NOTE: Consider this a general spoiler warning for ALL of House of Cards from Season 1 up until Season 2 Episode 5. Also I’m not sure if I’m going to keep each episode as a separate review or just one big thing, some episodes flow better than others.
"Chapter 17" Directed By James Foley Written By Laura Eason
Nothing can stop Frank Underwood on his march to power! Except for, a potential terrorist attack on the capital via the mail. The o’ll white powder in the mail trick.
Episode 5 tries to become a deadline plot: the vote is in less than 3 hours and Frank is stuck in a room with Donald Blythe (the guy he screwed out of the education bill last season). This is the kind of plot scenario that should feel tense, even without the plot device keeping them in a room together. And yet, it doesn’t feel tense at all, there is no feeling of weakness of need on Franks part. All he ever needed to win over Donald Blythe was time and patience’s, neither of which he has in this situation.
Still the 12 Angry Men scenario is kind of fun to see Frank’s reputation for being an inherently dishonest and manipulative individual foil any attempts to complement Blythe. Donald starts to open up about his wife’s losing battle with Alzheimer’s only to instantly shut down once he realizes this is the kind of situation Frank would exploit to get him and his caucus of Democrats to vote yes on the entitlements package and stave off a government shutdown. Blythe is right after all, Frank is an inherently deceitful and manipulative person who was planning to offer him more Alzheimer funding for a yes vote.
“Chapter 17” is interesting for the things that happen outside of the capital. Claire’s interview with Ashleigh Banfield was fantastic. This series may not have a clear plan for the arch of Claire Underwood but man is it just really nice to watch Robin Wright act, she’s really the series secret weapon. Watching good people acting that’s a good way to describe what House of Cards is.
Her admitting that she was raped and had an abortion was a classic part of mixing truth with a lie. Yes, she was raped by General McGinnis. Yes, she not only had an abortion but 3! They’re going to stick to only the one. But no the assault by McGinnis did not cause one of her pregnancies, creating the lie. This is the kind can of worms that’ll surely explode in their faces. Claire skillfully tries to deflect some of the damage she’s about to due to her husband’s political career by saying as much. Claire’s follow up phone call with another one of General McGinnis’ victims was a nice touch.
This show isn’t very human. It isn’t warm, it’s cold, calculated, and collaborated. The Underwoods are put atop a pedestal of super villainy for no other reason than they are the protagonists in this story. If this were about something else they would not be able to get away with so much. There are still little moments of humanity that weaken the sheer unlike ability of them.
After a hard day work, the Underwoods celebrate with their Now Voyager smoking session. And Frank sings to his wife “Pretty Polly”. A song that starts off kind of warm and typical but soon reveals it’s murder ballad roots. Spacey kills this moment but if you actually listen to the lyrics, it isn’t a song I’d want to be sung to me. Then again “Pretty Polly” defiantly seems like a song the Underwoods would enjoy.
"Chapter 18" Directed By John Coles Written By Kenneth Lin
If anything, “Chapter 18” has an excellent opening sequence. In one scenario an Asian man is having him some BDSM play with a patented Carradine special and in the other, the Civil War is happening. Striking imagery indeed, but like the BDSM the Civil War is just play as well.
Putting Frank on the road has generally meant good things for House of Cards. In season 1 it gave us the Peachoid episode “Chapter 3” and "Chapter 8" in which Frank returned to his old school and got drunk with old friends. That episode is still the oddest and most well done of this series. “Chapter 18” gives Frank some family ties and more moment’s humanity but work also follows him to Spotsylvania.
Frank back channeling with Mr. Freng, the man who was tied earlier, just felt dramatically dead. It is entirely predicated on President Walker, who is a non character, trusting Frank Underwood (the folly of all these characters) and not trusting his old friend and confidant Raymond Tusk. It just doesn’t make sense how Frank Underwood can manipulate and ingratiate himself with people so easily. In the original House of Cardsseries, Francis Urquhart is an old boy who no one suspects is so devilishly ambitious and clever enough to pull it off all the way. His road to the Prime Minister’s office was paved by death, one that seemed to surprise even him, but it was mostly about letting his enemies destroy themselves without a hint of him even being involved. In the Netflix edition, Frank is all over the damn place shutting his enemies down and always at the center of everything making everyone look so colossally stupid that they could not connect that dots that Frank Underwood is the thing that connects EVERYTHING.
Frank sabotages the back channels with Mr. Feng, partly to see how real his power is and also to sow descent in the ranks. Bickering like a child with Raymond Tusk for Daddy President Walker’s love and attention. Making Raymond Tusk more of a presence this season dose give Frank someone that feels like a worthy opponent or at least one with a face, but it once again falls on how poorly Walker has been characterized. Why does he do what Frank wants him to do and pull out of the talks? Because Frank messed the whole thing up and left him no choice. It still comes off as an occurrence that only happens due to plot necessity than a character making a choice.
Frank getting to “meet” his Great-Great-Great Grandfather was an interesting sub plot. When the actor first came up I was expecting him to be an assassin (because it’s all about Frank). No instead it gives Frank another place to back channel with Mr. Feng and a new tie to his past. Little moments of humanity, is what this show is trying going for to make Frank not totally callus and unlikeable. His burying the class wing at the site was a major move. He has defined himself by his experiences at that school and to give up such a reminder is a big deal. The significance of which I don’t fully comprehend, for me it feels like a half measured or hollow gesture of humanity by Frank.
On the hacker front, a plot I have not mentioned up until now, well we all knew how that was going to end didn’t we? For Frank and his protectors are all powerful and can see danger coming from a mile away. Lucas was never really that great a character to begin with and taking him out kills the remainder of the journalist hunting Frank down plot. On one hand it kind of sucks that generally nice guy is trapped by such evil but that’s House of Cards.
“Chapter 18” isn’t one of the great episodes of House of Cards, where it stands, it functions more like a table setting episode.