One of the points of House of Cards is that the bills Frank tosses around without a care have real effects, but not ones that matter to him. He’s insulated from this by his position and power, and so when he debates a Chinese trade bill that may have devastating effects around the world, in his mind, it truly doesn’t matter what happens so long as it helps his position. “Chapter 19,” though, works better than the last couple of episodes because some of those previously abstract issues have finally started to leak into Washington. Like in the first season when the teacher’s strike threatened Claire’s banquet, the heat wave brings a looming energy crisis into the forefront of everyone’s minds, and the petty battle between Tusk and Frank feels like it really has consequences.
This is especially necessary for the show because otherwise Tusk remains a disappointing enemy for Frank. In every battle, Frank seems to get the better of him. Fundamentally, Tusk has things that he cares about, primarily his power plants but presumably also America’s place in the global pecking order. He’s a patriot of sorts, and thus has trouble competing against Frank’s pure nihilism. Aside from attacking Frank or his wife directly, there isn’t much to bother the vice president with because his lack of principles acts as a pretty encompassing armor. Even the random events of the universe, in this case huge blackouts just before Frank throws out the first pitch of a Baltimore Orioles game, seem to have Frank’s best wishes at heart.
By the end of the episode the enmity between Frank and Tusk has reached pure hostility, but fortunately the maneuvering between these two men for the heart of the White House wasn’t the only thing that moved forward. Lucas has now reached out to his old boss, Tom, and asked the man to complete his work. Tom says he will, but he can only deal with the material as it presents itself. Tom even goes so far as to interview Frank about the theory that he killed Peter and Zoe, but Frank merely laughs at this (without ever actually denying it, which I found pretty silly in a typically television sort of way). The one person who could help corroborate Lucas’ claims—so long as Rachel remains under house arrest—is Janine, but after being intimidated by the FBI she refuses to help and asks Lucas to take the plea bargain. I don’t believe that this is the full end of this storyline, as there are too many loose threads and possible ways for the scandal to get opened once again, but for now it’s over.
One more small storyline pops up in “Chapter 19,” with Claire plotting against Christine by intimating to the first lady that she has romantic interest in the president. This is pretty entertaining to watch, as Christine spouts a sycophantic speech to the first lady that all but indicts her already, but it will certainly need some time to gestate before it plays a larger part in the show’s labyrinthine plotting. My bigger question was why exactly Claire was doing this, as I can’t see any particular reasoning besides boredom or perhaps whimsical malice.
It would be easy to dismiss the entire show’s attitude as nihilistic or deeply unethical (as The New Yorker recently did), but that means reading the entire show through Frank. Conversely, though, House of Cards has in fact always been a deeply ethical show concerned with the ease of power’s misuse. The show never condones these actions by the FBI—rather they’re condemning the role of law enforcement in harassing journalists and thus keeping the truth from the public. But the show’s commentary always comes from showing us the worst possible situation and how very little it differentiates from reality. Rather than contempt, I would call this disappointment, or even exasperation. This isn’t a show whose ethics are given to us by heroism. Instead they’re embedded commentary from the horrors we see in front of us. Frank is the devil, which is why he’s seductive and charismatic and enjoyable to watch—he’s House of Cards’s Jordan Belfort. But we’re supposed to read against him and read against the actions on the show. Aside from the few crusaders like Lucas or Donald Blythe, the cast is intentionally horrible and never has anyone’s best interest at heart. House of Cards is a critique, not a glorification, but I suppose that sometimes it’s just so fun to watch that it’s easy to miss the morality play at its heart.