This has turned into quite a ridiculous show. That was my main thought as the credits rolled at the end of “Chapter 5”, an episode that featured a comically early-2000’s-style “chill” office, a group of protestors standing outside a fundraiser for the sole reason that there are Congressmen in attendance and an absurdly over-the-top teacher lobbyist who makes Rush Limbaugh look like Maya Angelou. I’m conflicted as to how I should feel about each of these elements because the show seems to want us to take them all quite seriously while also reveling in its own preposterousness. Thus far the show has masqueraded as the archetypal HBO drama with a morally ambiguous lead character and a sprawling cast that has numerous important conversations and conflicts with each other in small rooms. There is a great show in here somewhere but too often it gets so caught up in its own web that it sacrifices logic and realism for stylish dramatic gravitas and “TV realism”.
Frank’s latest opponent is Marty Spinella, a hotheaded Teacher’s Union lobbyist who takes issue with Frank’s brainchild, the education bill. He seems to be Frank’s most vocal opponent yet but once again he is about 10 steps behind him in the political game. However, when Spinella persuades a hotel union group to kick Claire’s charity gala out of its doors, Frank wages war like we’ve never seen before. He orchestrates a plan to host the gala outside, picnic-style on the hotel’s front steps. When Spinella finds out, he sends out a team of teachers (and apparently some teamsters posing as teachers) to protest the event with picket signs. A local news team asks Spinella why the picketers are there when the gala is about the Clear Water Initiative, a private event, versus the education bill they’re protesting, which is a governmental matter, to which he firmly states that fifty Congressmen are in attendance at this gala. That’s it. The half-baked idea gets undermined by Frank and company when they go out and feed the protestors, who gobble up the food heartily. This is admittedly fun to watch but it’s yet another storyline that ends with Frank smiling smugly while his opponent scowls in the corner.
Despite this victory, I don’t think we’re supposed to like Frank in this episode. He is dressing himself at Zoe’s apartment in the very first scene and tells her that he will get her one phone for work and one for play, a subtle control tactic. When he returns home to Claire she not only correctly guesses that he slept with another woman but with “that reporter”. They talk to each other as if it’s just business as usual as she asks what Zoe can offer them. This scene suggests that these extramarital affairs have happened in the past and that there’s nothing she can do to stop them. She seems to accept that this is just part of his job, and Robin Wright plays this scene with the right amount of cold resolution and guarded unhappiness. It is troubling to later see Frank take over the gala when things go awry, as if she could not handle it herself and I would have given the show credit if it had shown her acknowledgement of this, but it never does. Granted, she hasn’t exactly proven herself to be a particularly effective leader, but I would have liked to have seen some sort of scene where Claire does something right. Alas, we come back to Frank who courageously saves the day and his woman. Frank receives a visit at home from Peter Russo, who has been dealing with the blowback from being manipulated into closing down the shipyard in his home state. He blames Frank for the furious emails he’s been getting, essentially telling him that Frank has ruined any relationship Peter had with the people who got him elected. Frank becomes infuriated at the accusation and forces him to take his clothes off and get into the bathtub, placing a razor next to him. Frank tells him he could get Peter elected as governor of Pennsylvania or he could choose the coward’s way out and end it all in his bathtub. This type of behavior could be seen as almost sociopathic in its clinical manipulation but something suggests that Frank still has the capacity for much worse. Corey Stoll gives his best performance yet in this episode. His boiling anger is captivating to watch in the scene where he’s reading the furious emails in addition to this bathtub scene.
Off in her own storyline is Zoe, whose recent firing from the Washington Herald has brought her to Slugline, a completely opposite work environment. The walls are stylized with graffiti, there are no cubicles, some employees roll around in their chairs if they aren’t sitting in beanbag chairs on the ground. It is a humorous attempt by director Joel Schumacher to show a modernized office with no structure whatsoever, epitomized by the editor-in-chief, who tells Zoe that she can just post her articles whenever she thinks they’re good enough. She leaves the office without telling the editor-in-chief, who we see smiling at Zoe “going after the story”. If anything, the depiction of journalists in this series shows that its writers only have a cursory, outdated idea of how to write them. Zoe’s Washington Herald boss goes on a rant about new media in this episode: “Zoe Barnes. Twitter. Blogs. Enriched media. They’re all surface. They are fads. They aren’t the foundation upon which this paper was built on.” If this took place in the year 2000 I would find this line a little more believable, but it’s hard to imagine any good editor saying something like this in 2013. Lines like this show that those behind the scenes of House of Cards are fascinated by politics and media but not enough to intently research these topics and write them with accuracy. This was an enjoyable episode on the surface but it’s becoming difficult to see the show as anything more than a melodramatic political soap opera.
Also: At various points in the episode, we see Zoe texting and/or writing on her iPhone or typing on her Macbook. Even when she’s not texting in the office I could hear the sound effect of iPhones. As if that wasn’t enough, Claire uses three different Apple products: the iPhone, the iPad and the Macbook Air. I understand that it is realistic for the average middle or upper class citizen to own these products but when the Apple logo is so prominent in the frame that you can barely see the character’s face, it starts to become distracting. I’m usually not annoyed by product placement but it has become obvious that Apple must have paid them producers a sizable chunk of money.
MVP: Corey Stoll