Season one of House of Cards did its best to stay away from race and ethnicity, but perhaps that was for a good reason, considering how poorly the second season has fared on the subject. “Chapter 22” in particular spends nearly half the episode dealing with Freddy’s plight as collateral damage from Tusk’s assault on the Underwoods, but the season has also introduced us to Feng and Lanagin while reasserting the importance of Linda’s Latina heritage at the end of “Chapter 21.” Suddenly race matters, and at best House of Cards has done a mixed job dealing with the subject, though perhaps it has done a bit better when it comes to overall thematizing than it has on an individual character level.
It’s no mistake that Tusk is as white as Frank and that it’s the war between these two men that ends up overshadowing everyone else. Season two hasn’t exactly been subtle about its messaging here, either, given the Civil War re-enactment episode, and one of the narratives going on here is that the white men only care about the rest of the world when it’s convenient to them. Linda became the closest of anyone to being a real player in this white world, but ultimately she proved disposable as well. I suspect her offering Frank the medal at the end of “Chapter 21” was a way of reminding the audience that her last name is Vasquez, and despite the incoherence of the gesture, it sets the stage for “Chapter 22.”
Freddy was, up until now, arguably Frank’s only friend. I’ve noted previously how lonely his view of power is, but Freddy’s barbecue was the one place where he maintained a semblance of sentimentality and, with this, humanity. Tusk attacked Frank in the two places where he still had chinks in his armor, his wife and his one friend, but while we knew Claire would end up okay (and who cares about Adam?), Freddy doesn’t stand a chance. He’s not playing by the same rules, and unfortunately for him, everyone else knows this.
Unfortunately, the road to Freddy’s destruction is paved with terrible writing and cliches. We learn here that Freddy is an ex-convict, his son lives in the projects with his grandson, and his son is also on parole but always carries a gun. It turns out that Freddy’s life is a whole, ugly bag of racist cliches, but what’s worse is the dialogue. Clearly the show wished to mimic the look of The Wire for the sake of “authenticity,” but Freddy is given ridiculous dialogue, and his son’s lines are even worse. Their entire half of the episode is preachy as only white people moralizing to and through the mouths of black people can be, and while Reg Cathey is a good enough actor to occasionally pull this off, on the whole it misfired horribly. Admittedly House of Cards’ scripts always read like plays, so in a few scenes (in particular the one at Freddy’s house between him and Frank), this works better than others; when Freddy’s son is around, though, it’s just embarrassing to watch.
Freddy’s storyline was supposed to mirror Adam’s, showing us how the Underwoods need to shed all of their connections if they’re going to continue playing politics in the big leagues. But while both we and the Underwoods have an emotional connection to Freddy, Adam has always been beyond empathy. This storyline is still pretty entertaining, as it focused on the media circus surrounding this type of political scandal, but it was mostly just a question of how the Underwoods and their advisors handled every situation. Having Adam leave the show for good is no big loss. There were a few great moments, particularly when Seth went on television and when Frank asserted his love of Claire to Adam, but it in all this was just entertainment.
This is the most disappointing episode of season two so far. Oddly, it’s not because the episode lacked ambition, as it was more exciting than either of the previous two, but simply because the execution was so poor. Fortunately that’s rarely the case for House of Cards, which can often turn even small events into exciting television due to its superb cast and crew, but when it came to Freddy’s life, the writing just wasn’t there. On a macro-level “Chapter 22” worked, getting the season’s story where it needed to be and putting Frank and Claire in new emotional positions, but when it came to giving the show’s one strong black character a full, three-dimensional life, House of Cards wasn’t up to the task.