Marissa Tandon ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
“To improve is to change,” Frank says.
“To perfect is to change often,” Remy finishes.
Opening episode four with this interaction between the newly minted Vice President and his old aide, Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) is a significant move for many reasons. Remy now works for Frank’s main opposition, Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), the President’s closest advisor.
Last season, Tusk was one of the main reasons that Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) was snubbed in the opening of the show when it came to his appointment as Secretary of State, as well as one of the largest obstacles on his path to the Vice Presidency. At the end of season one, Frank and Tusk made an agreement to work together, and Remy’s presence in Frank’s office is a product of that agreement. As Frank begins to work within the new players of this season, this opening involving Remy and Frank working together suggests that both Remy and Tusk will be part of Frank’s inner circle moving forward.
With the vote on an entitlement reform bill coming up in a few hours, Chapter 17 opens with Frank, Remy, and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) attempting to lock in the votes they need for a win. Jackie and Remy team up, and Frank concentrates his efforts on one congressman. When Frank and a good portion of Congress are caught in a quarantine due to an anthrax scare, the differences between Frank and Jackie’s approaches to “whipping the vote” become apparent: Frank continues to barter, offering to push a bill through in return for a vote, while Jackie utilizes a heavy hand and outright refusal to barter.
At 45 minutes to the vote, with Jackie and Frank still 4 votes down, Jackie’s method of persuasion seems to win out – Frank was unsuccessful with the congressman who is the main source of opposition on the vote, and Jackie is able to sway him by bringing attention to all of the citizens who will be affected by the government shut down that will result from a split vote. “Work with me,” she says. “I’m not Frank Underwood.” If there’s anything that Jackie has proven since her introduction to the show, it is exactly that. Jackie and Frank’s politics are shown side by side in episode 4, and it’s clear that Jackie’s brand of politics is a much cleaner and ethical one.
The vote is not the only thing that Frank is kept from due to the quarantine. Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) must take on the interview that was scheduled for the couple on her own. Ashleigh Banfield conducts the interview with an aggressive tone from the very beginning, implying that the Underwood’s marriage is one of calculated professional decision rather than love and romance. The fact that Claire’s father was a major benefactor of Frank’s first political campaign is highlighted, and it’s one of the first times the audience learns that Claire came from wealth while Frank did not.
That’s not the only thing that comes out of Claire’s interview; when Ashleigh presses about the childless status of the Underwoods, Claire allows the fact that she had an abortion to slip. During a commercial break, Connor Ellis (Sam Page), who is in charge of managing the Underwood’s media image, discovers that Claire has had not one but three abortions, all of which due to inopportune timing and lack of desire to have a child. When Claire goes back on the air, she claims that the aborted pregnancy was a result of the sexual assault that was revealed in a previous episode, by Dalton McGinnis (Peter Bradbury).
While the audience knows that the rape did not result in the pregnancy that Claire is referring to, it is clear that a sexual assault by McGinnis did occur. Claire is, in some ways, blurring the facts of a sexual assault in order to protect hers and Frank’s public image, but her interview leads to another one of the general’s victims speaking out. The move may not have been an entirely ethical one, but it does lead to the exposure of someone who is abusing his position of power. House of Cards is consistently showing that nothing is black and white, especially morality. A questionable decision may lead to a bit more good in the world – does the path taken to the best result matter as much as the end game? The Underwoods operate in shades of gray just like the rest of the world does.
Episode 5 opens with a bang – quite literally. Xander Feng (Terry Chen), a Chinese businessman who will become a major player moving forward, is introduced in the throws of passion. We don’t get a great look at his face – it’s hard to when the character is participating in erotic asphyxiation and his face is obscured by the plastic bag over his head – but we do see him at the mercy of others.
While the introduction may seem a bit jarring and gratuitous, it’s actually a great contrast to the way Feng is portrayed throughout the next few episodes. We meet Feng when he is in a position of complete submission and vulnerability: wrists bound to a headboard and a plastic bag restricting his breathing. It harkens back to one of Frank’s parable-like lines from season one, “Everything in life is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.”
It was an interesting assertion made by a protagonist whose motivations all lie in the quest for more power, but it also leaves us to which man Feng really is: the powerful businessman who stands between Frank and what he wants, or the man who prefers to be at the mercy of others?
Frank back channels with Feng while attending a Civil War re-enactment, where he is met with an actor portraying one of his ancestors who died on the battlefield. Frank becomes surprisingly obsessed with this link to his past, and when Frank is supposed to break ground as Vice President, he has the actor playing his ancestor complete the act instead. Frank buries his class ring, a solitary constant in his wardrobe and behavioral habits, at the Civil War re-enactment.
Eyes are back on Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) when the energy crisis sweeps the nation. Energy bills are skyrocketing, and Rachel is shown unable to pay her electricity bill in her new apartment/hiding spot in Maryland. Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) reunites with her to verify Rachel continues to live under the radar and is surprised to find that Rachel has made a new friend who encourages her to attend church. Doug is overly angered by this, claiming that she can’t be visible in any way. Rachel calls Doug on what viewers are probably wondering: is Doug’s possessive behavior due to his job or his desire? After a heated interaction, it’s likely the latter.
Frank’s rivalry with Tusk continues. In the midst of the energy crisis, Frank is anxious about throwing the first pitch at an Oriole’s. We watch as he practices his throw with Meechum and his anxiety mounts up until he takes the mound, winds up to pitch, and… the stadium lights go out. It turns out to be a well-timed coincidence of Tusk’s design, who goes on to claim that his company will have to cut power from three other generators in the morning.
The energy crisis highlights the mounting competition between Frank and Tusk for the position at the President’s right hand, and it ends with Frank on top. Just as Frank reminded us towards the beginning of the series, he is now three feet away from the presidency – a fact he highlighted while Tusk was shown watching the press conference from home. The distance between the President and Tusk grows as Frank is able to convince the President to seize control of Tusk’s plants by executive order. Tusk bows to Frank’s move at Freddy’s, and it seems that their promise to “work together” has been effectively dissolved.
The President’s relationship with his closest friend and advisor is not the only one that the Underwoods seek to dissolve. Claire begins to work closely with the First Lady (Dani Englander) and starts to place small seeds of doubt in her mind concerning her marriage. It’s subtle but effective, perfectly in line with the Underwood’s M. O. After Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly), a staffer who is working closely with the President after her previous boss/boyfriend’s death last season, stops by during a meeting, Claire admits that she just has “a thing about women who sleep with their bosses.” It’s not much, and it’s obviously not even particularly abhorrent to Claire’s own morals (she perpetuated an affair herself for most of the first season) but it’s enough for the First Lady to be shaken. It places a seed of doubt.
By the end of Chapter 19 (episode 6), the President has now alienated the person he previously trusted most, Raymond Tusk, and his marriage is beginning to shake. It’s all done incredibly subtlety, almost unnoticeable, but Frank and Claire are lining things up in the White House for a move. They are ensuring that the President slowly but surely loses the small support system someone in power has, and with that, they are waiting for their opening. How many advisors can the President stand to lose before Frank finds an opening to take the last step up the ladder of power?
Overall Grade of Chapter 17: A
Overall Grade of Chapter 18: B+
Overall Grade of Chapter 19: A-