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. (The whole series will appear here.)
Episode 2 (Chapter 54)
Like Frank’s face merging into Claire’s, this episode felt like House of Cards merging into its Netflix bretheren Black Mirror. The hour opened with digital image manipulation of unknown import and ended with a terror-causing cyber blackout; in between, we heard about revenge porn and a “slag heap,” saw gas masks and computer forensics teams, and felt Halloween fulfilling its traditional fiction-storytelling role of bolstering a spooky mood.
As always, Cards’s haziness on policy details grates a bit: What, exactly, does “declaration of war” mean when the supposed threat is internal? To the show’s credit, characters like Will Conway and Cathy Durant seem vexed by this question as well. And viewers do get some sense of the things Frank wants: borders closed, soldiers in the street (as they were in the episode’s final moments), and voting consolidated to “centers” that are more protectable and less accessible. On that last count, Cards is once again trying to be a funhouse mirror to the real world’s own issues—here, rather than urban minority populations being shut out by ballot-box measures, it’s exurban whites who vote Republican.
All of these plans are, as Durant says, “outrageous.” In her scene with lame-duck VP Donald Blythe, she seemed to do that rare thing for politicos on this show: consider her conscience. For now, she’s remaining a willing soldier, but it might be fun to see her eventually try to sell out Frank on moral grounds. Already, there’s a sense of karmic satisfaction in Jim Matthews—the veep lured to Pennsylvania’s governorship so as to clear the way for Frank’s ascent in Season 1—returning as a potential dealbreaker for the Underwoods.
The secondary male characters were also up to some strange, loyalty-bending behavior this episode. What’s Seth’s game? Does he really want to bring Doug down—they’ve had a long rivalry—or is his negotiation with congressional investigators a long con on the president’s behalf? In any case, his team’s leverage of revenge porn seems particularly despicable, even if the targeted staffer reacts with an equanimity typical of Cards characters when confronted with what other people might consider personal betrayals. Also baffling: Tom Yates, whose love scene with Claire edged very near to being a rape scene.
One long-buried sexual issue, though, is finally coming to the fore, with Frank’s college-years lover bringing him grief now. I was shocked that Claire seemed shocked to find out that there was something more than friendship between Frank and Tim—in a marriage this intimate and open, why would Frank keep that secret? The moment where he broke down during one of his evil monologues was telling: The man doesn’t let much get to him, but this issue obviously does. Which means if an enemy of his were to find out about it, there could be leverage to be had over him.
For now, Frank’s primary political nemesis, Conway, is preoccupied with pushing back on the White House’s rush to war. The impromptu speech he gave at the end of the episode seemed like perfectly pitched authenticity politics to me, but the way that the show framed it, with Frank and Claire smugly viewing from their quarters, suggested he’d erred. So did the fact that Conway was earlier seen trying to discourage public mentions of his military service. There’s some mystery going on with this guy, and we’ll surely find out what it is soon. After all, Frank’s got a fearsome, if nervous, hacker on his side.
Previously: Season 5, Episode 1
Next up: Season 5, Episode 3