The finer points of trade negotiations with China don’t necessarily make for riveting television, but as always with House Of Cards, the substance of whatever political issue may be on the table is immaterial. The question, always, is “How will Frank Underwood twist the machinations over this matter to his advantage?” Every piece of legislation introduced on the show might as well be called the MacGuffin Bill, which is fine. I don’t think anyone should be getting their political education from a show in which the vice president pushes a woman into the path of a speeding subway train.

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All that really matters is this: Raymond Tusk has the president’s ear and Frank doesn’t like it. Since Tusk is working on a lucrative co-venture with the Chinese, he doesn’t want to ruffle any feathers. And since ruffling feathers is what Frank does best, he sets about sabotaging the talks by convincing Secretary Durant to put the issue of cyber-terrorism on the table. The potential for sparking an international incident doesn’t faze Frank at all because the ends always justify the means. He has no political convictions beyond “How does this benefit Frank Underwood?”, which is one of the main things that limits him as a character, entertaining as he often is.

“Chapter 15” features an awful lot of talk about these trade negotiations, which is easy enough to zone out on when you’re binge-watching. In considering the episode on its individual merits, however, all the chatter on this topic becomes something of a drag, particularly in an hour that’s predominantly concerned with setting up storylines for the rest of the season. The other major piece of gamesmanship concerns the electing of Frank’s successor as congressional whip, and House Of Cards doesn’t waste any time in letting us know that, despite her modest demeanor in the season premiere, Jackie Sharp is just as ambitious and ruthless as most of the characters on this show. Her path to power entails throwing her mentor, Senator Ted Havenmeyer, to the wolves over an illegitimate child he fathered years earlier. Jackie barely hesitates, despite the fact that she’s also exposing Havenmeyer’s daughter, who she ostensibly cares for, to a media circus.

“Chapter 15” also introduces the revelation that Claire had been raped in college, a bit of backstory that’s used not so much to illuminate her character (although Robin Wright does a fine job of integrating a little fragility into Claire’s usual stoic demeanor) as to launch another season-long storyline. Her attacker is a general who Frank is forced to decorate mere minutes after learning of the military man’s assault on his wife. (For his part, General McGinnis notes that he and Claire dated in college “for about five minutes,” a slick little piece of self-deception.) Frank wants to come out swinging but the cooler-headed Claire prevails, setting up a more long-term scheme that will also happen to make them look good in the public eye.

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That is, unless Lucas Goodwin has anything to say about things. In a clever piece of plotting, Frank unwittingly provides Goodwin with the tools to take him down, as his negotiation ploy with the Chinese prompts the Washington Herald editor to look into the cyber-terrorism issue. Goodwin learns of the Deep Web, with its secret forums devoted to child porn, contract murder, and good old-fashioned phone record hacking. But Goodwin is such a feeble adversary, his efforts are barely underway before the FBI (and by extension, Doug) is all over him. At least this storyline is good for some laughs, as Goodwin’s hacker contact, Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) is basically a supervillain straight out of a Brosnan-era James Bond movie.

“Chapter 16” is the topical government shutdown episode, through which we can experience recent events as they might have unfolded in an alternate universe where Joe Biden is the most diabolical man on earth. This plays out as complete fantasy, such that it’s hard to cherry-pick the most absurd element. Sure, the idea that raising the retirement age to 68 could be proposed (by a Democrat, mind you) the day before the State of the Union address and pass the Senate in time for the president’s speech is bananas. But I’d have to go with the image of Majority Leader Hector Mendoza (The Shield’s Benito Martinez) being carried into the Senate chambers in handcuffs. Why hasn’t Harry Reid ever thought of this?

I appreciate all of this business because it’s refreshing to see House Of Cards shed any pretense that it’s a serious political drama. With its power-hungry cast of characters eternally jockeying for position, it’s almost Game Of Thrones without the dragons. (There’s got to be a Game Of Cards mashup out there somewhere, right?) The less danger of people taking it seriously, the better.

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Stray observations:

  • “Chapter 16” introduces the most pivotal character of season two. Of course I refer to Gavin Orsay’s pet guinea pig Cashew. Or is Orsay the pet and Cashew the master? Deep in our hearts, I think we all know the answer.
  • Of all the inconveniences that come with retrofitting the Underwood manse, surely the loss of Frank’s Xbox wi-fi connection stings the most. Then again, we wouldn’t want Cashew hacking into his God Of War game.
  • Jackie Sharp on her betrayal: “I hate myself for it. But I’ll get over that.” She’s learned from the best!
  • Speaking of whom, the prize-winning goofy scene of the season so far has to be Jackie sneaking out in a hoodie to get her tattoo worked on. Is this supposed to be scandalous in 2014?

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