Jonathan is watching and reviewing every episode of House of Cards series three in one epic binge. Follow his progress here.
It’s always fun when we get some of Frank’s backstory. His young southern days are somewhere between Tom Sawyer and True Detective: picturesque but grimy. Thus we learn (through Frank’s biographer Thomas) that his first job was working on ‘Uncle’ Henry’s weed farm. Did he ‘inhale’, as Bill Clinton would say?
No, because the crop was fertilised with Uncle Henry. Euch.
Like Claire, the audience gets a bit jealous of Thomas’s privileged position. We’re used to being his confidante, but since ‘Scorpion’ showed up Frank barely throws us a glance.
Relations are strained when the couple board Air Force One. The pair are off to collect gay activist Michael Corrigan from a Russian prison.
Conversely, Frank is now best mates with his old sparring partner Petrov. With both men in white shirts and loosened collars, they look like a Robson and Jerome album cover, and a deal over the Jordan Valley peace accord seem imminent. There’s only one problem: Michael Corrigan refuses to read a statement apologising for breaking the law, and it’s the First Lady’s job to convince him.
HoC’s cynicism is usually pretty unsubtle and childish, like a teenager at the breakfast table. “Ugh. Everyone is so fake and selfish. Where are the Pop Tarts? GAWD!”
But here it adds a pleasing wrinkle to the debate between Claire and Michael. In other shows, this would be a straight contest between the pragmatic statesman and idealistic activist: noble principles versus brutal realpolitik. Except this is House of Cards, the home of surrealpolitiks.
It’s made clear that Michael is not a noble warrior, but a vainglorious man who doesn’t care about hurting his loved ones. He may be in the right, but he’s not an unambiguously good person. When he hangs himself in front of a sleeping Claire (she should never be allowed to nap, it only causes trouble) it’s not clear whether he has done it out of desperation, principle or as a grandstanding gesture.
Similarly, when Claire attacks Petrov in front of the press (ruining the peace deal and her marriage in the process) we don’t know whether that’s a true attack of conscience, anger at Frank or lingering guilt over the crimes they have committed. ‘Out damn spot’ and all that.
We’re halfway through the series now and it’s fair to ask what it all means, what it all stands for. Underwood was at his best as the scheming Underdog, but in the White House, he lacks a clear goal. He is, in his own words, ‘surviving’. Pushing through his employment scheme and angling for re-election simply isn’t as interesting as clawing his way up the ladder, and the gothic touches seem a bit strained. How many monuments can he spit at or piss on?
The fracturing of the Underwood marriage is a smart move. No matter how mad or bad things got, their unholy union was a constant, and one of the few likeable things about them. If they’re at each other’s throats, there’s no telling where this might end.
Take a deep breath. Things go south from here.
The Quotable Underwood
Claire: “You should eat.” Michael: “Says the snake to Eve.”
Frank: “When I lie to you you’ll never know it and it will be for a good reason.”
Petrov: “If people don’t like the job you’re doing, they vote you out of office. If they don’t like what I’m doing, they topple statues.”