As in previous years, I’m binge-reviewing the latest season of Netflix’s House of Cards, the TV show that helped popularize the idea of “binge watching” when it premiered in 2013. Don’t read farther than you’ve watched.
Episode 10 (Chapter 49)
“I don’t use national-security matters for political purposes,” Frank says to the press scrum, and viewers are supposed to snort. He has of course used national-security matters for political purposes time and again, and is now doing it more drastically than ever by modulating his decision-making on ICO and wiretapping the American public in pursuit of votes. House of Cards is in large part about how for the Underwoods and for many of their peers, there is nothing that can’t be brought into the political arena. Perhaps that’s because nothing really exists outside of the political arena anyways. Even death.
Claire resists her mother’s request for assisted suicide, at first. But then Elizabeth argues that her death will help Claire politically. On one level: Wow, that’s messed up. On another, it’s a touching indication of Elizabeth wanting to reconcile and help her daughter after so many decades of clashing with her. On another, it’s a demonstration of Claire’s moral lineage—no wonder she is the way she is. And on yet another, it’s simply a statement of the obvious. Elizabeth dying was going to matter to the election regardless of whether she and Claire acknowledged that fact. The issue was simply how much of an effect it would have, which in turn was an issue of timing. Elizabeth certainly would have applauded as Claire (with Tom’s help) then fabricated an entire deathbed conversation for a national audience the next day.
Watching Elizabeth go was wrenching, in part because it happened at the hand of her daughter and in part because Ellen Burstyn had done such an incredible job conveying the lifetime of sadness and struggle that had preceded that moment. Of course, Cards will allow no moment of genuine human feeling to go by without profaning it somehow, and so Claire and Tom then abscond upstairs to have sex. Or maybe seeing this as profane is too square: A yearning for love has been reawakened in Claire, no doubt, and Frank certainly isn’t going to fulfill it.
It’s fitting that the Underwoods would realize their insane dream of running together only by taking advantage of death. Death has long been a weapon in their arsenal, and Frank accessed that fact in this episode in a way that we hadn’t seen before: by alluding to his murderous past as an intimidation tactic. Yes, he immediately said he was just joking about Lucas’s accusations being true, but everything else about his Oval Office interaction with Cathy—the letter opener, the blithe statement that he would have killed people had it been necessary—amounted to a death threat. She fell in line. Permanently? Unclear. The move he just pulled was very risky.
Death also suffused the other plot lines this hour. Hammerschmidt is pulling at threads that could reveal Frank’s killings. Stamper is struggling with the thwarting of his once-unquestioned control of Underwood’s underlings, with even his violence against Seth not being enough to hold him in line. That stress combined with the guilt of having cost an innocent man a liver has gotten to him, to the point where he made the seemingly ill-advised move to donate to the dead man’s family without hiding his name. The questions that action could bring about may not take down Frank—he wasn’t in on breaking organ-transplant rules, obviously—but they could bring down Stamper.
Read the review of the next episode.