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 3 (Chapter 55)
Double Indemnity, a tale of romantic collusion and transportation-related murder, is obviously a fitting film for Claire and Frank to watch each election day. The ritual in the White House movie theater was a nice invention from the show’s writers: It gave us the rare chance to see the Underwoods fighting real nervousness, and it filled in a little more of their backstory with the mention of their first kiss. But the most telling moment was when Frank sternly corrected Claire for saying they were together no matter what. Losing the White House is simply not to be contemplated. Also implied: Their marriage would not survive a fall from power. It’s not built for that.
Something has felt a little strained about this season, especially in this episode. It might be the subtle stylistic and instinctual changes brought about by new showrunners. Time and again, the cuts between scenes felt clunkier, more jarring than what we’ve come to expect from this handsome show. More importantly, the plot is being built on the unstable foundation of unresolved questions. Why is Doug drinking again—is it just that he failed one mission, and that the Underwoods might fail too? What exactly does low turnout mean—why does it seem Frank and Claire believe they’ve lost when they were told that both their voters and Conway’s didn’t show up as expected? Are we supposed to guess that this is somehow tied to Conway’s shadowy deal with the search engine Pollyhop?
And most naggingly, what’s up with Conway’s military service? This question is an explicit one the show is asking, but it’s trying to wring more suspense and more narrative grist from it than perhaps is advisable. Either Conway has made up parts of the story of him saving a life, or he’s suffering from true and harrowing PTSD, or both. But there are only so many times we can have Frank or one of his underlings or a member of the public wondering aloud about the issue. Placing so much emphasis on this mystery meant the episode, clearly positioned as a tense set-up before the election results are revealed, felt listless and circular rather than riveting.
Cards does still excel at clever and novel political set-pieces. Conway’s gimmick of a 24-hour livecast with voters is a good one—as before, he seems like the kind of savvy, telegenic candidate we should have more of in the real world but actually don’t. His and Hannah’s relationship here also provided a marked contrast to the show’s current White House occupants, with the Conways’ tale of first meeting having more of a Camelot air than the Underwoods could ever hope to project. And Frank calling in to Conway on-air made for a nice and risky public confrontation, even if it didn’t really release any new plot information.
I was also struck by the scene in which Frank, sleepless, goes to sit next to the bed where Claire is lying with Tom. Now that’s marital intimacy of the likes rarely seen on TV. “This is our house, we are not leaving,” Frank says in the episode’s final moments—an ominous note for American democracy, for sure, but also an observation of how they really have, in their unsettling way, made the White House a home.