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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

House Of Cards: “Chapter 3”

Illustration for article titled House Of Cards: “Chapter 3”
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In which Frank visits his hometown to stave off a potentially devastating lawsuit, Claire seeks to hire a key member of The CWI, and Zoe’s profile starts to rise to national levels.

House Of Cards is a show about key figures in Washington D.C. at cross-purposes, each trying to carve out his or her piece of the overall pie. There are large stakes at play, but there are a myriad of smaller steps that need to happen in order to make the bigger ones possible. If, as it is often said, all politics is local, then it was a smart move for the show to remove Frank Underwood from the primary source of nominal power and put him back in his hometown. It’s all fine and dandy to see what happens in the halls of Congress. But it’s often far more fascinating to see how those actions trickle down into the lives of ordinary citizens. Frank may hate this “small-ball crap,” but it does wonders for the episode as a whole.

The town of Gaffney, South Carolina doesn’t give much of a shit about the “historic” education bill that Underwood is helping towards the desk of President Garrett Walker. That’s not to say that they are anti-education. They just don’t have the luxury of thinking beyond the borders of their own town after the death of a teenage girl. Underwood is neck-deep in negotiations with various teachers’ unions when Stamper alerts him to the accident. It turns out that she was texting her boyfriend while driving about an illuminated water tower in the shape of a peach, lost control of her car, and tumbled into a ditch. Local county administrator Orrin Chase, a long-time opponent of Underwood’s for the congressional seat, is using the accident to smear Underwood. After all, Underwood fought to not only keep the Peachoid safe from demolition, but supported the peach farmers’ union in keeping it illuminated in the first place.

In some ways, this is the same Frank that we’ve seen in the first two hours. He’s charming, brilliant, and utterly full of bullshit at every turn. It’s impressive to see him juggle the Gaffney business in between conference calls with an ever-frantic group of lobbyists, union officials, and political associates. But what really lifts this episode above the first two hours are the surroundings in which Frank finds himself. Simply moving the action to a more familiar setting doesn’t change the overall tenor of the show, but grounds things enough to give them added weight. The facts and figures about charter schools and performance standards are confusing as hell, but they are also designed to be white noise. They are not the drivers of drama in this hour. By contrasting the legalese of the education bill with the all-too-real grief of Jessica Masters’ parents, House Of Cards finally achieves a decent balance between the pursuit of power and the human costs of that pursuit.

Frank himself doesn’t particularly exhibit much in the way of real emotion about the case itself. He understands the rhythms and motivations of this town due to his upbringing combined with twenty-plus years of service as congressman. But he’s still not especially invested in Gaffney. He can deal with its local politicians in a way that makes them feel as equals, and he can raise the roof of the local church with impassioned words about grief and suffering. But his fourth-wall breaking asides confirm that he doesn’t actually feel much of anything while down there. That’s well within what we understand about Frank at this point. (He’s a man who can quote Proverbs from memory, but only the parts that can score him political points.) But it’s too bad that we saw his efficiency but little in the way of compassion when removed from Washington and plunked down amongst those that vote him in every two years.

If Frank didn’t express much in the way of empathy towards the Gaffney population, he at least expresses some warmth and compassion towards his wife Claire. The two don’t share a scene together tonight, but their phone call just before bed might have been their best moment of the series thus far. Hanging over all of Frank’s efforts in Gaffney is the one thing not outright articulated in tonight’s episode: he and Claire do not have children of their own. No one in Gaffney brings up this point while he tries to articulate his grief to Jessica’s parents. But the fact that Frank and Claire only have each other, on some level, weighs heavily over the entire hour.


The tulips that Claire planted in the home the two use to establish residency underlines the absence of any offspring. Couple that with repeated scenes of Claire inside a graveyard, and House of Cards quickly sketches out a scenario in which Claire feels somewhere at the midpoint between youthful optimism and elderly regret. The woman who yells at her for running through the graveyard is slightly anvilicious, in terms of underlining this theme, but it’s another in a series of isolated odd moments that attempt to pass judgment on the lives of those in the show. Nothing yet has been as obvious as the crow that appeared at a key moment in The Sopranos, but the wounded dog, the crazy homeless man, and now the woman in the graveyard all start to feel like accumulating pieces offering up something akin to a Greek chorus. We have yet to understand the language, but these signposts feel as if they are talking all the same.

Aside from her musings on mortality, Claire joins Frank, Zoe, and even Christina Gallagher in trying to achieve smaller goals in order to pave the way for larger ones. Claire finally meets with Gillian Cole, the woman that she fired half of her staff in order to employ. Cole has a nasty cold throughout the hour, a symptom of her healthcare-less lifestyle. (Apparently, building wells in Africa doesn’t come with an HMO plan.) More pressing is the fact that Cole doesn’t trust Claire at the outset, feeling her potential boss to be more interested in the illusion of work rather than the implementation of it. But Claire offers up a solid sales pitch, one that actually demonstrates her intelligence as opposed to mere position within the Washington elite. Robin Wright is an intelligent actress, but much of what we knew about Claire through the first two hours was based on what we were told about her, not what we as the audience actually saw of her.


Zoe, however, still feels important because the show needs her to be, rather than because she is. It’s always a tricky thing to portray a character that is extremely funny, smart, or scary, because it necessitates the show actually being able to create the conditions under which such a character could exist. House of Cards wants us to believe that Zoe Barnes can rise like a phoenix within the ranks of her newspaper, get tons of national exposure, and earn the blind love of the newspaper’s owner within the space of a few months. And maybe she’s indeed worthy of all that adulation. But all we see is someone that’s already dangerously close to sexting with her source in order to get her latest scoop. There’s no reason Zoe can’t be both conniving and brilliant, both sexy and naïve, both ready for anything and yet impossibly over her head. But if this episode showed us anything, it’s that the devil’s in the details. Maybe it’s creating a scholarship in a girl’s memory to assuage a father’s grief. Maybe it’s doing background research to assuage a promising environmentalist she won’t lose her life’s work. The Zoe storyline needs details like this for us to believe she’s as central as the show needs her to be.

Way over in this episode’s D plot, Christina wants Peter Russo’s blessing to leave her position as his assistant in order to make their relationship public. It’s largely a bridge plot in order to get us to a point where she almost inevitably regrets not taking the new job. But there’s still a lot of great character work here, and it’s work that can only happen because the stakes are life-sized at this level. That’s something true about all the storylines tonight, in fact. The size of the show is simply too big once it gets into Congress, The White House, or any another building of such import. But in Gaffney, in Gillian’s apartment, and in Peter Russo’s bathroom, things on House Of Cards suddenly have room to breathe. Getting this education bill through Congress might be historically important, but what history will soon forget might have even greater weight and meaning. This week’s episode traversed in those soon-to-be-forgotten tales, even if the impact of them will be felt for the rest of this series.


Stray observations:

  • The comments below are designed for viewers who have seen through this third episode. If you want to talk about the series as a whole, go here. There will be a review of the full series in the near future, which Todd VanDerWerff will write. The plan is to keep doing these episodic reviews once a week for thirteen weeks. Hopefully, this covers most, if not all, of the viewing habits that this new model of distribution has engendered.
  • Yes, the Peachoid is real, and really in Gaffney, South Carolina.
  • Ed Meechum, who provides security for Frank during his trip to Gaffney, reeks of “this dude will probably be really important by episode nine,” doesn’t he?
  • This is the first episode not directed by David Fincher, and nothing particularly stood out as extremely different, either from a visual perspective or in terms of character continuity. I wasn’t really scanning for differences, but the fact that nothing really jumped out seems promising all the same.
  • Any Fringe fans get a little misty upon seeing white tulips?