[Editor’s Note: These reviews are written without knowledge of what’s to come, meaning, the author has not seen past the episode he’s writing about.]
Did you hear that rap? Much like when “Arrested Development” got the stair car to introduce its distributor before Season 4, “House of Cards” has incorporated its own spin to the Netflix logo, adding Frank’s trademark knuckle rap to kick off each episode. Cute easter eggs aside, “Chapter 27” began with the newly inaugurated President making a ceremonial trip to his father’s gravestone. Why? To piss on it — literally.
After Frank’s tribute to his not-so-dear-Dad, we take a trip back in time with — surprise! — Doug Stamper, alive and not-so-well after last being seen face down in a ditch due to a brain-whacking by Rachel. Turns out he survived the brutal blows and has gone through a lengthy rehab regiment to make his way back to Frank’s side…only to find out Frank isn’t as eager to have him back. Despite his the oh-so-meaningful flowers placed beside his hospital bed and the apartment cleaning waiting for him at home, President Underwood doesn’t tolerate weakness even in someone he calls his friend. Still hobbling and with a newly-fractured forearm — duct tape and a wooden spoon do not a cast make — Doug is a little too fragile to be handling the day-to-day grind of an Underwood presidency (as proven by his devastating hop off the wagon via pain pills, whiskey and a call girl), even if Underwood’s job title is on the ropes.
Through a series of negative news reports, as well as a cringe-worthy appearance on “The Colbert Report,” we discover Frank’s first few weeks in office haven’t gone according to plan. Congress won’t send him anything he can sign into law, and his advisors don’t think his bills can get through either the Senate or the House. President Underwood’s approval numbers are so low, he even doubts whether he can get his more-than-qualified wife a position as Ambassador to the U.N. “Chapter 27” comes to a close with President and First Lady hand-in-hand resolving to do just that, even if one of them is a little more wary than the other.
The David Fincher Shot
David Fincher’s involvement in “House of Cards” is, at this point, almost purely ornamental. He’s still listed as an executive producer, but he’s not spending every day on the set or working with creator Beau Willimon to break stories, let alone frame shots. Yet his direction of the first two episodes oh so long ago set the tone for the series, as pilot directors often do, and everyone who follows would be remiss if they did not try to pay him due homage. Thus we’ll be on the lookout for that subtle nod to Fincher’s trademarks, be it the rare-but-illuminating close-up, carefully captured moments of heavy exposition or simply a well-framed wide shot.
For “Chapter 27,” though, the nod was more of a shout, at least for Fincher fans. Director John David Coles (“Bates Motel,” “Sex and the City”) worked for his tribute. After all, it’s not the most common thing to clean a friend’s apartment or stock his refrigerator during a hospital stay. But that’s exactly what Frank did for Doug, leading to the Fincher-esque shot from within the ‘fridge. Fans should be as pleased as Doug was with that one.
Breaking the Fourth Wall:
Perhaps the most obvious and hotly-contested trademark of “House of Cards” is Frank’s none-too-subtle acknowledgements of the audience watching at home. He loves speaking directly to the camera, as if we the viewer are right there with him in the White House, but it’s often more fun when he gives us just a look or an eye roll. Not all of these moments work, as some add context (read: exposition) already understood from the scene preceding Frank’s narration, or disrupt the rhythms of the episode. So each episode, we’ll grade his digressions either relevant or irrelevant, starting right now.
“Chapter 27” featured both the good and the bad, with Frank not wasting much time before clueing us in to his inner monologue while taking a leak on
his father’s gravestone the gravestone he purchased for his father. That break didn’t sit quite right, as it wasn’t as clear as most of his other moments of reflection, but we’ll talk more about that scene soon. Instead, let’s take a second to appreciate the best use of the technique: when Frank explained his choice for Vice President. “Yes, I made Donald my Vice President. I’d rather have him be a pain in my ass here than over in Congress, and even the Republicans couldn’t refuse a man who just buried his wife. Terrible how quickly Marjorie went.” Combined with the smoothly sly camera movement revealing his choice, Frank’s explanation was necessary considering how low on the totem poll Donald seemed last season. Funny, sharp, and relevant — which is the label earned by this episode overall, as well.
Binge and You’ll Miss It
“House of Cards” is obviously a show custom-made for binge-viewing, but speeding through 13 hours of quality television doesn’t always pay off. Sometimes you need to take a step back and appreciate some of the subtleties of what you’ve just seen instead of aimlessly clicking “next” on the remote (which is really what these episode reviews are all about).
In “Chapter 27,” it seems important not to overlook Hector Mendoza. As the Senate Majority Leader, he told Claire (without telling Claire) that he plans to run for President in 2016, so his amiable actions in regard to her U.N. appointment likely aren’t a sign of weakness. He’s likely to be a thorn in Frank’s side for the foreseeable future. Lest we forget, he was the leader who tried to block Frank’s spending bill from going through in Season 2 by organizing a walkout on the Senate floor. He also popped up at the end of the season as the last person to shake Frank’s hand before he walked into the Oval Office for the first time. That positioning can’t be coincidental.
Made for Daytime: Pissing on the Grave
“House of Cards” has always walked the very thin line between soap opera and grand opera. Though always crafted with the look of an A-level drama, Beau Willimon’s adaptation also incorporates plot developments so shocking they’re impossible to believe. With that in mind, this week’s scene that might be a better fit for daytime soaps than an Emmy-winning drama is the opening exchange between Frank and Frank’s dead dad. Taking a common figurative phrase (“I’ll piss on your grave”) and making it literal is rarely advisable, unless being played for laughs, and Seth’s on-the-nose aside to the reporter who wanted to take pictures (“The man’s honoring his father, for god sakes.”) made the whole intro feel like a poorly-timed reach for humor, when it should have been establishing dramatic power.
Ready for Primetime: The Confrontation with Claire
That being said, “House of Cards” rebounded nicely by episode’s end. Claire’s desire to “get behind the wheel” is one echoed by viewers who can’t seem to get enough of the First Lady. She’s always been more than a secondary character, and her literal battle for more power is a welcome addition to the mix. Not only does it elevate Wright and her character, but it adds a needed layer to the First Family’s relationship. Framing their initial exchange (when Frank returns to the residence at the end of his day) with the patented wide shots certainly helped, but it was the frames within the frames that really drove home the separation of this ultimate power couple. Frank and Claire are literally sleeping in different rooms (due to a referenced but unapparent head cold), and it took a military act to bring them back together. Will this be the year when their seemingly indestructible marriage is finally shaken?
“We have to do the things people won’t like.” – President Frank Underwood
Frank came out strong in his early days as president, walking into a meeting with his cabinet and laying down the law. It doesn’t get much more ambitious than saying, “I want 500 billion dollars to put 10 million people to work,” and Paul’s doubts seem more than understandable even voicing them did get him fired. Has the President gone too far? Is he lost with his newfound power and without his must trusted aide? The above quote doesn’t just speak to his mandate, after all. It functions as a message for viewers who may have been underwhelmed by the opening episode of Season 3.
Season 2 began with a flourish when Zoe Barnes was shoved in front of a train by the Vice President of the United States. Season 3 saw a reversal of that development: instead of a surprise death, we were given a surprise life. Even if you believed Doug Stamper wasn’t lost to us in the woods last year, there certainly was no guarantee he survived. “House of Cards” can’t turn into “Game of Thrones,” where characters are offed without mercy and at the whims of its creators. There may be new cast members coming and old ones heading out every season, but after two years in a row with a fan favorite turning up dead, it was a welcome choice to see one of ours make it out alive. A Doug-centric 60 minutes may not compare to a juicy twist that gets people talking, but Beau knows it was a wise move…even if people won’t like it.