We’re at the midpoint of this second House Of Cards season, and Chapters 19 and 20 are primarily concerned with moving plot pieces into place for the stretch run. It is here that the Netflix model really pays dividends over the traditional week-to-week television schedule. For binge-watchers, it’s easy enough to plow through all the talky scenes of men in suits hashing out their wonky plans to solve a looming energy crisis in the most expedient way possible in order to get to the good stuff. But neither “Chapter 19” or “Chapter 20” has enough going for it to stand on its own as a compelling hour of television. They’re both pieces of the bigger puzzle, but hardly the most interesting ones.
Most of “Chapter 19” is concerned with the spike in energy costs due to the fact that China controls 95 percent of the world’s samarium supply. Frank is less concerned with the rising temperatures than his fear that Tusk will use the situation to worm his way back into the president’s good graces. Frank keeps coming with creative and probably unconstitutional ways of wresting control of the nuclear power plants from Tusk and his lobby, and Tusk fights back in more direct fashion by killing the power grid just as Frank is about to throw the first pitch at an Orioles game. (It’s just as well, as the baseball scenes are so unconvincing, it appears the O’s are playing the Red Sox at Green Screen Stadium.)
Elsewhere in the episode, loose ends are tied off as Lucas Goodwin learns his fellow journalists aren’t prepared to go down with him, even if they believe his supposedly crazy stories about the vice president being a murderer. Tom Hammerschmidt can’t unearth any evidence to back up Goodwin’s claims, mainly because Doug still has Rachel under wraps (although not as tightly as he’d like), and Skorsky is intimidated enough by an FBI visit to leave Goodwin hanging high and dry. (And as she quite rightly points out, he did do the crime of which he’s accused, even if he was manipulated to do so.)
Aside from the wrangling over nuclear power, it’s Rachel’s story that takes center stage in “Chapter 19.” She’s one of the few characters on the show deserving of a little of our sympathy, but by that same token, it’s hard to buy that such an obvious loose end would be allowed to linger in the world established by the series. This episode makes that a little more understandable, as the generally emotionless Doug reveals some vulnerability toward her, which she is all too willing to throw back in his face given his micromanaging of her life (including her budding relationship with new friend Lisa from the Fellowship). The last scene between Rachel and Doug is more emotionally complicated than usual for this show, and stands out in what is otherwise a generally ho-hum episode.
Raymond Tusk goes on the offensive in the marginally more compelling “Chapter 20,” funnelling campaign contributions previously earmarked for Democratic candidates to the Republicans through a casino owned by Daniel Lanigan (Gil Birmingman). The bulk of the money is coming from the Chinese businessman Feng (whose name is either pronounced “Fang” or “Fung,” depending on whether Frank or Tusk is saying it), so Doug flies to Beijing in an attempt to redirect the funds back to the Dems. The “power vs. money” theme isn’t subtle here: Seth spells it out in his face-to-face with Frank, and Frank basically calls a meeting with Lanigan just to make sure we didn’t miss it. Still, the thing most lacking in this second season so far is a worthy adversary for Frank, so it’s encouraging to see Tusk finally taking off the gloves.
Speaking of which, Frank pulls off another deft rope-a-dope, first by challenging President Walker to keep using him as his punching bag, then by presenting the prez with an actual punching bag as a gift. Frank seizes on the thaw in tensions, worming his way back into Walker’s confidence and stoking suspicion of double-dealing on Tusk’s part. The scene with Frank and Walker sitting in a quiet White House hallway trying to summon the spirit of Truman is a rare, effective example of Frank applying a lighter touch than usual. Later, at the dinner catered by Freddy, Claire proves again to be a valuable wingman, working the first lady while Frank uses whiskey and his Civil War model to sway the president.
So the two episodes are not without their highlights, but taken together they’re far too static, featuring way too much obvious backroom wrangling amounting to little more than stalling for time. The drama may be about to heat up, but here it’s barely simmering.
- Freddy gets his own storyline! The press gets wind that his veep has a thing for his ribs, and before long he has a licensing deal for a potential Freddy’s franchise. This being House Of Cards, I’m certain everything is going to work out fine.
- Other minor developments: Remy and Jackie get between the sheets for some intimate lobbying. Seth pushes Connor out the door, making him believe it was his idea. Cashew status: unknown.