hard to understate just how precarious Frank’s for the majority of this episode was. With the President’s ability to grant a pardon, Walker had an ace up his sleeve that Frank could never quite match and given that Tusk was much more likely to side with Walker than with Frank, it was only a matter of time before the Walker and Tusk teamed up. Playing an emotional card is a risky move even when everything is in your favour; humans are fickle beings and what might work on six days of a week might just backfire severely on the seventh. By rolling over and exposing his emotional underbelly to the President, Frank essentially reversed their relationship and but all the psychological, interpersonal power in Walker’s hands. Despite his actual power as the President, it is Frank who has always held the upper hand in their personal relationship. As the burdens on the President’s back grew heavier, it was Frank who was always there to provide his boss with a shoulder to rest his head on, never mind that he did so by also isolating said boss from everyone else, especially Raymond Tusk. It would seem that some small part of Garett Walker always did want to believe that Frank was his friend and that Frank’s steadfast public loyalty was authentic and not just a masquerade that he felt obligated to maintain. Beyond all the possible psychological reasons for the President’s decision, perhaps the truth is simpler – Garett Walker was just exhausted and no longer cared enough to fight. The scandals, the strain they put on his marriage and his plummeting public standing all made victory seem just as undesirable as defeat and when faced with choices like that, it’s just easier to roll over and submit instead of continue to fight.
Somehow, despite being deceived and manipulated throughout the last two seasons, it is hard to feel any real sympathy for Garett Walker. Of the players in this game, he is by far the most human but he also felt like the weakest personality. Both Underwood and Tusk had steel in their backbones, steel that ensured that even if they bent under the stress they made each other endure, they wouldn’t break. Walker was different – he was a man so blind and so malleable that two different men were able to play him like a fiddle. That would be damning enough if he were an average man but it is downright ludicrous from the President of the United Stated. Likewise, few tears will be shed for Raymond Tusk. Tusk showed no loyalty to anyone but himself throughout the series and as Remy insinuated in the previous episode, Tusk could have very well prospered from the initial political arrangement but his pride would not let him allow Frank to have his way. While that is a thoroughly reasonable sentiment especially given that Frank had no intentions of letting Tusk’s influence over Walker persist, you have to wonder whether Tusk ever had it in him to truly submit to another person. Perhaps it was inaccurate to say that Tusk had a steel backbone – brittle, inflexible iron would have been a fairer assessment. Just as we feel little sympathy for Tusk and Walker, it is also difficult to really celebrate Frank’s ascension to the throne. On one hand, there is no denying that there is a sense of awe, especially in the season’s finale, at seeing how Frank rose so high. On the other hand, while in the first season, it was at least possible to see him as a man using questionable (and eventually, despicable) means to right personal wrongs done against him, this season it is impossible to give him that benefit of the doubt. It is also hard not to think about those sacrificed on the road to power; Peter Russo, Zoe Barnes, Lucas Goodwin and any number of other political heads that rolled to make room at the top, all come to mind. Megan Hennessey is another victim of Frank’s rise to the top, but if you think about it, so is Claire. Claire shares enough in common with her husband that it is difficult to sympathize with her but it is clear that she has a sense of morality and empathy that her husband is almost entirely devoid of. Watching the effect her actions have had on Megan’s mental health and state of mind might just have been the last straw for Claire; Frank has clearly gone as far as he can, it’s time for her reap the rewards for all her sacrifices. How she will make her move, especially if Frank should prove difficult to deal with again, will probably unfold next season but all these examples of Claire’s human heart are good reminders that Claire has suffered and caused suffering for Frank’s cause.
Another, surprising casualty of this great battle was Douglas Stamper. In the series’ first season, it was easy to appreciate Stamper’s efficiency and his steadfast loyalty, but his character took a beating in this season. There was always some degree darkness lurking just below the character’s surface but it was genuinely difficult watching him turn into an abusive, obsessive freak. His implied death at the episode’s end fits well with the direction his character has been heading this entire season and highlights the truth in the saying ‘You attract more flies with honey than vinegar’. Had he shown even slightly more compassion towards Rachel and her utterly unenviable situation, it’s likely that he would never have been this thoroughly compromised both emotionally and professionally. However, his actions have not only led to Rachel turning against him entirely, but they have also given him away to the lurking Gavin Osray. With Rachel on the loose and now no longer particularly compelled to remain silent and Frank and his staff utterly out of the loop regarding Frank’s actions, Stamper didn’t just fail to contain the situation, he unwittingly made it much, much worse. As it has always been in House of Cards, the higher Frank rises, the more precarious his position.