One of the things House of Cards has always been about, though sometimes in more subtle ways, is the effect of changing technology on politics. In the first season, a lot of this concerned the changing landscape of journalism and how politics was covered, but there were also always those little, distracting blings of text messages appearing on the screen to remind us of how everyone is communicating. As such, the show’s creators are perfectly aware of how many stories don’t quite work because all of the characters (who remain friendly) are easily in contact with each other. When Francis and Tusk have a disagreement, their separation by hundreds or thousands of miles doesn’t even matter, as they’ll still be talking on the phone as soon as information becomes public.
In order to separate some of these characters, then, House of Cards needed to invent something pretty ridiculous. A terrorist scare leads to not just a quarantine, but also a stoppage of all data connections between part of the capitol and the rest of the world. This strains credibility beyond belief, but from a storytelling perspective it’s almost necessary. There’s no other reason for Claire to be alone during her interview like that, and the way she handled that interview was really what the episode was about. Frank needing to speak with the congressman he screwed over on the education bill was a great b-story—not to mention perfectly played by both the actors and the writers—but it was pretty much par for the course. I’m still impatient for an episode that doesn’t focus on passing a bill, but as far as that material goes, “Chapter 17” did a good job of dramatizing the issue.
Again, though, this was Claire’s episode, as she gives a live interview for CNN and gets forced into admitting she had an abortion. Viewers may recall that she’s had three, but that’s irrelevant. Claire’s no idiot, so she’s aware that the idea of her having one is political suicide. Her husband, watching this on television, knows this as well. The disgusting nature of the question, though, is what House of Cards really hammers home. This obviously shouldn’t be anyone’s business but her own, but the fact that Claire must lie in some manner is what’s so sad. The way Claire maneuvers her answer, though, and through this finally getting some sort of justice on her rapist is a wonderful twist, even if it’s not unexpected.
One of the things I liked from the beginning about House of Cards was that the show didn’t go out of its way to make Claire likable (or Frank, for that matter, but his privileged role of addressing the audience made this unnecessary). She’s as cold and calculating as her husband, but that doesn’t mean she’s not a feminist, or that she doesn’t have ethics she follows. Her and Frank have always fundamentally believed that the ends justify the means, and in cases like this, that’s certainly true. What Claire did was brave and honorable, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also self-serving. The two halves don’t erase each other, and that complexity is what I enjoy about the show. Likewise, for all of Frank’s underhanded dealing while he tries rising to power, it’s hard not to postulate at times that he might be a much better president than the man actually in charge—but what, exactly, would a man like him, who seems to have no values, attempt to do once he was in that position? Their search for power is ultimately nihilistic, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have positive effects along the way.
Before “Chapter 17” ended, we also received confirmation that the hacker Lucas found was a plant and some evidence that Jackie may be an effective whip, though this material in particular was kind of lacking. The episode’s final scene was excellent, though, with Frank and Claire returning to their smoking window, finally reunited after their long day of quarantine and interview. Claire asks Frank to say something, and he replies by singing to her the old murder ballad “Pretty Polly.” But is Claire Polly, or is she Willie the murderer? Perhaps she’s both.