“Chapter 18” opens with a Chinese man gasping for air as he has sex with a white couple, his head in a translucent plastic bag. This is on-screen for just a few seconds before we cut to a Civil War re-enactment and the bored audience watching it. This, if nothing else, is my answer to the many people who dislike House of Cards, generally not for what the show is but for what it isn’t. The show is sleazy; it’s campy; it’s over-the-top, and I mean that in the best possible way. If it wasn’t—if these political stories were played straight—the show would be boring. By heightening every element of politics until they hit the ceiling, by offering us these overloaded images in every episode, the show is venturing out into new ground.
The word most commonly used to denigrate House of Cards is “shallow,” which generally goes unexplained, but I suspect that’s because of expectations people have for a show with an anti-hero as a protagonist. Frank Underwood is not another Tony Soprano like so many others on prestige television—in most ways, he’s closer to Lucifer (or at least Hitler). He’s not a tortured man; he’s a sociopath, and most of the show’s other characters are only a little bit more nuanced. The situations the show presents, though, the web of influence and deals that surround House of Cards’s version of Washington D.C., are where the complexity comes in. It’s not that the characters don’t matter; it’s just that they’re secondary to the many setpieces, the grand gestures of disgust the show has for the way politics in America are run.
In “Chaper 18,” the battle between Tusk and Frank continues to center around the Chinese trade agreement, and Frank has been sent to deal directly with the Chinese about the bill. He feeds the White House tons of misinformation instead, though, in order to cause a rift between Tusk and the president. While not dull, exactly, as a continuation of this storyline, it’s not intriguing enough (especially since, as of yet, there’s no payoff for Feng’s kinks). The main problem is that Tusk doesn’t seem like a worthy adversary for Frank, which removes much of the drama from the whole situation. Of course, in the background there are major international trade situations wildly in flux, but as always this is irrelevant. The fate of America in House of Cards is still just a pissing contest between boys, and Frank doesn’t care who gets wet.
The Civil War reenactment (and its accompanying side-story with Frank leaving his past and its hated role with the Confederates behind) adds an interesting backdrop, but this part of “Chapter 18” was overshadowed by what happened with Claire. Another man who wants to be the Underwoods’ press secretary unearths evidence that shows she wasn’t pregnant due to her rape. There was a lot of suspense here, but although it seemed like the show was going to grow this into a major storyline, instead this secret will be kept under wraps, at least for now. However, the war between these potential press secretaries, who are privy to confidential information without being (like Stamper) truly trustworthy, will likely play a big role in the future.
Outside of the Underwoods, Lucas finally got to make his attempt at hacking into Frank’s phone records and, inevitably, was caught by the FBI. Gavin, the hacker, even goes out of his way to warn Lucas, but both men go through with things anyway (and on a more personal note: keep Cashew out of this, you monster!). Lucas is now in custody, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this is the end of him on the show, or Gavin.
For such an overheated beginning, “Chapter 18” ended up a disappointment because so much time was spent arguing about an issue that, I would argue, we’re intentionally supposed to find dull and not understand. House of Cards is careful to use buzzwords about China and trade, but we know nothing of the specifics, nor should we. This is about maneuvering, but unfortunately we’ve seen so much of this in the show so far that all of this comes off as relatively unimpressive. The only huge development was with Lucas, but that came as no surprise. As a result, this was one of the few episodes of the show that dragged at times—not that it was bad, just that it could’ve used more theatricality, more strange moments like the recitation of Frank’s great-grandfather’s life by a random man, and less discussion of Tusk’s fortune. The Chinese trade agreement was treated with too much seriousness, as if this were just any run-of-the-mill political drama, and as a result, the show suffered.