President Frank Underwood's primetime announcement that he planned to dismantle the welfare state to finance his "America Works" jobs program made it crystal clear that "[the American people] are entitled to nothing." We are, however, entitled to watch first lady Claire Underwood get tipsy with the secretary of state playing beer pong in the White House. And that ain't bad.
The second and third episodes of House of Cards' third season continue the trend we first spotted in the premiere: Frank is still struggling with the Sisyphean task of winning back public (and private) support for his policy agenda, and Claire is still showing a level of political facility that makes her presidential husband look downright Carteresque by comparison. The Underwood marriage is a partnership of equals, united as much by their complimentary ability to further one another's goals as by love.
But how much does Claire really need Frank? Compare the relative success of the two Underwoods in their respective attempts to save their sinking political futures in "Chapter 28." Claire cold-calls senators to showcase her foreign policy bona fides and save her U.N. ambassador nomination, demonstrating the brilliant political mind we always knew she had. Meanwhile, Frank wages a lackluster charm offensive, promising contractors and billionaires tee times at Hilton Head in exchange for financial support for a presidential run.
Unfortunately for Frank, charm has always been Claire's domain — he does better with emotional manipulation and faked suicides. Claire's no-nonsense reaction to her prime antagonist's refusal to help her out tells you all you need to know: "He's a son of a bitch. Let's try Peterson next." Who in this marriage used to be the House majority whip, again?
At the culmination of their respective phone-a-thons, Claire is fresh from a reinvigorating run around the National Mall while Frank is weeping into a tantrum-spilled sandwich. The first lady's approach to the day reaches its, erm, climax, and she unbuckles Frank's pants with the same take-charge attitude she's been showing the U.S. Senate. It's the first time the Underwoods have been intimate onscreen in the history of the show — and it's about as epic as could be expected.
But did these episodes leave us satisfied? Or did we wake up the next day with a pounding hangover and a twinge of regret? Someone get us a raw egg and some tomato juice.
Kevin O'Keeffe: Scott, these episodes had everything I needed and more. Claire playing beer pong! Frank putting policy over campaigning! Pussy Riot! I was thoroughly entertained by both hours, which is much more than I could say about the premiere. Now I get why people have invested so much time and energy into watching House of Cards.
That's not to say everything about these episodes works, of course. I still zone out a bit any time Doug is onscreen — him feeling out of the loop and sad is maybe important from a character perspective, but I don't really have any emotional attachment to him. My connection to this show is through the marriage at its center.
"Chapter 28" managed to make a confirmation fight thrilling, which the producers of C-SPAN can probably tell you is no small feat. We talked a lot about The West Wing as a comparison point last episode, and I think the comparison applies here in a positive way. I recalled the best confirmation battles — thinking specifically of the Roberto Mendoza Supreme Court arc — when watching Claire try to get herself the votes for her U.N. ambassadorship. Surprisingly, it was equally thrilling to watch her fail, something that rarely happened on The West Wing.
Did you enjoy watching the Underwoods have to recalibrate a bit from failures? It seems like a different tone for this show to strike, no?
Scott Bixby: I'm mostly just delighted that Frank seems to have an adversary worthy of him in the form of Russian President Viktor (Skeletor?) Petrov, who loves surfing and forcefully making out with first ladies and hates gay people and being agreeable. In the first season, Frank functionally had no antagonist besides the general ineptitude of everyone around him; in the second season, billionaire Raymond Tusk was too easily manipulated and sidelined to be a true nemesis. Frank's bid to secure peace in the Middle East, however, has forced him to face off with a head of state as calculating and manipulative as himself.
In "Chapter 29," both Underwoods were tasked with pulling off delicate diplomatic dances, each with partners who weren't necessarily keen on letting the first couple lead. But while Frank's overtures fell on deaf Russian ears, Claire's deferential game of beer pong with Secretary of State Catherine Durant successfully lowered the skeptical secretary's guard enough for Claire to convince her to abandon Frank's Middle East plan. Claire's successes, however, seem to be coming at the expense of Frank's — if you've noticed, they're still not sleeping in the same bed, despite their down-and-dirty love session on Frank's rug.
Beyond our favorite first couple, what do you make of the other potential woman in Frank's life, House minority whip Jackie Sharp? She's doing a stellar job manipulating Chief of Staff Remy Danton into getting her onto the ticket with Frank come re-election.
O'Keefe: So glad you brought up Petrov, who is a delicious villain. It's interesting to hear you say you think the other villains have been lackluster on this show so far, since I haven't watched the previous seasons, but one criticism I did hear a lot previously was that the opposition (or lack thereof) to Frank was mostly characters sitting around, fretting that "he can't be stopped!" For him to have someone who can actually put him in a tight corner is compelling.
But maybe the true villain of the season — or, for our purposes, the hero — is Claire? You're right about their successes not exactly coming in sync with one another, and I'm wondering if she's not going to turn out to be his undoing by the end of this year. Now that Frank's declared to the American people that he won't run again, perhaps Claire will leapfrog right over him for the nomination? I would say that would seem like a stretch, but this is the show that rocketed a man from majority whip to president in two seasons. It's possible.
I am, admittedly, not that interested in Jackie Sharp, but give me time on that. I want to see where it goes. Maybe she'll be the next focal point after Claire and Doug? Or do you think we're destined for more Frank-heavy episodes moving forward?
Bixby: I like the idea of Sharp becoming a thorn in Frank's side — after all, he made her whip in the first place. What if the person who took him down was a monster of his own creation? She's smart, a military woman and has shown the poise that both Underwoods have been lacking lately (Frank screaming "Fucking try!" at the Democratic leadership, Claire dry-heaving after being appointed U.N. ambassador). But at the end of the day, the show is about Frank. Much of the anticipation leading up to this season was the desire to watch what happens when the most diabolically ambitious politician since Aaron Burr seizes all the power of the presidency. So far, the answer is: not too much.
Any final takes? I had such a strong reaction to Vice President Donald Blythe's embarrassingly formal toast at the state dinner — he's just such a nerd. He's the congressman that all the other congressmen gave noogies to. They'd steal his gavel and play keep-away in the congressional cloakroom while he'd laugh nervously and pretend he was in on the game, but he was never in on the game. On the flipside, Blythe is an amazing insurance policy for Underwood: No matter how much of an asshole he is, nobody is going to assassinate Frank Underwood when Donald Blythe is a heartbeat away from the presidency.
O'Keeffe: Totally agreed on Blythe. He's like an alternate take on Joe Biden: Instead of being a fool, the veep is a dork. But no one wants him in the top spot. Speaking of him and Sharp, though, it is interesting to me that a show that puts so much emphasis on diversity in high-powered positions (including potential presidential candidates like Sen. Hector Mendoza) still has two white men as first- and second-in-command. Sharp could be the antidote to that — even if I wish it were Claire serving that role instead.