The marriage of President Frank Underwood and first lady/ambassador Claire Underwood has faced challenges that, to paraphrase Claire, would crush any other couple if they fell on their shoulders. Political intrigue, clandestine abortions, confirmation battles, infidelity played out on the front page of every tabloid in America, murder. Through every trial, the Underwoods have emerged with a bond stronger than before. Claire says so herself: "I love Francis now more than ever."
It's the kind of love forged in combat, a battle-scarred love between two people who have "gone through more than you could ever imagine," as Claire once told a former flame. "Do not mistake any history you have shared for the slightest understanding of what our marriage is," Frank told the same interloper, "or how insignificant you are in comparison."
But no MacBeth-ian scheming or faked suicide has posed a greater existential threat to the Underwoods' marriage than the events of "Chapter 32." Frank and Claire, on a mission to Moscow to salvage a United Nations peacekeeping operation in the Middle East and to rescue an American activist held prisoner by the Kremlin, begin the diplomatic trip with the same goals. By the end of the episode, however, their respective reactions to the activist's suicide have turned them against each other, and we watch a 28-year partnership collapse on itself like a dying star.
In "Chapter 33," the first couple attempts to salvage the peace plan — and their marriage. But as Frank ruefully notes, "We don't fight often, but this one, scabs keep coming off. We said things, things you just can't take back." Can the underlying power dynamic that lead to their near destruction be changed as easily as Claire's hair color? Or is the promise of a renewed vow a hollow gesture, destined for the same scrap heap of great plans gone awry that Frank's Middle East policy seems headed for?
If love is worth fighting for, it has known no greater battle than this.
Scott Bixby: While there were a few fading moments of "Chapter 32" and "Chapter 33" that weren't dedicated to the Underwoods (Max faking HIV infection, Doug somehow scoring with yet another young brunette who would never give him the time of day in real life) the only thing really worth talking about is the epic implosion and fragile reconciliation of the Underwoods' marriage. Every other plot point in this two-episode arc functions like Claire's dye job: an off-putting distraction that detracts from the fabulous main event.
Frank and Claire arrive in Moscow with two jobs: Frank is set to get Russian President Viktor Petrov on board with a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Jordan Valley, and Claire has the seemingly easier task of informing detained gay activist Michael Corrigan that he is to be freed from Russian custody and returned home to his husband.
But just as negotiations with Petrov appear to conclude in Frank's favor, the Underwoods are blindsided by Corrigan refusing to leave his cell. Granted, the terms of his release involve reading a statement apologizing for "exposing minors to non-traditional sexual attitudes," but as Claire says, "they're just words," a capitulation that a man willing to go on a six-day hunger strike is unlikely to make easily. I'm all for standing up for what you believe, particularly when you're confronting the homophobic policies of a kleptocratic petrostate ruled by a reactionary vampire, but Corrigan is being childish. He's not going to depose Petrov by sitting in his cell, and his intransigence is putting thousands of lives in the Middle East in danger. Grow up and get some perspective.
More interesting than Corrigan's politics is the conversation between Claire and Corrigan over the course of the episode, which dives deep in what marriage is and what it isn't. Who won the debate? Claire, who insisted that marriage is about respect, or Corrigan, who asserted that marriage is about "accepting your partner's selfishness"?
Kevin O'Keeffe: More than anything else, these two episodes are about marriage. You could say that's what this entire season of House of Cards is about, but these zero in on that idea really effectively. I'm not sure either Corrigan or Claire won their debate, simply because I don't think there's a right answer. Each marriage is different, but Claire's definition fits what she wants out of her relationship with Frank. She doesn't care about love or sacrifice or physical affection: She wants her husband to respect her. She wants her husband to treat her as a force. She wants her husband to treat her like a U.N. ambassador.
It's an interesting definition of marriage, particularly because the end of "Chapter 32" and "Chapter 33" shows what happens when that bond of mutual respect is broken. I let out an audible "yaaaasss" when Claire went off on Petrov in the press conference; it was the one part of Corrigan's storyline to me that didn't feel too heavy-handed. I believe that Claire is the kind of person who would be tremendously affected by someone killing himself in front of her — with her own scarf, no less. She doesn't just care about power — she wants to do good. She believes gaining power is a way to do good. Unfortunately for Frank, that means she's going to let emotions get in the way sometimes.
Now, since you brought it up: How bad is Claire's brown hair? I know we were supposed to see it as a dramatic transformation that brings her back to a purer time in her marriage, but it just looks like a bad wig to me.
Bixby: I've been heard to say that Claire could shave her head and wear a Trader Joe's bag to a state dinner and still look resplendent, but there's only so much Robin Wright's bone structure can do. Claire can't have the same haircut as me — it's just no way to treat a first lady.
As badass as Claire's announcement at the press conference following Corrigan's suicide was, ("If it weren't for this unjust law and the ignorance and intolerance of your government, Michael would still be with us. Shame on you, Mr. President" doubles as the least diplomatic and most yaaaasss-worthy declaration by a government official in history), the real stinger was let loose on Air Force One, after the damage had been done. After Frank lectures Claire on Corrigan's lack of courage in killing himself, and her own for spouting off at Petrov, he declares "I should have never made you ambassador." Claire's calm response: "I should have never made you president."
It's the most Underwood-ian insult imaginable. Instead of a personal attack, it's a political one, which still packs the punch of the most devastating thing a spouse can say. It lays bare Claire and Frank's dynamic of mutual reliance and mutual destruction: They can't harm one another without harming themselves in the process. In a lot of ways, it's just a hyper-dramatic version of an argument every married couple has had, a fact that horrifies Claire: "I can't believe we've become this," she says. "Like everyone else." For a woman who considers herself — and let's be real, is — extraordinary, the fight is as damaging in its banality as it is in its ferocity.
The image of the mandala (the Tibetan Buddhist art form of creating intricate murals out of grains of sand, which is then swept away to signify the ephemerality of mortal existence) was a little heavy-handed, but it did lead to a reconciliation, of sorts, between the Underwoods: "My love, nothing is forever — except us." Is the Underwoods' marriage eternal? Or are they about to be wiped away?
O'Keeffe: For the record, I think you pull off the haircut far better than Claire does.
Bixby: Thank you.
O'Keeffe: I kinda think the Underwood marriage is done. I'm not sure if it'll ever end, per se — it reminds me of the Florrick marriage over on The Good Wife in that it's about political power for both parties, not love. But as far as any sort of love between these people, either emotional or sexual? I think that's done.
We're focusing a lot on Frank and Claire in this recap, mostly because the episodes themselves had tight focus there (and I'm not particularly inclined to talk about Max's HIV manipulation, gross as it was), but let's talk about author Thomas Yates. I actually could not pay attention to what was happening when he was on screen in "Chapter 33." I don't get his and Frank's relationship, and it might be because Paul Sparks and Kevin Spacey's chemistry is almost nonexistent. I know there's been story about Frank's potentially not-just-heterosexuality in the past, and I guess this is another avenue to discuss that, but I just don't care. If you're going to get into Frank being queer, go there. This just feels like dancing.
What do you make of Tom? And do you have any other thoughts about these two episodes?
Bixby: Thank you! I thought I was going insane when I started picking up on the gay subtext to Frank and Tom's drunk gaming bro-session. A sentence that starts "The last time I got this drunk..." exchanged between a former-maybe-hustler and a bisexual president should be nearly guaranteed to end in, well, you know. Part of me thinks that Tom is taking a page out of Zoe Barnes' book, How to Sleep With Politicians and Learn All Their Secrets, but so far all he's been able to dredge up is that there's trouble in paradise and Frank likes his scotch. Not exactly the makings of a best-seller.
I'm not totally sure I agree with you on the fate of the Underwoods. They've had their ups and downs, particularly in this episode, but at the end of "Chapter 33," Claire joined Frank in bed for the first time since they've moved into the White House. Their love may not be "forever," but their marriage? That's another story.