House of Cards Season 4, Episode 2: The Live-Binge Review

A betrayal at the State of the Union


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 2 (Chapter 41)

“He is a classless, graceless, shameless barbarian,” Elizabeth Hale tells her lunching ladies at the episode’s start, and Frank goes on to prove her characterization right by screwing his wife over in the most public forum possible: the State of the Union address. Of course, Claire is savvy and self-possessed enough to do the PR-correct thing and join in the standing ovation when Frank announces that Doris Jones’s daughter will run for the seat that Claire wanted. The quiet brutality with which Frank sold out his wife’s ambitions is typical for him, and the fact that Jones back-channeled with him after Claire’s overtures is yet another reminder from Cards that politics is a 3D chessboard. The real question of this episode, the real intrigue that’s developing, is how Claire will get even.

In the post-State of the Union scene between the Underwoods, Claire appears to consider capitulation. But as is often the case with her character, it’s what’s between her words and under them that might matter more. When Frank tells her that he will not allow her to become dangerous, it seems to trigger something in her face. She looks him up and down. He starts to pour himself a drink—and she asks for one too. In the next scene, the first fourth-wall-breaking speech of the season, Frank recalls the story of using an axe to get his childhood neighbor out of a tree. It’s a fable not unlike the one that started this show, when he strangled a dog: another reminder that he’ll do anything, even kill, to achieve his goal. When Claire takes his drink, is she also considering taking his modus operandi? Might the dream he had of her gouging out his eyes be a premonition? Could the consultant she’s hiring help her run for president after she makes sure that her husband’s no longer fit for it?

Certainly we’ve seen that she’s willing to punish her loved ones to get what she wants. How great was Burstyn in the scene when Claire threatened to sell her house from under her? “I am the mother,” she rasped, wig-off. “I AM THE MOTHER.” It reminded me of the times that Frank’s tried to play the authority card against Claire, ordering her to come to heel because he’s the president. We’ve seen how that worked out for him; we can imagine how it’ll work out for her.

In other developments: We’re reminded of Frank’s barbarism on another level in his dealings with Russia, whose asylum seeker he’s more than willing to send back to murderous president Petrov. But Petrov, we’ve seen before, is an even more purely malevolent force than President Underwood, unapologetically authoritarian with a frightening paranoia streak. Frank may have to go to war with him eventually, if he can survive till then.

Read the review of the next episode.