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 7 (Chapter 59)
A dirty-bomb scare and a military coup—excitement! Well, sort of. Episodes like this validate the common criticism that Cards should lean into its soapiness and inject more kinetic energy, rather than aim mainly for slick dread with occasional winks at the camera. The slow and stately paranoia of this hour did make thematic sense, though. First, the bunkered Underwoods were facing the prospect of horrifying, ironic comeuppance: the administration who cried wolf finally spotting a wolf capable of killing millions. Then they realized the situation was itself a cry-wolf conspiracy from military leaders trying to undermine the Underwoods.
That some generals would secretly support their commander-in-chief’s rival—not Conway but Brockhart—brings back into focus the season’s larger narrative, which has seemed obscured in the past few episodes. Frank and Clare are actively working to undermine the Constitution. Historically, around the world, militaries have often intervened in politics to check the rise of would-be dictators (and generated a few of their own in the process). As far as false-flag schemes go, this bloodless attempt to create an “October surprise” in January is actually a lot less insidious than what Frank and Claire pulled on election day.
Still, the storytelling here—as has often been the case this season—kept viewers a bit baffled. Everyone seemed to take for granted that evacuating D.C. would spell certain death for the Underwood campaign, but given Frank and Claire’s previous insight that panic only draws more people to their side, what exactly makes this situation different? Why does Frank care so much about the Ahmadi strike during the dirty-bomb crisis? What exactly triggered his revelation about the military conspiracy—just hearing Brockhart say he’d support insubordination?
Another question a lot of viewers were probably asking: Which of these suddenly central characters—Jane Davis, Nora Cafferty, Max Braegher, Vanessa Morrison—have we met before? Davis in particular stands out as a new and strange addition: a soft-spokenly neurotic deputy undersecretary for commerce in the State Department who has secret sway with terrorist organizations. Are we meant to suspect her as a spy? Or as a symbol of the shadowy industrial-military global network?
Bookending the bunker drama was political push-and-pull between Frank and Claire. In their living-quarters spat, Frank acted openly contemptuous, seeming aghast when Claire mentioned having given Usher her “word.” The Underwoods routinely break their promises, so what’s gotten into Claire? On the flip side, Frank’s objection to Usher’s Supreme Court pick seemed uncharacteristically abstract, based on some symbolic notion of dominance and on a feeling. (When he pointed to his temple, did anyone else think it might have been more health-related foreshadowing?) Neither party seems to be totally practicing the realpolitik they so often preach, even though Frank gave a satisfying morsel of that preaching when he said, “You and I both know something the rest of the world refuses to acknowledge: There is no justice, only conquest.”
By the end of the episode, the Underwoods were more at peace, having neutralized the mutinous Braegher. We even got rare feminist musings from Claire, which were met by her husband saying he’s obviously all for women in combat. He ultimately conceded to her that they need to bargain with Usher, with whom they agreed that (as Hammerschmidt explained on CNN) the presidency shall be decided by Ohio voters. The odds of success in such a head-to-head popularity contest weren’t looking great for Frank, but he clearly believes the tape of Brockhart saying that soldiers sometimes should disobey their leader will change voters’ minds. Usher’s reaction when he heard the tape suggests he could be right.
Previously: Season 5, Episode 6
Next Up: Season 5, Episode 8