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 12 (Chapter 64)
Are we watching Frank’s dream? Or did he really push Cathy Durant down the stairs, and did Claire really poison Tom Yates, and did they both coerce Doug into copping to murder over dinner, and did Frank really go full monologist in front of the Senate Judiciary committee before announcing his resignation? Cards is hyperreality, of course, but much of this hour felt like a power fantasy unfurling in the head of the embattled commander-in-chief. And the filmmakerly execution here (episode director: Robin Wright) gave each Shocking Development a hint of surrealism.
The opening sequence of Frank nudging Cathy down an East Wing staircase was clearly meant to be a cackle-worthy ambush à la the murder of Zoe Barnes. It didn’t quite achieve that for me—Frank hammily telegraphed his intentions (“you need to take a fall”), Cathy is by now more sympathetic than Zoe was, and there was something odd about the look of the scene. The landing didn’t seem that far down; how could Frank be so sure Cathy’d be out of commission after a short tumble? And what happens when she wakes up?
The murder of Yates was entirely different: slow, emotional, soap-operatic, demented. The Underwoods took his manuscript as a threat, and indeed it seems this spurned lover is blackmailing them for money. The kitchen conversation between him and Claire at Usher’s house (ahem, the House of Usher) made clear how much he knows, how much she misses him, and that this isn’t going to end well for one of them. Their final sex scene radiated ominousness—I feared she was going to thrust him into the fireplace—but also tragic tenderness. Among the things the famed pillowtalker Yates groaned was, “You are radiant, Claire. And good. So good.” Claire replied that she’s not good, and soon after, he took his last gasp with her shuddering on top of him. Claire’s weapon? Jane’s Chinese herbal remedy, lethally dosed in his whiskey.
Doug’s metaphorical demise was just as wrenching. All season long, it’s been hinted that he would have to take a fall on the Underwoods’ behalf. Now, that need is spelled out over dinner with his bosses, framed explicitly as a final test of his loyalty. He’s down to take the hit, and his confession to LeAnn made it seemed like guilt about Rachel is why. What’s more, it turns out he’s been the one sending birthday cards to Hammerschmidt—and while the initial leaked info may have been true, it built the trust so as to later plant disinformation. But: The distorted phone call to Hammerschmidt asserting that Doug killed Zoe came before the Underwoods’ dinner talk. Did Doug already plan to take the blame? Or are there two leakers? Is one Frank?
By the end of the wheeling and dealing and perjuring of this episode, most all of the pressing threats for the Underwoods have been neatly addressed. Zoe’s death, and presumably Rachel’s if need be, will be pinned on Doug. The false arrest of Kalabi has been made to seem true with fake news about explosive dust. Election-day tampering and social-media manipulation has been sold as Aidan’s rogue behavior. Anthony Moretti’s liver is a non-issue to his widow and will not be pursued by Seth thanks to Frank’s intimidation. Anything else that arises can perhaps be tamped down with the dirt Usher has on Romero’s college sex crime.
Why, then, did Frank own up to pay-for-play and then announce his resignation? The machinations of this decision haven’t been spelled out, but they’re surely part of a deal that Frank struck with Jane by the White House utility stairs. He steps down, Claire becomes president, pardons him, and he gets … what? Earlier in the episode, Jane mentioned an aspect of politics this show has ignored lately—“the Koch brother types, Wall Street, oil and gas”—as having shunned Frank. Money has never been his motivator, but perhaps with her and the private sector’s support he can accomplish in America exactly what Jane wants in Syria: an entirely new government.
To hear the showrunners tell it, this was the first episode filmed after Election Day, and the parallels here with Donald Trump’s rhetoric—and the common rhetoric about him—were especially pronounced. In the committee scene, Frank bragged that he’s taken advantage of a corrupt system, told the audience that the nation needs a strong man making decisions, mentioned that he never apologizes, and declared “the Age of Reason is over.” Earlier, from Hammerschmidt: “He has no ideology. No North Star. Isn’t that the scariest thing of all?” Cards seems to be asking to be taken as a work of punditry once again—or at least, as relevant speculation about what might happen once the truth has lost its hold, and winning has become all that matters.
Previously: Season 5, Episode 11
Next Up: Season 5, Episode 13
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