Netflix’s House of Cards continues to stack the deck, as the end draws near for this “binge-viewing” drama. I think that the whole idea of binge viewing is a little loopy, because there is no build-up in the week as you wait for the next episode. Now, it is just a click of the mouse and you are back in the groove. Personally, I like to have the anticipation and joy of waiting on each new episode. Speculating at what is going to happen next is one of the best things that the medium can possibly offer.
But this is a new century with new rules and a whole new interface on how we watch TV. Did you really think that you would still be around in the future to watch movies on a device just a little bigger than a credit card? I definitely could not see myself guzzling down an entire season in one sitting being, well, in the cards. Yet, I must confess at relishing having only a fifteen-second wait to see the conclusion to a cliffhanger that I normally would have to yearn about for a full week.’
Congressman Francis “Frank” Underwood is being honored at his alma mater, a military college in Charleston, South Carolina. The very special event is a library being named after him and a ceremony that will unveil a new placard outside the massive structure. His old schoolmates surprise him at a black-tie dinner in his honor where, just like the old days, they raise some hell. As they empty bottle after bottle of Maker’s Mark, they decide to break into the library, which is still being renovated. It is a very Stand by Me moment as the four pals find their names written on a wall from thirty years ago. While they marvel at what they have become, they stare at the old vandalized wall like it’s a shadowy mirror into their youth. Frank sits down with his pal Tim and details are quickly revealed about just how close the two were back in the day. They talk about how they were more intimate than brothers and that they “messed around” a bit. Under the influence, we get a very rare look at a Frank who is not in total control. He will not deny how drawn he was to his old school chum…and it was in more than a friendly way. Like a left-hook to the face, I was floored by a revelation that I did not see that coming. Not from the House’s majority whip.
Seeing some of Frank’s roots is important to the narrative, because it shows the stark difference between the man he has become and the life lessons he should remember more. At the next day’s presentation, the curtain is pulled back to show Frank’s name on the new library. For the first time in the series, Frank is speechless and even Claire seems worried as she looks at her husband struggle at the podium. Always the pro, he recovers in his speech, but you see the first chink in thick armor that is Francis Underwood. When the night finally falls and cadets are cleaning up all of the chairs, Frank lingers around the area looking up at his name. Claire tells him that the car is ready but to take his time. He needs a moment, but it’s as if he turns off collegiate Frank and switches back on D.C. Frank, the vicious shark who will bite your hand off if you have chum in it. As Frank walks toward the car, he commands his right hand man and fixer Doug Stamper (the terrific Michael Kelly) to give him an update on what is going on in our nation’s capital. It is time to get back to work and forget things like libraries being named after you and Southern hospitality. His friends may know the old Frank that we got a glimpse of, but this is new Frank. The Frank who is a grenade waiting to explode.
The boozing, whoring and coke-snorting Congressman from Pennsylvania, Peter Russo, continues his run at sobriety while trying to run for governor. However, Frank has planned a demise for Russo that is brilliantly orchestrated and will put the kibosh on Russo’s run for the governor’s mansion, as well as brief tenure in Congress. Corey Stoll does an outstanding job as Russo, a man so haunted by addiction that it will ruin his political career. But before all of that, he returns to his home state after slashing the jobs of the Philadelphia shipyards. To say that the guys he grew up with are pissed at losing their jobs is an understatement; they are irate.
In a sense, despite the obstacles, I was happy he had finally gotten himself on the right track by stopping his drinking. Even better is that he has returned to Philly to make things right with the people he promised secure jobs while he was in office. He has screwed them royally, but Russo is determined to make things right. Girlfriend Christina (the beautiful Kristen Connolly) has even rejoined and surprises Peter at his childhood home in suburbia. It is good to see them back together, even though Christina is only diving back into a toxic situation. She is unqualified to run a campaign for governor, but to tell you the truth, she is all he’s got. Stoll is brilliant as Russo who currently shines in the very public role he is taking on. If not for his extra-curricular activities, he may just be the man for the job. But the thing about demons is that they strike just when you think you are going well. Or they strike when Francis Underwood says that they will.
I very much liked seeing Russo visit the old-folks home where his mother will not once take her eyes off of the TV. Peter is doing everything he can do to get his elderly mom’s approval, but she is clearly not interested. Russo wishes to regain everyone’s trust before making his run for governor, including dear old mom. Phyllis Somerville is sublime as the old lady whom Peter is practically begging for attention from. She finally comes around a little bit when Pete brings Christina to meet her for the first time. Her sly smile and acid tongue tell you that she remains as smart as a whip and definitely still all there. She may be watching TV, but she is much more aware of the big picture than we think.
Peter is pushing for the Watershed bill and has come back to ask the people he grew up with for forgiveness after bailing on the shipyards. He visits his old friend from the neighborhood, currently unemployed union head Paul. He also gets to meet Paul’s wife, a woman enraged at the gall Peter has to visit their home. A brief encounter tells us just how severe the situation is for the out of work union members. A town hall meeting where Peter attempts to plead his case goes absolutely awful when the knives come out. After a befuddled Peter attempts to answer constituents’ concerns about just who is going to pay their mortgages, the yelling ensues and people begin to exit from the school auditorium. Peter responds rationally by breaking into Paul’s home (the key was still where it was when they were kids) and scaring him, his wife, and three kids. The two come to blows and wind up wrestling on the floor. Once both men are winded, they realize that they do not want to be fighting with each other.
Later in the same evening, Paul gathers as many union members as he can at a local bar to hear Peter out. He is at his political best telling the people that he is literally all they have and that the people in Washington do not give a f*ck about them. Feeling confident after this win, he triumphantly returns to D.C. and gear up for a campaign that he wants to win.
His sobriety is out in the open for everyone to see and he does not try to hide that he is in recovery. The problem is that Peter does not realize where Frank comes into play in this. He is so blinded by getting a run at governor that he forgets who has led him down this path. All roads lead to Frank and his machinations. There is an underbelly of a plan that only Frank knows is going on and that is the way he likes it. Any move Frank makes is deliberate and with purpose. There are no niceties or courtesies, as is seen when Frank gets White House Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez’s son, Ruben, into Stanford University. Frank books a ticket to Stanford for Linda and tells her not to worry about him covering her absence. But no favor by Frank carries any moral weight. Frank is concerned solely about Frank and nobody else. Maybe Claire gets a sliver of sympathy, but nothing more.
Zoe and her new mentor at the paper, Janine, are talking shop about just how Zoe is getting those juicy stories in such a short period of time. It is actually nice to see them not argue and Janine begin to kiss and tell about her sexual exploits at the beginning of her career. Zoe is somewhat shocked, as she just did not see Janine in that light before. However pleasant it was for the girls to be getting along, Zoe realizes that she has to keep things with Frank professional. Although Zoe had plans to meet Frank at her apartment, she decides to stay and have dinner with her new gabby BFF. After texting Frank that she will be a half-hour late, he texts back, “I don’t do waiting” and tells his driver to take him home.
Later, when Zoe dissolves the physical relationship at their secret meeting spot, he seems okay with it. But trying to read Frank is like trying to read the winner of the World Series of Poker. Zoe has finally realized that she does not want to wind up like Janine, despite respecting her as a colleague. Now that they are not sleeping together, Zoe has no “in” and has to reactivate the physical part of the relationship. After doing it in her dump of an apartment, Zoe immediately questions if he even enjoys having sex with her. Arms crossed, she just wants a scoop and will prostitute herself to get the information that she needs.
As Frank attempts to steer Peter’s Watershed bill via Congress, it fails by two votes at the hands of….Claire! I did not see it coming but after a lunch with the two Congressman that were unsure which way they were voting, Claire knowingly put the kibosh on the bill telling them to “vote with their conscience”. The volcano that is Frank Underwood explodes and he is furious with his wife, but even more so with the two Congressmen. Frank is out of control for the first time and it is a terror to behold. Claire pays an unannounced visit to Zoe following Frank’s eruption and the bill’s failure. Zoe seems genuinely frightened by Claire when she gently strokes the young reporter’s face. Zoe wisely, not to mention delicately, asks her to leave. And then Claire heads unannounced for New York City to pick up her affair with photographer Adam Galloway. Whoa, major burn for Frank. Is the whip unraveling?
Peter is usurped by the current vice president at the former’s stump speeches when the VP blocks the young politician from making any headway with his constituents. After asking Frank what he can do, he advises to show the VP his strong face; Peter does just that. Although it is his home state as well, Peter tells the veep, in no uncertain terms, that he is “hijacking the mic” at every stop on the bus tour. After that exchange, the VP seems to take to the young gun and give a heartfelt introduction speech to the voters, thereby returning Peter his confidence.
But things are not this easy in politics.
In what I assumed was a throwaway scene, Doug Stamper pays former-hooker Rachel to ensure that Peter falls off the wagon. After coming on to him at an evening function (and despite his having a very important talk radio interview the next morning), Peter doesn’t just fall into Rachel’s honey trap of booze, he willfully cannonball dives. Russo does not even remember being with Rachel from the first few episodes.
After presumably having coitus, Rachel opens the shades to reveal that the sun is out and blaring into the hotel room. While Rachel leaves, Doug calls a slurring Peter. He isn’t being prepped for an interview; it’s an execution. I actually felt bad for the guy as he tries to talk his way out of the phone interview before the host says, “Are you drunk right now, congressman?” So much for a run at the governor’s mansion.
While staying at Adam’s New York loft, Claire is having a great time partying and dancing with buttoned down bohemians of the city that never sleeps. Zoe, however, is scared to stay at her own place after Claire’s primal visit to her young counterpart. She calls on her old co-worker Lucas to see if she can stay at his place for the night. Surprised, Lucas agrees, but naturally Zoe sneaks off the couch and into the hard working reporter’s bed. Then they…well, you know. The bigger picture of what Frank is trying to accomplish hits after the death knell that was Russo’s radio interview. Frank is maneuvering the VP to vacate his post as second-in-command, thus opening the position for the whip. But the wheels are falling off for Frank and he is missing a step in the massive chess game that he has arranged. Will Claire return? Will Frank accept anything less than being in the Oval Office? I don’t know, because I am having too good a time watching it all.
While the whole “breaking the fourth wall” thing, where Spacey talks to the camera, has gotten old fast, the shows is moving at a rapid pace. I am excited for the final trilogy of episodes 11, 12 and 13. This balancing act of the cards is getting awfully wobbly. Now, I am just waiting to see who will be king.