For three seasons, President Frank Underwood has terrorized the people of the House of Cards universe. He has threatened them, manipulated them, lied to them, asphyxiated them, framed them, pushed them in front of trains, pushed them into relapse, blackmailed them, trotted them around like show ponies and forced them to resign.
And it's finally coming back to haunt him.
In "Chapter 37" and "Chapter 38," Frank's megalomania has reached its zenith. Whether it's his political opponents, his staff, his putative allies or his wife, Frank is laying down the law and demanding they fall in line.
House Minority Whip Jackie Sharp feels uncomfortable being used as a feminist attack dog in a debate with former Solicitor General Heather Dunbar? Too bad — Frank orders her to rip into Dunbar for sending her children to private school, or else. Author Tom Yates wants to turn his book about America Works into a (not-bad sounding) exploration of the Underwood marriage? Too bad — Frank fires him. First lady Claire Underwood wants to know about a plan to destroy evidence that she lied about her abortion on national television? Too bad — Frank has decided she doesn't need to know.
Frank's performance in the first primary debate showed a dynamic candidate who cares about the American people. But behind the scenes, Frank's support network is weakening from his abuse — and it's about to crumble beneath him.
Scott Bixby: Debate episodes are always the best. For viewers, it's one of the first times we see the candidates not as they are, but as the rest of the country is supposed to see them. Frank is a folksy pragmatist, ("Where I come from down South, we call that as clear as a glass of moonshine!"), Jackie is a warrior woman (take a shot every time she says "combat") and Dunbar is a fierce prosecutor with integrity to spare ("One thing you can't deny is that I am much more of an authority on the Constitution than you are").
This debate (hosted by CNN's John King, apparently a deaf-mute in the House of Cards universe for all the good he is at moderating) quickly turns into a tag-team WWE match, except Dunbar has no one to tag in while Frank and Jackie take turns whaling on her for her wealth and her lack of experience. Jackie, tasked with labeling Dunbar a sexist political dilettante, largely succeeds. "What have you done to further gender equality? What have you done to balance the scales? ... When things get tough on the battlefield, we don't say, 'Sorry, we won't engage.' We engage, Ms. Dunbar, and you need to confront the fact that you do not have women's best interests at heart."
But then Jackie goes. Off. The. Rails. After Frank's urging, Jackie attacks Dunbar for her advocacy of economic equality while sending her children to boarding school — and calls her a bad mother. "Isn't it true that you want your children to have a leg up on everyone else? Is that balancing the scales? Or is that hypocrisy? Or maybe, it's that you didn't want to raise them yourself so you sent them to boarding school."
The audience (and I) gasped. You can go after another candidate, but to go after their children? That's just un-American. Frank knew he couldn't do it — it'd make him look like an ogre. But Jackie's reputation is expendable.
What did you make of the debate? Who won? And, more importantly, who lost?
Kevin O'Keeffe: Dunbar projected a sense of calm and levelheadedness that would lead her to the win, but this is House of Cards: Level heads are for people who get pushed in front of trains. But under those rules, the clear winner was Frank, right? It has to be! He masterfully used Jackie against Dunbar, then attacked Jackie herself, all while looking presidential.
All season, Jackie has been concerned about looking like a buffoon during this shadow campaign, thus damaging her credibility. Frank took all that, fashioned it into an extra sharp (pardon the pun) blade and delivered a blow straight to her back. In a roundabout way, maybe it was his attempt to cause her to turn traitor and get a new running mate. If that was his aim, it sure as hell worked. I cheered when she threw her weight behind Dunbar, and cheered louder when Remy Danton resigned in solidarity, leaving the Underwood administration looking useless — until the next episode, that is. But we'll get to that.
As fun as the debate episode was, the real meat of the plot was served up in "Chapter 38." Because this season, as we've been saying for weeks, is about marriage. But before we get there, was there anything else about "Chapter 37" that stuck out for you?
Bixby: There's no way we can ignore Claire's anemic confessional to her husband's seducer-slash-biographer in the Red Cross blood donation clinic. (God this show is fabulous.) Claire, who really should have been offered some juice or something, is donating blood, which weakens her steely resolve just enough for her to confess to Tom that she's considered jumping off of bridges, and that every seven years, she thinks about leaving her marriage. Frank "proposed and I said, 'Seven years. If it's still good, another seven. If not ...' Every seven years. I don't hate campaigning. What I hate is how much I need us." And then she passes out.
This is the most vulnerable and exposed we've ever seen Claire — and we've watched her cry in more stairwells than we care to remember. It has the potential to be devastating for Frank, but mostly, her confession is just depressing. The Underwood marriage is supposed to be a partnership of equals, but when the heat is on, Claire's ambitions and needs have taken a backseat to Frank's every time.
Claire is trotted onto the campaign trail to read children's books and flatter octogenarians and say "y'all" to ensure Frank's election, but her ambassadorship is bartered off without even consulting her. Claire, a rape survivor, torpedoed her own military sexual assault bill to persuade Jackie to pursue the impeachment proceedings that made Frank president. Claire even had an abortion during one of Frank's earlier campaigns, which is still causing her great personal grief. She can't even pick the color of her own hair.
The Underwoods have been married for 28 years, a number conspicuously divisible by seven. Just sayin'.
O'Keeffe: The way I see it, we're getting one of two resolutions to this year's story: The marriage will be renewed by a newfound, mutual respect to each other, or the marriage will dissolve. My chips are now on full-on divorce, especially after her confession to Yates and her harsh evaluation of the Underwood marriage at the end. "We've been lying for a long time, Francis," she says. "To each other." I think she feels it's time for the lies to end.
Speaking of things that needed to end: Goodbye, Yates! What a waste of time that plot turned out to be. He was a silly character — I'm not sure if anyone involved with the show could tell you if he was really trustworthy or not; loyal to Frank or not; in love with Frank or not; in love with Kate Baldwin or not. He knew what he was supposed to do with the book, and he saw how vengeful Frank had been. I don't think Yates brought anything to this season, and he took up the time we could have been spending with the far superior writer character (Baldwin). This was just such a lame ending, befitting the character.
That said, I would probably take 10 Yates scenes if I could never have to deal with Doug Stamper again. What did you think of how he made his way back into the Underwood fold?
Bixby: Strong disagreement with the Yates evaluation, and here's why: The first chapter of his now-canceled book about the Underwood marriage is probably going to tip the scales of the first couple's future. He's the first person to truly understand their union: "Here's a woman who describes her vows as a suicide flirting with a bridge's edge, and a man who wears his wedding ring as a badge of shame, for the debutante deserved more. But truly, what more could she desire? Together, they rule an empire without heirs. Legacy is their only child."
Even Claire seems blown away by the depth of Yates' insightfulness. "A cold fusion of two universal elements, identical in weight, equal in force," she reads in awe. "United they stand, a union like none other, the unsplittable atom of American politics."
That's pretty quality stuff! Granted, we had to wade through his tedious meditations on the Fourth of July to get there, but Yates has found the key to the most important relationship in America, describing its essence in a plainness that shocked even the members of the relationship itself. Claire now understands what her relationship looks like to outsiders — and how far from that image the truth of the Underwood marriage is.
I can understand why Frank fired him (a dishy meditation on the first couple isn't going to sell his jobs plan to Congress), but I also finally understand why his character exists. Side note: Secret Service agent Edward Meechum's (Nathan Darrow) epically sarcastic "Sorry about the book!" as he escorted Yates out was the highlight of the season. You catty bitch, Meechum!
Regarding Doug's return to Frank's good graces: Not to make all roads lead to Claire, but Doug's double-agent act with Dunbar seems to have been written to alienate Frank and Claire one last time. After the diary revealing Claire's abortion lie is destroyed, Doug is brought back in the fold and Dunbar is told to "fuck herself" from the Oval Office, Frank marches up the stairs to the White House residence to announce that everything is all better.
But Claire's not having it and has a full-on freakout in the middle of the kitchen. "Why didn't you ask me before you brought him back?" she demands. "We're discussing it now!" Frank says, echoing a million idiot men defending a million idiot decisions to a million pissed-off wives. "I'm starting to question all of it, Francis. What any of it is worth. What are we doing this for?"
Frank may have brought Doug back, but he's lost Claire.