'House of Cards' episodes 2 - 4 react: This Woman's Work

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Image Credit: Netflix

As always, this is SPOILER CENTRAL ZONE, so stop reading now if you haven’t watched the first four episodes of season 2. Many turned away from the premiere, which really felt more like a season finale, feeling as struck in the gut as hungry Zoe Barnes. Where could the season go after Frank had so violently declared his bottom?

Well, let’s take a break from Frank for a second. And from the shake-hands-stab-backs war over entitlements. And from that braying elephant of a man Tusk who suddenly is such a ubiquitous presence in the Oval Office. And most especially from Lucas and his flop sweat and tedious tumble down into the Deep Web. It was the women whose story lines ‒ for better or worse ‒ compelled me in this stretch of episodes. 

It turns out Claire was raped when she was a college freshman, and wouldn’t you know it, Frank has been tasked with pinning stars on her assailant, now a decorated Marine General. When the shameless bastard approached their table at the ceremony, he placed a sinister hand on Claire’s frozen shoulder. “Well, we dated for a time,” he informed Frank. “About five minutes.” Claire fled to the bathroom, with a genuinely concerned Frank on her heels. She told him McGinniss was the one, and Frank spun around in a bullish fit, smashing a lamp and bellowing that the man deserved to be taken out back and shot. It was ironic watching Frank seethe with such righteous fury. We’ve seen him get in the ring before when someone messed with his wife, but this was Frank raging against the indignity of an evil man being rewarded despite his unforgivable sins. Claire begged for him not to make a scene, but I wonder if there was a shadow of resentment that ran across her face when Frank stonily went through with his job of pinning stars on the General.

In bed that evening Claire described to her husband in ugly, disassociated detail her rape. “Every time I think of her pinned down like that I strangle her Francis, so she doesn’t strangle me. I have to, we have to. The alternative is, it’s unlivable. You’ll still feel the hate in the morning. You’ll use that but not on him.” It was a great speech but one that doesn’t quite track. Here is my great question of the show: That brutal night in college goes a long way to explain Claire’s dogged quest for control and power, but what exactly is Frank’s source of hate? Being passed over in season 1 for Secretary of State, yes. But beyond that, what fuels his unquenchable thirst? What is his unlivable alternative? If the idea is simply that power is a drug, and once you get a taste you want to guzzle, well that doesn’t go far enough to explain the utter blackness of Frank’s soul.

In episode 4, Claire was prepping with her new publicist, Mad Men Joan’s old dolt of a husband, for her first big live interview as Mrs. Vice President. I loved the shot of her closet, just a cold sea of black and tan. “Maybe something less neutral?” she wondered, holding up a chic and lifeless grey dress with black leather piping. They agreed on the only way to address the inevitable childlessness question: She and the Vice President made a choice that’s “allowed us to spend more time in the service of others.” Ha!

Since Frank was quarantined because of a poof of powder sugar, Claire had to solo navigate the interview. I’m a little struck by the fact that CNN reporter Ashleigh Banfield agreed to her script of questioning, which was astounding in its relentless sexism. Is their (read: her) childlessness a symptom of a toxic, calculated marriage? Is it a choice? (Read: Was she infertile?) Or were the rumors true that she may have once had an abortion? Has she ever been pregnant? “Yes, I was pregnant once, and yes, I had an abortion,” Claire said. (Frank watched the screen from his barricaded door with an expression of bewildered admiration, so curious was he to see what would next come out of his partner’s mouth.) Her apoplectic publicist whisked her off to the butler’s pantry where she refused to back down from her admission and mentioned that actually she’d had three abortions.

When the cameras went back on, Claire made the scene, albeit a canny and deliberate one, she begged Frank to resist. She announced that she’d had an abortion as a result of a sexual assault, and that her husband had pinned stars on the man just recently. It was a lie of course, but one could argue a lie on the side of right because soon another woman, this one a private in the Marines, called in to say she too had been raped by the General. “And he keeps rising in the ranks,” said the confused woman on air. “The system protects him. Nobody will do anything. It’s the chain of command.” (Sound familiar?) Frankly, I found the whole interview a little over-the-top and borderline ridiculous. But if we’re to believe Claire’s dad, making the world a better place comes at a price.

Meanwhile, new Majority Whip Jacqueline Sharp has emerged as one of the show’s few earthbound characters. I love the guilt she felt about using the dirt on her family friend but the upfront way she looked him in the eye as she presented her knife. And when that old coot got self-righteous with her about revealing his illegitimate daughter, she reminded the man that this was a girl he’d abandoned for her entire life, never even sharing a room with her, and that his concern was for himself alone. I loved too when Remy advised her to peddle some favors a la Frank when she was trying to turn votes and she ignored his advice, playing a shaming hardball instead. Maybe I could’ve done without the scene of her submitting her side to some painful tattoo work, her self-punishment for making some hard moral compromises. But this show is so thin with grounded characters that it feels like such a treat to actually like someone for a change. As opposed to that fat clown Howard Webb who delivered an amusing line in the second episode when trying to barter over appointments: “All you can offer me is ethics, which nobody wants.” Ugh, this wretched town.

Okay, back into the breach! Check back here next Monday (February 24) for some thoughts on episodes 5-8. And let me know in particular how you’re responding to our new Majority Whip, and how Claire’s interview resonated with you.

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