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House of Cards – Episode 1.03 – "Chapter 3"

courtesy of Ken Thomas

     As House of Cards enters its third chapter, we finally get to travel outside of the wheelings and dealings of Washington politics to get some insight into Frank Underwood’s roots in his home state of South Carolina.  In the process, we get to see what caused him to be elected to Congress 11 times, as he proudly declares in this episode.  More than anything else, Frank knows how to use his words to sucker people into doing anything he wants, even if that means delivering a eulogy he doesn’t fully believe in.  Frank is called away to do some damage control after a 17-year-old girl gets into a fatal car accident after texting her boyfriend about the “Peachoid” (pictured above), which Frank paid an exorbitant amount of money to construct.  Though his colleagues try to persuade him to stay and work on the education reform bill, his image and worth as a Congressman are more important.  What I found interesting about this whole episode was the motivations behind Frank’s behavior.  He doesn’t go down to South Carolina to express grief over the loss of a young girl, he goes down after a local politician blames Frank’s “Peachoid” for the girl’s death.  Frank is primarily looking to make the problem go away with a settlement by offering a scholarship to be made in the girl’s name.  Through meetings with locals, a eulogy at a church and a talk with the girl’s parents, his rhetoric is almost mechanically sympathetic, designed to tap into the emotions of who Frank regards as easily persuaded, simple-minded folk.  He is a master at speechifying and Kevin Spacey probably delivers his most nuanced performance yet.  You almost want to believe there’s a decent man underneath all the rhetorical bullshit and the selfish ambition, but his asides to the camera indicate a man whose been in this business for so long that he may have lost his capacity to connect to the common folk.

     As I’ve mentioned in previous episode reviews, House of Cards has created the archetypal antihero out of its main character in a similar vein as The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  Like Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Walter White before him, Frank is unequivocally a master at what he does.  He is charismatic, witty, and he looks good in a suit.  However, I’m already at the point where I want someone in the context of this show to call him out.  As I watched Frank deliver his calculatingly poignant eulogy in front of the girl’s grieving parents, I couldn’t help but feel disgusted by his motivations.  In an attempt to connect with the parents’ situation, he makes up a grand mythology about his father, who supposedly died tragically when Frank was young, but then looks at the camera and tells us that the world was essentially better off with his father dead.  I assume this scene is meant for the audience to smile, shake their heads and say: “He’s up to his old tricks again!”, but I’m still not convinced why I should be rooting for this guy.  Despite my own moral dilemmas with the character, I still found the step outside of Washington to be very refreshing.  It gives the show a greater context, showing that they can handle a setting outside of the insular world of Washington.

     This was undoubtedly Frank’s episode, as the first two were, but there was some vaguely interesting developments from both Claire and Zoe.  Zoe in particular is riding high off her breaking the news about Catherine Durant’s promotion to Secretary of State. She makes an appearance on Starting Point, a CNN program, infuriating her boss to the point that he knocks her down a peg.  She (rightly) accuses him of sexism and asserts her confidence by texting Frank for any new developments.  I’m looking forward to seeing their relationship unfold over the next ten episodes.  Another carryover from the first two episodes is Claire’s being off in another world from the main action of the series.  I know the writers are trying to draw parallels between her struggles and her husband’s, but her storylines feels so disconnected from the others that it’s hard to care about her.  This week she got yelled at by an old woman for running through a graveyard, which struck a nerve in her and then smiled while watching a young couple make out in that same graveyard at the end of the episode.  This is some obvious symbolism about Claire being at that age where the reckless abandon of youth and the reverential conservatism of old age are fighting with her other, and that shows through her actions in this episode.  She attempts to hire an enterprising young woman who can’t stop coughing yet doesn’t have health insurance, so she foots the bill to let her go to her own personal doctor.  The young woman vocalizes her concern over an expensive photograph in Claire’s office, but Claire rationalizes it by explaining a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back” deal she had with an artist.  On the surface, it appears that Claire’s allowing the woman to see her personal doctor is an act of selflessness but it’s clear that she’s just as self-motivated as Frank.  She expects the young woman to work for her in return, and that’s her primary reason for helping her.  What I like most about this episode is the question it raises about motivations behind actions.  Clearly, Frank’s founding of a scholarship is a great thing on its own but it’s hard to ignore his intentions for doing so.  Zoe has been able to report huge developments in Washington before anyone else, but her frequent talk show appearances indicate a woman intent on getting famous.  Claire helps a woman in need of medical attention but it’s no coincidence that it’s the same woman she wants to hire for her company.  They all have selfish reasons for their actions, and that can make them unlikable, but at the same time, does it even matter?  Considering the fact that they’re doing good things in the world, do their motivations lessen their actions?  I’m willing to wager that something will happen in the coming episodes that will make each of these characters face the ugliness of their ambitions.  The house of cards that each of these characters has built likely won’t fall anytime within the next few episodes, but I have a feeling that the foundations will start to crack very soon.

Grade: B+
MVP: Kevin Spacey


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