Whoa. Whoa! And in the middle of the season premiere no less. There were many great moments in the House of Cards season 2 opener — some funny, some creepy, many nasty — but all of them pale next to the Cathedral Station shocker. [SPOILERS AHEAD!]
It took me two viewings of the premiere to grasp the insidiousness of the conversation between Claire and Francis in bed, the episode’s pivotal exchange. ”You haven’t said a word,” Claire said. “No,” said Frank. “Where does that leave us?” she wondered. “I’m fully prepared and I have been for some time,” he answered. “I know you’ll do whatever you think is best,” she said approvingly, before leaning over to rest her chilly face on her husband’s cold heart. It was a great scene with very little said. They could have been talking about any banal subject a married couple debates before lights out: switching cable providers, telling the neighbor his bamboo was encroaching on their property. Anything! But before we descend into the Metro bowels with Francis and Zoe, let’s back up to the beginning.
No time had passed since we left Francis and Claire. The episode began with them running in the night, a nice metaphor for their relentless plunge into darkness. Loyal, grateful Meechum, Underwood’s deadly labrador of a driver, waited back at his post bothering Doug, who was anxious to tell Underwood that the Slugline reporters were on his scent. Meacham got the boss man silver cufflinks for his birthday, but he was feeling sheepish about the gesture. “We don’t do birthdays and we don’t do gifts,” said Doug. “You should return the cufflinks.” I love Doug, which probably makes me a sicko.
Claire was in full spider mode from the get, coolly manipulative and controlling of every situation. So much of the character’s menace comes from simple moments, like when Robin Wright slowly rotates her wrist or flicks her fingers dismissively. As the vice president’s wife, she was going to be calling some shots around here. No more smoking for these power birds at the window, for one. “You’re another year older on Tuesday,” she sing-songed to Francis with pride, if not affection, in her voice. “And we can’t have a vice president who smokes.” And she was sick of letting her former colleague Gillian have one over on her. We knew she would make the woman pay for confiding in her about the affair that got her pregnant. And sure enough Claire tipped off the aggrieved Mrs. Applebaum who accosted Gillian outside her apartment and ripped her a new one.
Claire still seemed intrigued by the possibility of motherhood. Hats off to the costume designer who swathed Wright in that tight criss-cross cage of a white blouse, rendering her the least open, maternal woman ever. Claire went to the OB/GYN to check into her post-40 fertility, and while there snuck in a question about a drug she knew Gillian was taking for her own high-risk pregnancy. Later Gillian confronted her at their old office, demanding a reason why her medical insurance had been unjustly terminated. Claire forged some papers you see, and Gillian is welcome to take it up with her at a civil trial that will take six months to happen. In the meantime Gillian will be denied coverage for the drug she needs. And oh yes, did she enjoy her visit with Mrs. Applebaum?
“I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside of you if that’s what’s required,” purred Claire. “Neither of us wants that. Now tell me, am I really the sort of enemy you want to make?” In the finale Gillian had positioned herself as a formidable opponent, fueled by a sense of righteous humanity. But Claire had her beat, and it was clear that Gillian would take the dirty deal of the proffered Clean Water Institute. I do believe that Claire went to the doctor in good faith, and that motherhood was still on the table for her. I also believe that when she realized just how very low she was willing to go, she closed that door once and for all on the possibility. Perhaps her one loving act of the night was canceling that appointment and sparing a child she and Francis as parents. Or am I reading this whole thing wrong and she only ever went to the doctor as a means-to-an-end ruse?
Meanwhile Underwood was sick of Zoe gnashing at his heels. Thanks to poor Russo’s old girlfriend Christina scoring a good seat at the West Wing conference table, he was steps ahead of his onetime liaison. But a meeting at Rock Creek Park had left him frustrated, so intent was Zoe on pestering him about his relationship with Russo. In another great scene, Francis went back to his happy place at Freddy’s for some particularly delicious ribs. Turned out Freddy tried a new butcher, but he wasn’t sure he was going to go back because of his inhumane (and illegal) practice of slow bleeding his hogs. “The humane way to do it is make it quick,” said Freddy. “Bring out a bucket of slop like it’s feeding time and…BAM!” he barked—Kevin Spacey really gives good startled face, so disconcerting to see alarm momentarily transform his features—pounding the table, “shovel right to the base of the head. No screaming.”
And wasn’t Zoe a pig drawn to slop. (Forgive me my inelegance.) From her very first scene, as she willed Lucas behind her to finish up already, she seemed underwhelmed with being on the side of right. “This is safe, Zoe, I’m not him,” a clueless Lucas assured her as she prepared to rinse him off of her. The way she looked at him before letting the shower curtain drop, with such boredom and dispassion, was cutting. In the park she seemed swayed by Francis’ seduction: “I’m about to be confirmed the Vice President, and our relationship extends to the Oval Office now,” he promised. “Don’t step out of the sunlight for no reason.”
When she met Underwood underground, a tryst she didn’t share with Skorsky or Lucas, she seemed desperate to put all this mess behind them. She deleted the text messages, and the incriminating (?) contact information. But she just wanted the answer to one nagging thing: What gives with Russo being found in the passenger seat? (I always did wonder how meticulous Francis would have let that one pass him by.) And Rachel the call girl, why did she just suddenly disappear? “I want to believe in you, Francis,” she said, stepping into his curtain of darkness behind the wall, as the howling of an approaching train neared. And with that, he took her by the shoulders and gave her a firm shove into the tracks. BAM! Good thing he was wearing his fedora and the collar of his jacket was upturned. Otherwise someone might have recognized the incumbent VP at the scene of a reporter’s grisly accident… Home Francis went to his wife and the most chilling, sterile birthday cake ever. Out he snuffed the one candle and it was like their peculiar version of a vow renewal.
In the end, a freaked-out Skorsky fled town to Ithaca, Francis tapped a thoroughly intriguing young military veteran Jackie for his replacement, and Doug very aggressively, somewhat protectively convinced Rachel that she needed to get while the getting was good. And just when you thought Francis talking directly to us the viewers was a thing of season 1, he gave us a big smirking hello in the final scene. “Did you think I’d forgotten you?” he said. “Perhaps you’d hoped I had… Welcome back.” And with that the camera zeroed in on Meechum’s gift to his boss, a pair of cufflinks bearing the letters FU. But the great FU had come earlier, when the show made the ballsy, almost sudsy move of killing off a main character with a shove we never saw coming.
Well, bingers, let’s get to it. Check back here on Monday for my thoughts on episodes 2-4. And then the following Monday where I’ll try to digest another big gulp, and then so on and so on. And let’s all collectively decide on a more warmhearted show that will be our chaser after this nasty binge.