Politics to Frank Underwood is like a game of chess, but politics to House of Cards is like a squabble between grade-school children out on the playground. Reframing it this way is one of the things the show does so well to undercut the many political dramas that have come before it (and don’t think for a second the show’s creators haven’t watched plenty of The West Wing). The petty grudges and partially veiled insults between politicians never come off as anything but childish, while the president reigns supreme as a naive, scared kid who’s in way over his head and wants his parents to help him out. The show’s version of the United States isn’t ruled by the fittest or the smartest or even the most power-hungry; rather, our representatives are (in the best Shakespearean manner) exactly like the rest of us, only with far higher stakes.
Jackie Sharp’s maneuvering within this world is akin to what we saw plenty of in the first season of House of Cards, as she’s capable of playing the game like Frank and watching as the rest of the Congress flails about helplessly. There wasn’t much question that she would have a lot of Frank’s ruthlessness—after all, that’s why he tapped her—but the show still needed to establish how far she’s in fact willing to go. Before the end of the episode she betrays the father-figure in her life by not only ruining his political career, but also destroying his personal life (not that he should be pitied). Does Jackie seem like she’ll do a good job as whip? Frankly, no. But that doesn’t really matter when it comes to whether or not she’ll be given the job. This is a popularity contest, as with so much of our political system, and as on any schoolyard, dirty tricks count for far more than competency. House has never had patience with the lie that American politics are in any way a meritocracy.
Frank spends much of the episode playing a similar high-stakes game with Raymond Tusk and the president, who he feels is being completely manipulated by deferring to Tusk on every single decision. The thing is, Frank is completely correct here. Tusk, like his employee Remy, is a symbol of pure corporate corruption infecting the government. His interests, while occasionally intersecting with those of the general public, are merely for his own bottom line. Will Tusk end up as a worthy adversary for Frank? My guess is yes, simply because he has so many resources at his disposal, but it may be some time before either of them really bare their claws. Here, though, we mostly see the gears of House of Cards turning. The dispute with the Chinese seems destined to, like the education bill, became a much larger McGuffin in the war between these two men for the ear of the president. Does Frank give a damn about any of the issue? No, of course not, which once again emphasizes that these decisions being made at the highest levels are more about the positioning and personalities involved in making them.
While the parts discussed above focused on cold-blooded maneuvering, the other half of the episode was surprisingly emotional and affecting. In a show with such high camp, that can be difficult to pull off, and it’s really to the cast’s credit that the show has emotional pathos at all. In short, this isn’t mere melodrama. Lucas deals with his grief over Zoe by going deeper down into his investigation of Frank. He even consults with his old boss Tom about this to try and get some perspective. This leads us to a very well-done scene and a few memorable close-ups with wide-angle lenses that turn the scene into a grotesque one in the best, most Orson Welles-ish way possible. And while it’s overly convenient for the plot that Lucas immediately loads up Tor and starts trying to recruit hackers to get into Frank’s phone, well, it’s a television show. I’m interested to see where this story is headed, even if it started out in kind of a ridiculous place.
The real soul of the episode, though, came from Claire and the revelation of her past history with one of the generals Frank needs to award in his first public appearance as vice president. What made this part of the episode work was not Claire’s insistence that Frank not make a scene, but rather her disappointment that he ultimately didn’t. She’s in real grief here, and there is no right answer. Suddenly the strong woman Claire has been was ripped out from under her by the reappearance of this rapist, and as she notes to Frank, she wants to break something, too. But Claire is ultimately a pragmatist, like her husband, and knows that it wouldn’t give her anything to do so. That being said, I also can’t imagine that either she or Frank will let this drop once this terrible part of her life has been unearthed, and we can only imagine that both the Underwoods are already plotting the downfall of this horrible man. What happened in “Chapter 15” wasn’t exploitative or belittling of her trauma, and while I heard some rumblings about whether Claire’s reaction was out-of-character (crying at a public event), to me all of this rang true.
House of Cards is rarely at its best when leaning on emotions like this—as I noted previously, that’s not what the show is about—but that doesn’t mean it can’t. It’s simply that it’s less fun, but fun isn’t always a good thing. Whenever the characters start to become like mere pieces of a game, it’s moments like this that remind us of their three-dimensionality, that as always there are people at stake here. It’s one of the oddities of the show, in that it needs to have it both ways in order to really work, but without this second half the brinksmanship in the government would be merely that: abstract games.