America Works is working — in Washington, that is. After a constitutionally questionable gambit in which President Frank Underwood declared unemployment in the District of Columbia a "state of emergency," releasing FEMA funds to finance his pet project, the commander-in-chief surprised viewers and critics alike by getting his program up and running. It was quite a move, even for Frank; it led Wall Street Telegraph reporter Kate Baldwin (played by Gone Girl's dark horse star Kim Dickens) to call him an "atom bomb" when compared to "dud" former President Garrett Walker.
But what if an atom bomb is defused before it goes off? That's what former Solicitor General Heather Dunbar is aiming to do. In "Chapter 30," she announces her candidacy for president, thwarting Frank's attempts to sideline her with a Supreme Court nomination and dismissing his overtures with the most Washington of tell-offs: "See you in Iowa." These two episodes truly belong to Heather: She's a formidable foe for Frank in a season that's providing plenty of foils and antagonists for our antihero.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations... First lady/Ambassador Claire Underwood is dealing with fallout from the Russia summit with her now-typical cunning: She goes over the Russian ambassador's head after he vetoes a U.N. resolution that would stabilize Israeli-Palestinian relations, obtaining an executive order from her husband to send in military troops. Naturally, she tells the ambassador about this while sitting on the toilet — a callback to the first episode, when Frank urinates on his father's grave. Never forget: No matter what beds they're sleeping in, the Underwoods are perfect for one another.
And finally, Doug is defecting — or is he? We'll find out for sure later on, but he's clearly trying to get in with Dunbar 2016, even as Frank positions House minority whip Jackie Sharp to run against her. Doug's betrayal is an interesting plot twist, although we have a hard time believing the longtime lackey would turn traitor; it remains to be seen whether he's pulling an elaborate ruse on the wannabe-commander-in-chief.
It was a plot-packed two hours, but was it the kind of propaganda that would inspire us to sign up for America Works? Or are we as skeptical as Kate Baldwin, ready to point both barrels at the Underwood administration?
Scott Bixby: "Chapter 30" opens with soon-to-be-former Solicitor General Dunbar appearing before the Supreme Court, waving away concerns about the imperial presidency: "The fear of an out of control executive is exaggerated." But by the end of "Chapter 31," we've seen Underwood have journalists dismissed from the White House, FEMA turned into a slush fund for AmWorks, American troops dispatched to the Middle East without congressional approval, and an explicit threat to veto or ignore any attempts by the congressional leadership to stop any of it. It's like Frank has suddenly remembered that he's the President of the United States or something.
Although Frank's employment of executive powers have boosted his power ratings (and, going by the montage of job applicants at the end of "Chapter 31," his approval ratings as well) his backstage machinations have largely flopped. He tried to force an aging Supreme Court justice into retirement; he failed. He tried to manipulate Dunbar into swapping places with said Supreme Court justice; he failed. He tried to manipulate the head of FEMA into staying silent about his concerns about AmWorks stealing its appropriations, and instead he blabbed about the whole thing to the Telegraph's new HBIC in the White House press room. Has Tyrant Frank officially eclipsed Machiavellian Supervillain Frank?
Kevin O'Keeffe: I'm thrilled to see Frank actually doing something. I've heard so much about how he's manipulative, cunning and dastardly in this show, but in the first few episodes, he seemed much more bark than bite. What this episode depicts so well is that even taking action isn't enough anymore; Frank's opponents this season are too savvy for his typical manipulations. It takes almost no time for Baldwin to absolutely tear Underwood apart with two different front-page bylines. Dunbar outfoxes him by feigning not knowing much about the Supreme Court justice she'd be replacing — in truth, they're close friends. More and more with each episode, it seems women are going to be Frank's undoing this season.
I want to talk about Heather Dunbar for a second, because to my eyes, she's the season's best character not named Claire. After Frank orders her to use what some would call an insane defense in "Chapter 28" (tell the truth about a drone gravely injuring an American citizen), she pivots and turns it into a masterful display of legal prowess in "Chapter 30." She's a hell of a campaigner, and she's got the ideas to back it up; I'd probably vote for her if she were a real 2016 contender. What do you make of my favorite new TV attorney?
Bixby: In the House of Cards universe, sticking to moral principles usually means a one-way ticket to getting framed for cyberterrorism, but when Dunbar calls out Frank for "rationalizing the obscene into the palatable," she demonstrates that the righteousness of her convictions may be her best weapon against Underwood. When she sneered at Frank's false flattery and declared that "someone needs to scrub the stink from this office," I got chills.
This being House of Cards, however, I'm holding off on buying campaign buttons for now. A friend and former White House correspondent once told me that the favorite thing he'd ever been told on the campaign trail was to never get in a mud-wrestling match with a pig: "You both get dirty, and the pig likes it." I'm not so sure that squeaky-clean Dunbar can handle getting into the muck with Underwood — especially given her reaction to Doug Stamper's offer of a journal proving that Claire lied about her abortion on national television last season. Her mouth may have said no, but her eyes said, "Bring on the mudslinging."
Speaking of Doug's betrayal, what's his game here? Is he exacting revenge for not being allowed into the White House he helped Frank secure? Or is there something more dastardly afoot here?
O'Keeffe: I'm glad you brought up the Dunbar/Doug meeting, because that was an important scene: You're right. She's going to have a tremendously difficult time fighting dirty with Frank. But if she gets Doug's help and allows him to do his dirty work, I think she's got a shot. That's why, as weird as it seems that Doug could be a turncoat, I'm believing it for the moment. Frank doesn't make for the most interesting president, I must say; though I appreciate the show exploring what happens when goals are achieved, I think the insistence on giving him a new goal he's dogged about (take a shot every time he says "America Works"!) is not the most effective development.
Incredibly effective so far, however, is Dickens as Kate Baldwin. I loved Dickens in Gone Girl last year — she would've been on my Oscar ballot for Best Supporting Actress; her subtle work as lead detective Rhonda Boney was that good. I may just be responding to having the actress on my TV screen, but I'm excited about this character. Can you, like me, not wait until she and Frank sink their teeth into one another?
Bixby: Two front-page bylines in one day, both taking the Underwood administration to task for the FEMA misappropriation? If I were Underwood or Communications Director Seth "Wish He Were Cuter" Grayson, I'd be shaking in my wingtips.
But the real writer who's going to cause a headache for Underwood? Tom Yates, the purple-prose-loving author who Frank has contracted to write a book about him as a way of making AmWorks more palatable to the American people (seriously, this is a video game review by Yates: "Whoever you are, whoever you think you are, believe that you are also a silent princess. Your name is Ida. Your journey is one through a forgotten landscape of twisting staircases and morphing castles atop floating stones defiantly crossing an angry sea, within dimly lit caverns cobwebbed with ruins M.C. Escher could only grasp at in a dream state." That's what President Underwood considers good writing?)
I just can't figure out why a man as secretive as President Underwood would let a writer in to his inner circle, especially one whose bibliography consists of exclusively of video game reviews and angry first novels. Can the Underwoods withstand that kind of up-close scrutiny?
O'Keeffe: Let me just say that the game Yates reviews, Monument Valley, is an incredible indie game, basically a work of art in iPhone game form, and the fact that they got such a big plug on House of Cards is astonishingly cool. His review was bad, but his opinion was good!
That said, I'm interested in seeing how the role of the writer intersects this season. Baldwin and Yates are two very different figures, and the Underwood administration may not be ready for either of them. Woe to him if they team up at any point: Frank wouldn't be able to withstand such an assault.