It’s sort of like the Chekhov’s gun TV trope: If there’s a picture of a political figure’s illegitimate child in the first act, you better believe it’s going to be used as blackmail in the third.
That’s exactly what happens in Season 2, Episode 2 of “House of Cards.” Not only does newly-installed vice president Frank Underwood continue his reign of Southern charm-tinged terror, but he encourages others to do the same. By the end, his new protégé, Rep. Jackie Sharp, is blackmailing a man who has been like a father to her, while also potentially damaging a family caring for a young woman with cerebral palsy.
Frank could not be more proud.
Frank needs a pick-me-up, because in the beginning of the episode, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow makes a cameo as herself, scoffing at Frank Underwood as the new vice president. Maddow calls him “not the most inspiring choice” and “nothing more than a placeholder until 2016.” Ouch! Frank is probably the most hurt by her saying that he has “no real ‘wow’ factor.” If only she knew what he does to people who attempt to cross him. (RIP Zoe Barnes.)
Even as he angrily turns off the TV, Frank can’t sulk for too long, because there’s a swearing-in ceremony about to take place downstairs in his home. It’s a disaster zone with a team of annoyingly loud construction workers frantically trying to get all security measures in place, given that Frank refused to move out of his house. There are cameras, secured Internet settings and bodyguards at every turn. How is he supposed to carry out pure evil with so many people watching?
Because he’s Frank Underwood, he likely has a plan; he always has multiple sinister plots in motion on at once. There were so many in this episode, it’s best to break them down.
1) The race for replacement majority whip
In episode 1, Frank made it clear that he wanted Jackie Sharp to take his place. As usual, he made the plan 100 times more complicated than necessary. It involved getting two senior members of Congress (Wes Buchwalter and Howard Webb) to throw their hats in the ring and have an old-fashioned election. Of course, all of their sniping at each other will result in mutually-assured destruction; meanwhile Jackie, an inexperienced but promising young congresswoman, can swoop in and steal all the votes.
Jackie just has to secure funds, which she does thanks to what seems like a lovely friendship with congressional colleague Ted Havemeyer, a wealthy family friend. They also bonded years ago because Ted has a secret child (by his family’s former nanny), a daughter named Emily with cerebral palsy. He’s never met her, but sends money for medical bills, and sends Jackie to visit in his place. When Jackie drops hints that she would like to run for whip, Ted nearly falls over himself offering support and lots of money to help.
Unfortunately, Buchwalter and Webb stop bickering long enough to team up – one of them will drop out of the race, and then support the other. This is a problem, so Jackie has to make sure Buchwalter drops out – though the only way he’ll do that is if Jackie guarantees him some favors, including obliterating the career of his political nemesis, her good buddy Ted Havemeyer. Jackie hesitates, as Ted is practically family. She visits Frank to ask advice, and he basically laughs in her face that she would think twice about ruining a good friend’s life. Um, hello, she’s furthering her career!
Embarrassed by her own lack of ruthlessness, Jackie visits Ted and tells him she’s spilling the story about his secret daughter. She kindly lets him know a day in advance, so he can alert his wife that their lives are about to be ruined. Ted is furious about what this will do to his family; Jackie declines to care. “I hate myself for it,” she says. “But I’ll get over that.” And Jackie is officially on the dark side.
2) That whole China storyline
Sometimes, it seems like Frank concocts plans to destroy everything just to see if he can. He finds out from Christina (Rep. Russo’s former lover/staffer, who now has a plum new gig at the White House) that Raymond Tusk has a secret meeting with the president. Remember Tusk? He’s the billionaire businessman who’s also the president’s BFF and unofficial adviser, who convinced him to install Frank as VP. But Frank doesn’t trust him, so he grabs Secretary of State Catherine Durant (the woman he made sure became secretary last season) and they crash Tusk’s White House meeting.
Tusk is obviously annoyed with the interruption. In the meeting, Tusk discusses trade issues with China, when Durant brings up that she really wants to push the issue of cybersecurity with Chinese leaders. Tusk balks, but Durant insists it’s important, and Frank takes her side … oh sorry, we almost dozed off just typing this paragraph. The story drags on, but the whole point is that Frank proves he can manipulate literally everyone. He convinces Durant to bring up cybersecurity to Chinese leaders in a meeting, even though they become angry; he convinces the president to stand strong on the message, even though a furious Tusk thinks he should apologize to China.
In a shocker, the president goes against Tusk’s wishes and gives a defiant speech telling Chinese leaders that they need to have meaningful dialogue about preventing cyberattacks against America. Tusk calls Frank and essentially asks, “Were you guys talking about me behind my back?” Tusk can’t believe that the president would ignore his advice — especially because everyone knows the president would never, ever think for himself. It’s all very high school. Frank wants to prove he’s POTUS’s new BFF, and he can take away Tusk’s power…just because.
3) Zoe’s murder
Though Frank casually tossed Zoe into the path of an oncoming train, he has washed his hands of the incident. The only one who cares is her devastated boyfriend Lucas, who instead of sleeping and showering, is obsessed with finding the truth. He pleads with a detective to get access to Zoe’s phone records, and the police refuse to take him seriously. Yes, a reporter about to uncover a major political scandal is dead, there’s no reason she would purposefully hurl herself on train tracks – but the police see nothing suspicious. A detective shows Lucas the gruesome frame-by-frame footage of Zoe’s fall. A sketchy-looking man with a silly hat and glasses is nowhere in sight (Frank’s disguise worked!), so they have no leads. Case closed. See you never again, Lucas.
People at the Washington Herald notice that Lucas is distracted, leading to this hilarious criticism from his boss, who notes Lucas hasn’t changed clothes in awhile: “Appearances matter. We can’t have an editor looking more disheveled than his reporters.” (Remember Zoe’s hoodie-filled wardrobe last year? The “House of Cards” team does not think much of journalist fashion sense.) Later, Lucas has a beer-soaked reunion and shares his thoughts with Tom Hammerschmidt, the former Herald executive editor who was fired after that confrontation with Zoe last season. (He offered her the White House beat; she declined. He called her a four-letter word; she tweeted it to the world.) Tom gently tells Lucas that his conspiracy theory about the VP killing Zoe sounds nuts.
Lucas is still determined. One of his reporters covering the China cybersecurity episode makes an offhand mention to the “deep web” part of the Internet, which is filled with shady characters and secret hackers. Soon, Lucas is deep into the deep web, asking around about how exactly someone could hack phone records. Uh oh…
4) Claire’s devastating backstory
It’s the only time in the episode when Frank nearly gets physically violent, but it’s also the most human he seems all season. During Frank’s first fancy political function as VP, where he has to pin medals on two newly-commissioned Marine generals, Claire freezes when she sees one of the honorees. His name is Dalton McGinnis, and he mentions to Frank that he and Claire “dated” in college. The truth is much darker: He sexually assaulted Claire when she was a freshman.
Still visibly haunted to see her attacker, Claire rushes to the bathroom. When Frank follows her and she reveals that McGinnis is the man who assaulted her in college, Frank’s livid, and looks like he’s about attack. Claire pleads with him not to make a scene. Therefore, Frank has to pin a medal on the “hero” McGinnis; after a tense moment when he gives him the most terrifying stare dead in the eye, Frank is forced to do nothing.
Later at home, Claire goes into devastating detail about what McGinnis did. Frank seems enraged by it all. Claire tells her husband to channel his rage elsewhere.
“You’ll still feel the hate in the morning,” she says. “You’ll use that. But not on him.”
(Note: We know not everyone likes “House of Cards,” but in D.C., it seems like you have to at least pretend. So here are…)
Three Things to Say in Conversation to Make It Seem Like You Actually Watched This Episode:
How many more episodes until Jackie turns against Frank?
So, Lucas is definitely going to end up in jail, right?
Definitely not surprised that Frank started smoking again.