I do love Netflix’s method of releasing all the episodes of their original series at once, but it does result in the dilemma each evening of whether or not to watch one more chapter, when really it is time to go to bed. So far, my wife and I are two-for-two on opting to view an extra installment of the second season of House of Cards, so below are reviews of episodes 4 to 6 (my thoughts on 1-3 can be found here; 7-8 here, 9-10 here and 11-13 here ) and to avoid spoilers look away now, (you can safely ready episode 4 without anything from being 5/6 being mentioned and so forth). Otherwise, come closer to the door so you can talk to your spouse through a walkie-talkie…
After getting an appropriations bill through the Senate in the previous installment, Vice President Underwood now finds himself back involved in his old job of Democratic Whip, as he attempts to assist his successor, Jacqueline Sharp, to get the House to pass it and ensure there is no government shutdown. Unfortunately for Francis, this means he has to try to convince Congressman Donald Blythe – whom he screwed over in the first season by shredding his education bill – not to vote against the special amendment, with Blythe holding a lot of power as he has a block of 28 Representatives who intend to vote with him. Before the meeting, which Frank manages to hold in his old office to give himself as much home field advantage as possible, he turns to the audience and tells us that with time he has always been able to convince Blythe, but on this occasion he only has 2 hours and 17 minutes before the bill is taken to the floor of the House. With Underwood, when circumstances turn in his favor it tends to be with the guiding hand of Doug Stamper, but on this occasion it is seems to be good fortune that allows him more time trying to convince Donald to change his mind as a staffer in the Whip’s office opens an envelope and is covered in white powder, forcing a shutdown of the Capitol (due to a potential terrorist threat rather than an economic one) while men in HazMat suits investigate the substance.
I would not be at all surprised if it is later revealed that it was the Vice President who orchestrated that chain of events in order to win himself more time with the vote – after all, he does turn to the camera and tells us that “good things happen to good people”, but the delay also means that he will not be able to appear alongside Claire on a television interview they are set to record that evening. With Frank in quarantine, his wife prepares for the inevitable question of why they did not have any children, preparing with her communications guy, Connor, a rote answer that she has given many times before. At the start of the interview – which ends up being only with Claire and broadcast live to due Francis’ delay – Claire shows her prowess in how she deals with a range of questions about her childhood to whether or not the Vice President had been primarily interested in her for her father’s money, which helped him win his first campaign. The interviewer – CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield, who follows Rachel Maddow as the latest journalist to make an appearance as themselves on House of Cards – asks for Claire’s most vivid memory from her childhood in Texas and she recounts a time when her father took her to Dealey Plaza to show her where President Kennedy had been assassinated, then told her that “he made the world a better a place and sometimes that comes at a price”. It was a really poignant memory that seemed so personal and important to Mrs. Underwood, I could not help but think it was also completely fictitious.
Claire is forced to alter the truth once more when Ashleigh will not accept her standard answer to the question about why they did not have any children and she brings up a rumor that had surfaced during one of the campaigns that Mrs. Underwood had an abortion, though we learned in the finale of the first season that she has in fact had three during her life. When asked directly if she has terminated a pregnancy, Claire recognizes the delicacy of the issue, but does say that she has before asking for a break, which allows her to consider her options and she decides to not only talk about having been raped – stating that was when she had the abortion – but also naming her attacker as General Dalton McGinnis. While the VP’s wife is putting herself in a position where it could be her word against a General’s, during another intermission the network receives a call from a Private who had also been assaulted by McGinnis and Claire convinces her to tell her story so that others will be protected. The corroborating evidence also ensures that the big headline from the interview will no longer be the abortion, but sexual assault by a commissioned General. A big problem for Claire will now be keeping her own truth about the timeline of events and the number of terminations she has had a secret, something that she needs help with from Connor, played by the guy who raped his own wife, Joan Harris, in Mad Men.
Back in the Whip’s office, Francis had shifted from a campaign of calling Donald Blythe “no better than the Tea Party” for his unwillingness to even negotiate, to sympathizing with the Congressman over his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and at times does not remember him after thirty years of marriage. Underwood being Underwood, it is of course all a tactic to try to get Blythe to forget his convictions and vote for the appropriations bill, in exchange for one that provides more funding for research into Alzheimer’s, but when Donald figures out that it is just a ploy, he gets angry with the Vice President and refuses to talk to him any more. However, after watching Claire’s interview he hands Frank a drink and tells him that his wife is a brave woman, a compliment that Underwood reciprocates, before rushing home as the all-clear has been given since the substance was just talcum powder and wheat (again, the fact that the wheat gave a false positive suggests whoever sent it knew what they were doing and how to provide the longest possible delay, so it appears to have Francis’ fingerprints on it). The final moments of the episode provide a nice moment of intimacy between Claire and Frank as they share a cigarette – a real one he had hidden under the lamp – and, at her request, he sings to her, though the choice of song is not quite so sweet: the ballad of Pretty Polly, about a young girl who is murdered and buried in a shallow grave.
Elsewhere in the episode, Jacqueline Sharp proves herself more than capable of whipping up the votes for the bill without her predecessor’s help, as she both uses and then ignores advice from Remy, Tusk’s lobbyist, to convince some of her party to change their mind and support the super amendment, before guilting Blythe into getting four of his bloc to change their votes to avoid the looming shutdown. Also, Lucas Goodwin continues his search into the Deep Web as he attempts to uncover Zoe Barnes’ phone records to prove a relationship with the Vice President that could implicate him in her death. Goodwin goes to the lair of a hacker, Gavin, who appears to be a James Bond style villain with his multi-screen setup and habit of stroking a pet while he talks (though in his case it is a guinea pig, not a cat). Instead, we discover that Lucas is being set up as a law enforcement agent meets with Gavin and discusses how they will get him arrested on cyberterrorism charges, with the hacker providing assistance as he attempts to avoid jail time for his own crimes. Finally, my favorite part of the episode was the exchange at the very beginning between Francis and the returning Remy, as they exchange quotes at each other impressing Underwood as he says “you know your Churchill”. The lobbyist tells the Vice President that in fact it was inscribed on a watch that he given him, but Frank assures him that he would have had no knowledge of that, since Nancy – his assistant – handles all of the gifts.
This installment opens with a guy in the midst of an asphyxiation sex act with a couple, who are doing things to him while he has a plastic bag over his head and his hands are tied up – so just your usual slow beginning to an episode. We later find out that the man, who was clearly never warned as a child about the dangers of putting carrier bags over your head, is Mr. Xander Feng, a billionaire from China with whom the President’s confidant, Raymond Tusk, has business dealings and who is in the country to do back-channel negotiations with Francis Underwood. The talks take place in Spotsylvania, Virginia, where Francis is helping commemorate the 150th anniversary of a Civil War battle that took place there (between May 8th-21st 1864) with a group who are doing an re-enactment of the skirmish. Mr. Feng tells the Vice President that contrary to the explicit message that China’s government would send, they did not want the United States to withdraw the lawsuit that accuses them of being a currency manipulator with the World Trade Organization and doing so would end their investment in a bridge project over the Long Island Sound.
With the President considering the infrastructure project a priority-one issue, Underwood sees an opportunity to counteract the power that Tusk has with his boss, so lies about what Feng has said. Since the official stance of the Chinese is that the currency manipulation suit should be dropped, Underwood can pretend that in the clandestine meetings Feng made this his primary request, which infuriates the businessman who reaches out to Tusk in an attempt to get the decision reversed as a free-floating currency would benefit both billionaires financially. With the talks breaking down, President Walker gets frustrated at both Raymond and Francis, telling both of them to not get back in contact with Mr. Feng. Instead Underwood sends Doug Stamper to see him instead. Feng makes Don Draper’s favorite drink, an Old Fashioned – with super expensive Macallan whiskey from the 1920s – and uses it to tempt Doug, who is a recovering alcoholic, and calls him nothing more than an errand boy. Under the pretense of seeing exactly where his great-great-great-grandfather had died during the Civil War, Underwood arranges one more meeting with Feng, but what the businessman from China does not realize though is that his threats about not investing in the bridge were hollow to the Vice President, since he was more interested in destroying the relationship Tusk has with the President and really has no interest in the infrastructure project. The plan appears to have worked since the President tells Francis and Raymond he blames both of them for the breakdown of the negotiations and hangs up, which Tusk notes is the first time he has ever done that to him in the whole time the two have known each other.
Also in this episode, Gavin the hacker gives Lucas the card he will need to insert into a server in order to hack Zoe and Francis’ phone records and when the journalist attempts to do exactly that, the man giving him the tour of the facility unveils his FBI badge and puts the journalist in bracelets, nullifying yet another threat to Underwood, who is informed of the victory while still down in Spotsylvania. Meanwhile, Claire is using the waves she made with her interview to address the issues of sexual assault in the military, gaining the backing and support of the First Lady in the process, which helps her be taken more seriously by the Officers. However, there is also a man – Seth Grayson – digging into her past and he goes to visit the widow of Dr. Marbury, the man who had performed one of the abortions for Claire, under the pretense that he is from Planned Parenthood and they are planning on naming a fund after the deceased doctor. When his questions become directly about Mrs. Underwood, Mrs. Marbury realizes Grayson is not who he claims to be, but he then declares that he works for Claire and he is doing this at her behest, taking a journal that the doctor had kept that detailed the procedure.
Finally, the re-enactment guy who is playing the role of Augustus Underwood does a Daniel Day-Lewis and is completely method for the whole weekend – as he says the entire troop are – acting as if he really is the Confederate soldier and not even clapping when the Vice President – whom Augustus should think of as an impostor, since Hannibal Hamlin was VP in 1864 – says “God Bless the United States of America”.
Now that Raymond Tusk no longer has the ear of the President, he is forced to turn to Francis in an attempt to get his interests put forward. The country is dealing with an energy crisis since China has stopped providing samarium to the US as a result in the breakdown of the negotiations in the previous episode. While Tusk is on the outside looking in, the Vice President’s opinion still counts, since the idea he floats of obtaining the element from other sources and then selling to the nuclear energy companies at a huge discount is considered as a viable option by the President. With a refinery deal in China at stake for Tusk, he sends his lobbyist – and Frank’s former Chief of Staff – Remy, to see Underwood and tell him that he does not want to be buying subsidized samarium from the US government. However, Francis has no concerns about the refinery and wants to send a message to Tusk that his stubbornness is more costly than obedience; control, as ever, is at the forefront of the Vice President’s thoughts and he believes he can get the billionaire in line.
It becomes and all-out war as Frank pushes the President to threaten that they will bring an anti-trust energy amendment to Congress to break the power that companies like those owned by Tusk have and also a FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) investigation into his dealings. While this crisis is going on, the Vice President has two other pressing matters to which he needs to attend: Lucas Goodwin has enlisted the help of his former editor at the Washington Herald, Tom Hammerschmidt, to investigate the story surrounding Zoe’s death and his subsequent arrest; and Francis is also slated to throw the first pitch at an Orioles game. In order to nullify Tom’s threat – which Doug admits he can no longer help with – Underwood meets with him personally and even though Hammerschmidt asks all the right questions (did you kill Zoe Barnes and Peter Russo? Where is Rachel Posner?) he does not manage to rattle the Vice President. A visit from some FBI officers to Janine Skorsky ensures that there is nothing in the way of corroboration to Lucas’ story and ultimately, Tom’s story makes the journalist seem paranoid and crazy, making him lament to Janine that Underwood is going to be able to get away with what they both are sure he did.
The other issue becomes a bigger deal for Francis, as he attempts to prepare to throw the first pitch at Camden Yards by tossing the ball to Meechum in his back yard at a distance that is only half of that from mound to plate. He recounts a story about throwing the ceremonial first pitch at a Greenville Drive – the South Carolina based Single A affiliate of the Red Sox – game where the ball slipped out of his hand and ended up hitting him on the head. You would think that starting a sport event by making a simple throw would not be something to stress over, but such matters, especially in the age of YouTube, become hugely important from a PR perspective. A couple of months after the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11th, 2001, President George W. Bush walked out wearing a kevlar vest under his jacket to throw the first pitch of World Series game at Yankee Stadium and was urged by Derek Jeter that he had to do so from the mound, nothing shorter. Whether you were a fan of his or not – and I am very much in the latter camp – the fact that President Bush threw a strike under those conditions was probably the single most impressive part of his entire eight years in office. As for Underwood, he makes his way to the mound after complaining about the Kevlar, then has he enters his windup, the entire stadium and city of Baltimore is hit by a blackout, no doubt orchestrated by the vindictive Raymond Tusk.
With the hostilities shifting to all-out war mode, Tusk advises that the stress on his other nuclear power plants because of the blackout means he will need to take them offline for unscheduled maintenance, resulting in more power cuts in the south of the country. To respond, the Vice President suggests that the President could issue an executive order to take control of the plants and that threat results in another meeting at Freddy’s BBQ between Francis and Raymond. Underwood tells Tusk that this mutually beneficial relationship they had agreed upon was not actually providing him with any rewards and if he wants to avoid losing money from his power plants being taken over, or facing the FERC investigation, he will need to call Linda – the President’s Chief of Staff – and advise her that he now accepts the subsidized samarium.
Away from the energy criss, Claire is plotting to unnerve the First Lady, as she not so subtly tells her about Christina’s relationship with Peter Russo and not trusting people who sleep with their bosses. She then has Christina talk to the President’s wife about how grateful she is to them both and how she would do anything, anything, for them. Meanwhile, Seth Grayson brings the journal he acquired from Dr. Marbury’s widow to Claire and tells her that he wants to be her Communications Director, with the evidence he had acquired acting as his resume. The Underwoods now need to find a way to keep both Seth and Connor happy in line, as both of them know the truth about Claire’s medical history and could cause them issues.
Also in this episode, Remy and Congresswoman Sharp meet for a drink and end up sleeping together, but as we know when politicians and lobbyists get into bed together, the real people who get screwed are the American people. A couple of other points: the scene in Camden Yards was so clearly green screened – perhaps the only way they could have a full stadium without the Yankees playing there; Doug goes to visit Rachel and she calls him out for wanting to sleep with her, and it seems like that relationship is going to take a different turn; and I loved it when Raymond Tusk goes into the BBQ joint and says he will take an iced tea if they have any, which Freddy says they do not while sipping on what looks suspiciously like an iced tea.
For other House of Cards posts – reviews are up for Episodes 1-3 here, 7-8 here; and Season 1 here. If you enjoyed this post, please like Political Footballs on Facebook by clicking here and follow on Twitter @politicalftball