After two seasons of strangling dogs, backstabbing presidents, pushing journalists in front of public transportation and generally making Dick Cheney look like Dick Clark, Frank Underwood is now the president of the United States. As far as we can tell from the first episode of House of Cards' third season, it's not all it's cracked up to be.
"You have to be a little human when you're the president," Underwood says, before relieving himself on his father's tombstone. But "human," unsurprisingly, doesn't agree with Underwood. The man who was so effective at rising from House majority whip to the Oval Office in just 26 episodes is proving to be a surprisingly ineffective president: His approval ratings are in the toilet, he hasn't signed any meaningful legislation, he's surrounded by second-guessing staffers and nobody has any idea if he's running for (re?)election.
The first episode of the season demonstrates how pursuing power can encumber that power once it's in grasp. Former chief of staff and newly relapsed alcoholic Doug Stamper's devoted attempt to neutralize former prostitute Rachel Posner, the only person who represents an existential threat to the Underwood administration, has succeeded — Rachel has vanished without a trace, unlikely (at least at the moment) to cause any more trouble for Frank. But the battle to eliminate her has left Doug crippled and weak, unable to make a fist or to serve in the Underwood White House. Broken by his loss of position, Doug breaks his decade-long sobriety with a sex worker who looks creepily like Rachel.
Similarly, Frank's dogged pursuit of power has left him unable to govern. Sure, the campaign finance scandal successfully brought down President Garrett Walker and eliminated plutocratic puppet-master Raymond Tusk, clearing the way for Frank to become president, but after burning down the White House, Underwood is left sifting the ashes. Just ask Gerald Ford how easy it is to govern when you're a mid-term vice presidential replacement who becomes the leader of the free world after a presidential resignation.
But Frank has one thing Doug doesn't have: Claire. She's the woman who made him president, and now she's calling in her favor. Frank's power in the Oval Office may be hampered by the mess he made to get himself there, but Claire has apparently been planning an appointment to the United Nations "since before we stepped foot in this house," and she's not going to let his weak political position (or the objections of the secretary of state) get in the way.
This episode had the unenviable task of being compared to last season's opener, which featured Kate Mara (as dearly departed reporter Zoe Barnes) getting pushed in front of a train. This episode really didn't have that shock factor, instead using Doug's recovery as a framing device for much of the episode. It was a bit slow, but that's forgivable — if you're a previous fan of the show, that is.
But divorced from the anticipation for season three, does this episode work? Does it get its audience excited for what comes next? Or is the slow pace a momentum-killer that will keep viewers from pressing that "Watch Next" button on Netflix?
Kevin O'Keeffe: Scott, you and I have very different experience with House of Cards. You are a superfan who has watched the first two seasons multiple times. I have watched one episode (the season two finale) and that Sesame Street parody, so I'm super interested in hearing what you thought of this premiere. From the perspective of someone who hasn't watched before, I thought it was incredibly poorly paced and put a lot of focus on a character I'm not particularly interested in at first blush — though I admit I find Doug's desire to have bourbon sprayed into his mouth via syringe so freaky it piques my interest.
How did "Chapter 27" work for you as someone who's been eagerly awaiting House of Cards's return?
Scott Bixby: I think the biggest part missing from this season opener was a "moment," a defining piece of action by Frank that reacquaints the viewers with the man whose machinations they are about to watch unfold for the next 13 hours (hopefully not at once). In season one, it was Frank strangling his neighbor's dog — "I have no patience for useless things." In that moment, we understood that this was not going to be your run-of-the-mill, hand-wringing political drama like The West Wing, but a taut, terrifying thriller about a man willing to do anything in service of his twisted code. In season two, it was the aforementioned shoving of Zoe in front of the D.C. Metro to tidy up any loose ends that would prevent his continued political ascent. For me, the closest this episode got to a defining "moment" was Doug Stamper's relapse into alcoholism: The viewers see, for the first time, the repercussions Frank's ruthlessness has had on his most devoted supporter.
Most of the first episode, in fact, is seen from Doug's perspective — those of us excited to see President Underwood in action were a little disappointed about it. What purpose did the Doug arc seem to serve, do you think?
O'Keeffe: Obviously I can't speak much to how the arc will affect the rest of the season, especially not really knowing Doug's history — though I do hope the strange syringe moment is not foreshadowing a grim alcoholism plot. I thought it was actually a pretty clever way to frame the episode in a way that allowed us to see the obviously damaged Underwood administration through the eyes of someone on the outside. I'm not sure how much that outside perspective has been shown in previous seasons, but I know the episodes of both The West Wing and Scandal that get a bit outside their Washington bubbles tend to be my favorites.
That said, his story hit many of the same beats over and over again. He's in pain! His pain isn't just about the physical distress, but also about how screwed the Underwood administration is! Honestly, the only part of it I really enjoyed was watching him watch Frank on The Colbert Report (which was a delicious bit of stunt casting, no?). It finally made the construct — we feel what he feels — work.
Unfortunately, because so much focus tightened in on Doug, Claire's whole storyline about wanting to be U.N. ambassador felt out of nowhere in the episode's second half. It was my favorite part, but I wanted more. Was it enough Robin Wright for you?
Bixby: There's never enough Claire Underwood for me. The show could be called House of Claire and every episode could be dedicated to her trying on structured jackets and threatening the unborn children of her staff and it wouldn't be enough. But I think that, what little of Claire there was, it was top-quality Claire. Her first scene, at Doug's bedside, features everything we love about Claire: Her fabulous bitchy haircut, her iron-fist-in-velvet-glove WASP nicety, her coaching people recovering from compound skull fractures on how to lie to the police. Frank's presidency may be circling the drain, but being first lady suits Claire Underwood just fine.
Although it's awesome to see her make her political ambitions explicit, I can't decide whether I think Claire as U.N. ambassador is a stroke of genius or completely insane. It's like that old Simpsons quote: "Do you kids want to be like the real U.N.? Or do you just want to bicker and waste time?" Making Claire Underwood the ambassador to the United Nations is like bringing an F-16 to a back-alley knife fight. She'd either consolidate her power and become the head of a one-world government, or she'd torch the building to the ground out of boredom.
The first couple's interaction on the subject of her nomination hints at some serious trouble in paradise to come. Claire has worked her ass off to get Frank to the White House, but Frank sees her nomination as a major stumbling block for his political agenda. Is the White House going to supplant [bodyguard Edward] Meechum as the couple's interloper-in-chief?
O'Keeffe: Is Meechum that cute one I saw all the threesome GIFs last year? I hope he comes back. He was my favorite part of the show before I watched it.
Anyway, you're right, this season is obviously about the strained marriage of the Underwoods. I'm all for it, actually. I liked Mad Men best when Betty Draper knew who Dick Whitman was. I love when Mellie and Fitz are at odds on Scandal. There's something great to watching husband and wife stand off, particularly when you're rooting for woman to upend man. I'm already ready for her to be president.
But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself there. I'll wait until the end of this season, at least. Only 12 hours more to go to get there.
Bixby: Totally agree — Claire's really the only person on the show who's any match for Frank. Any struggle for power between them is going to make Raymond Tusk look like an amateur. For now, at least, they're still a team. When Frank tells Claire, "I will win. And I will leave a legacy," he's touching on their mutual goal: to make their bloody mark on the world.
That's the key to understanding this couple: They don't have a family or loved ones or friends. Their only child is legacy, and so far, they don't have a ton to point to, beyond a few murdered journalists, congressmen and sex workers. The couple that slays together, stays together.