The Instant House of Cards Club – Chapters Three and Four
Spinning out from our coverage in the Instant Movie Club, our editors continue their discussion of the Netflix original series House of Cards. Spoilers below for the episodes being discussed (we haven’t watched ahead).
CHAPTER THREE: Back in Bumblefuck, South Carolina, a teenage girl crashes her car while texting about a vagina-shaped peach monument Frank has previously championed. She dies. When an old political foe seizes on the controversy, Frank cuts out on negotiations with the teacher’s union to return home and smooth matters over. Meanwhile, Zoe’s rising star puts her in conflict with her editor-in-chief and gets her grounded from TV. And, while in the process of courting a hot young charity organizer for her recently gutted company, Claire has existential issues while going on creepy jogs through the cemetery.
In Chapter Three, House of Cards takes Frank out of his Washington comfort zone. Does it work?
Jeff Hart: Absolutely! This is my favorite episode so far, the first one that actually hooked me. It helps that, unlike the opaque Washington maneuverings of the first two episodes, Frank has a clear goal in South Carolina. Even though he gets to do a fair amount of conniving and even scores a literal bully pulpit, Frank is less the alien-built political machine and more the black-hearted man that’s lost his way, which is where I hope the show eventually lands with him. (Establishing some clear motivations would help, too. Not all episodes can revolve around Frank’s southern version of Pawnee.) The business in South Carolina also increases the tension in the Washington negotiations, so it’s all win.
Jeremiah White: The South Carolina stuff all works well, and the main problem I have with this episode is that there isn't enough of it. I would have liked to get more into the culture and politics of Frank’s hometown. Instead, the A-story never develops an identity apart from the show’s status quo because we keep checking in with the other regulars. Regardless, it’s all worth it to see Frank frustrated and exhausted (sprawled on the dining room table) as opposed to simply cold and calculating.
So it’s pretty much accepted as truth that you dirty bloggers have killed print media. How do you feel about Zoe’s meteoric rise to fame and her clash with The Hammer?
Jeff Hart: Initially, I thought Zoe would be House of Cards’ underdog story. Or, to use another animal cliché, the little-fish-swimming-with-the-sharks story. It might still be the latter, but Zoe is definitely no underdog. She’s a ruthless striver and she’s quickly turned into another character that needs some comeuppance. Her editor might be a condescending dick – like everyone else on this show – but he’s right. Zoe hasn’t earned anything. She’s not a real journalist, she’s an undercover PR operative for the Underwood agenda. As for the clash of old school and new school journalism, I’m still really enjoying how House of Cards handles that, even if it’s a bit sensationally grimy. Their newsroom – with its egos, jerks, and cheats – constantly reminds me how horrible The Newsroom is at depicting a similar environment.
Jeremiah White: Isn’t she just the worst? Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy she’s on the show, and she’s no worse than the rest of them. Except that she hasn’t yet fully accepted how much of a little shit she is. She thinks she is some kind of journalist. And the sense of entitlement on her! If I was enjoying a meteoric rise to fame thanks solely to a betrayal of the professional ethics that govern my industry, I’d try to keep a low profile. Unfortunately, while we’re hoping for comeuppance, the writers aren’t leaning that way yet.
Jeff Hart: Are we being sexist? Because that's the card Zoe most frequently plays when her editor gets up in her face. In not liking Zoe, are we just demonstrating our own bias against powerful young women?
Jeremiah White: Not this time. She's not in dire straits when she offers to be Frank's puppet. She just wants more, and she doesn't care what she has to do for it as long as she doesn't have to suck up to any stuffy old people who respect journalism. Sucking up to sleazy politicians on the other hand? Sure. Now, in the interest of sounding less sexist: I really like that Zoe doesn't choose to play up her sexuality as a rule, but is smart enough to use it when the opportunity presents itself, like when she throws Frank's leering eyes back in his face to get her foot in the door.
What do you make of Claire getting yelled at for jogging through the cemetery? And what about the secret service agent’s anally arranged vase of flowers?
Jeff Hart: Like Frank, Claire gets a chance to develop into a human this episode. Or am I confusing humanity with overt symbolism? Her storyline is loaded – from the shrill old lady that calls her out for having the world’s wackest exercise routine, to the kids making out on a gravesite because that totally happens. All this circles back to her encounter with an obsolete barista last episode. So, Claire’s confronting her own mortality, okay? Do you get it? DO YOU GET IT? And, as the flowers would seem to indicate, she’s losing that fight. Maybe she’s dying?
Jeremiah White: Is she facing her mortality? These bits of symbolism suggest that, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless she is dying, or at least worried about getting older, or something. Is the hot young charity organizer a threat to her position? Her legacy? This was all a seriously conspicuous miss for me. House of Cards can very clearly convey complex political schemes, but when it tries to get inside the heads of its characters like this, it falls flat on its face. Luckily, so far the problem has been confined to Claire. And no one cares about her anyway.
This was the first episode not directed by David Fincher. Do you miss him?
Jeff Hart: Nah, couldn’t even tell he was gone. But that’s the nature of TV – it retains visual consistency from episode-to-episode. Fincher’s not going to stand out here, and he shouldn’t.
Jeremiah White: Same here, but I’ll admit that I wish the show’s visual consistency included a little more panache. With Fincher directing the first two, that doesn't seem like an unreasonable expectation. It’s a good looking, well-shot show, but it does not excite me.
CHAPTER FOUR: When the Speaker of the House threatens the education bill, Frank whips up a coup to oust him. In order to secure support from the Black Caucus, Frank asks Pete Russo to make a sacrifice that could damage him personally and professionally. While Frank is busy amassing his troops, his wife spends time with a photographer she has a romantic history with, and Zoe is offered a promotion that could take her out of Frank’s arsenal.
Frank manipulates everyone to set up a win-win situation for himself with the threatened ousting of the Speaker. Is it troubling to see him in such complete control after being stretched thin in Chapter Three?
Jeremiah White: I’m occasionally bothered by how easy things come to Frank, but watching him masterfully manipulate everyone around him is a big part of the show's appeal. It’s good to see him sweat, but they don't need to get too far away from him being the smartest guy in the room this early in the season. More importantly, even though his plan is a success, there could be serious fallout. Frank’s efforts to undermine the President, the Chief of Staff and even Donald Blythe have been behind their backs, but he screws the Majority Leader right to his face when he reverses course and backs the Speaker (who Frank also shows his duplicitous side to). Not to mention that Frank’s faux-coup derailed Pete’s life just as he was getting it back on track. It will be interesting to see is Frank has to defend against the kind of betrayals he typically executes.
Jeff Hart: Will there be fallout, though? The high ranking pols that Frank has manipulated so far all seem conspicuously inept. Eventually, he's going to need an adversary, and the show has made it pretty clear that none of these other bureaucrats are up to the challenge. Imagine how boring Game of Thrones would be if Tyrion didn't have a Cersei to battle against. Not only do I want to see some opposition, I want to see Frank fail.
The education bill looks to reflect some real world issues. Where do you come down on House of Cards' politics?
Jeff Hart: Um, frightened? Good for House of Cards to actually tackle real politics, even if their lead is destroying the country! Maybe that's the point? Unless I missed something, Frank appears bent on including an anti-collective bargaining provision in his education bill, mostly out of spite for his colleagues. (Also, you're telling me that room full of bright-eyed go-getters that wrote this bill a couple episodes back went anti-union? Bullshit!) He's willing to work with the Republicans to get this through, undermining his own party. The Republicans, by the way, remain an unseen specter lurking on the margins. But, just like the real world, the Democrats are bad enough! It isn't clear if Frank actually believes this anti-union stuff, or if he even cares. But, suffice it to say, I find his 'greater good' pretty distasteful so far.
Jeremiah White: The very heart of this show's cynicism is the way that public policy is shaped entirely by political posturing and personal grudges. What's best for the country and its citizens never even enters the conversation. Frank's politics right now are distasteful not only for what they are but also for where they come from. But maybe this is all another ruse? As Jeff mentioned, we still know very little about what Frank believes or wants.
Were you surprised that the Frank seemed pretty cool with his wife hanging out with a photographer she used to bang?
Jeremiah White: Seeing as how House of Cards takes us inside the corridors of power and blah blah blah, obviously there are going to be some extramarital affairs. But with just a few words over a shared cigarette, Frank and Claire turn her infidelity and Frank's knowledge of it, into something mysterious, intriguing and refreshing. We don’t have many details, but considering how much Frank supports and relies on Claire, this is clearly not just some loveless marriage that they don’t bother to get out of. From scene to scene, Claire can seem like anything from a trophy wife with a charitable hobby to an equal partner in Frank’s mischief. After this episode, I’m not sure what to make of their relationship, and I’m happy about that.
Jeff Hart: Open relationship alert! That little scene about where Claire would be spending the night might be one of my favorites so far. Finally, an indication that there's more going on with these people than their lust for power. And then Frank goes off and very possibly hooks up with a freshly unemployed Zoe. Do we want to reevaluate our position on Zoe now, after she turned down a promotion, got called the C-word, and quit in a blaze of snarky outrage?
Jeremiah White: Not yet. If she can somehow leverage this into a legitimate career, then it's water under the bridge. That seems kind of unlikely considering her position at the Herald is what made her attractive to Frank in the first place, and he's the only thing that made her successful. This is only Chapter Four and obviously Zoe isn't going anywhere, but I'm not sure what her next move will be. And for the record, I'm not saying dude should have called her that, but she did literally ask for it.