“House of Cards” skirts a delicate line when it attempts to humanize and demonize its characters simultaneously, and rarely has creator Beau Willimon crossed further to the wrong side of that line than in “Chapter 30.” Frank’s self-doubt began when Heather Dunbar admitted, under orders and during a Congressional Hearing, that the President (and thus the United States) did murder innocent civilians during a drone strike. (Frank is not about to admit to killing people with his bare hands.) Shortly after her statement, Frank was informed of her appeal to the Democratic Party as a legitimate presidential candidate, immediately setting in motion a plan to get her out of the way by offering her a seat on the Supreme Court.
But his failing again came about due to lack of knowledge — perhaps an indication he’s missing Doug Stamper more than he thinks? — as Dunbar went behind his back to the Justice himself in order to avoid taking his seat. Now she’s running against Frank in open defiance to the president and his office. Stamper, meanwhile, is trying to get on her staff. Whether it’s motivated by his desire to help Frank or take revenge on his old boss has yet to be seen, but it certainly seems like the former.
Yet what really rattled Frank was his meeting with a man crippled by the drone strike. While asking for an apology, Ahmud not only turned him down, but reprimanded the leader of the free world for encouraging these sort of attacks to keep happening. This lead Frank to question his judgement more than ever — including his first meeting with the Chief Justice — until Claire corrected his behavior with a stern talking-to. Then came a disastrous conversation with Bishop Eddis and then God Himself, as Frank tried to reassert his own power by spitting on the cross. When he went to wipe it off, the cross fell and shattered, causing what could be a very embarrassing scene if it leaks.
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The David Fincher Shot
Frank and Claire’s professional conversation is packed to the gills with Fincher-inspired shots. For instance, the direct-to-camera framings on Claire are established by the medium of communication — video conference — and they’re only broken to provide context. We’re shown her work space from a bird’s eye view after we’ve seen Frank’s. Claire is alone in a small room at a desk with a huge monitor, while the monitor is the smallest object in Frank’s conference room. Also, Claire is shown from a slightly downward angle, which could be taken as the standard camera position on a computer monitor, but is soon used to depict the power dynamic as Frank’s direct-to-camera comments are actually made slightly above the camera’s sight line. The First Family is trying to be as professional as possible, and it’s thus necessary for everyone — even the audience — to believe Frank is in control of that meeting (even if Claire is clearly in control of him).
Breaking the Fourth Wall
“Chapter 30” offered perhaps our most perplexing moment of fourth wall breakage to date. While considering how to handle the Chief Justice, Frank got up and walked behind their chairs. Reasonably, the Justice asked, “Mr. President,” as if to inquire where and why he was walking away. But then Frank made his address to the audience, statements heretofore clearly only heard by those of us watching at home. Except now, the Chief justice said, “Excuse me?” immediately after Frank asked, “Must I destroy this man?”
The combination of phrases from a man who should be patiently waiting or utterly oblivious — “House of Cards” is never clear about how much time passes during Frank’s anecdotes — made the exchange immediately meaningful…but how? Are Frank’s asides more noticeable when he’s feeling less confidant? Are they connected to how much power he has? Or is the Chief Justice merely impatient and a little batty? No matter how you take it, Frank’s words were certainly relevant somehow.
Binge and You’ll Miss It
One of the most affecting scenes of “Chapter 30” had almost no purpose whatsoever…so far. Reporter Ayla Sayyad has been a beacon of integrity thus far in the series, and seeing her credentials revoked in such an unexpected fashion produced many mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s simply wrong for Seth to take away a reporter’s livelihood like that. On the other, she was disruptive, insensitive and blind to her own lack of power. None of her comparatively meager pomposity trumps the injustice of the act, but it did serve as a reminder of who she’s replaced. Remember Zoe Barnes, the first reporter we came to know on “House of Cards” before her brutal and shocking death to kick off Season 2? Sayyad is her opposite, but she may meet the same fate (figuratively if not literally). If so, it will prove fascinating to see what message it sends for the show as a whole. So far, no one — not even Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalists — are unadulterated.
Made for Daytime: Spitting on Jesus
At the end of Aaron Sorkin’s second season of the already-outstanding NBC drama “The West Wing,” President Josiah Bartlet, fed up with the injustices taking place under his watch, decided to speak to the only being more powerful than him: God Himself. With enraged gusto, Bartlet (a devout Catholic) emptied the cathedral his beloved secretary had just been remembered within to rant and rave to the Lord, cursing at Him in English and His presumed native tongue, Latin. To close the fiery scene, Bartlet lit a cigarette and snubbed it out in the middle of the church floor.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to make the connection between the above scene with President Bartlet and President Underwood’s awkward moment before God. Besides the obvious inherent drama of humankind’s most mighty representative going toe-to-toe with the Lord Almighty Father, Underwood’s exchange couldn’t hold a grieving candle to Bartlet’s. Uneven and murky on the intent of both parties, what it all means is the only real question to dwell on; was God speaking back to the President with the falling cross? Was it an indication of Underwood’s unholy nature? Why was he unfazed by it? In the end, it probably doesn’t matter, as the gratuitous scene was most likely just that. Unless a scandal be brewin’, odds are we won’t hear about this again anyway — and that’s for the best.
Made for Primetime: Meeting with Mr. Ahmud
If the church scene was an exercise in uneven obscenity, what lead Underwood to doubt himself was an ideal example of powerful subtlety. His meeting with Mr. Ahmud may have just been for show, but it got very, very real for the President. He wasn’t given the forgiveness he sought and was instead served with a heaping plate of guilt. What really carried the otherwise familiar scene was Kevin Spacey’s commitment. He’s always on the ball, knowing just when to whip up the Southern accent, stern growl and coy side comments, but he elevated his game beyond the ordinary in this scene. With a few subtle, previously unseen motions and an impressive ability to withdraw inward, Spacey owned a scene by trying to shrink away from it.
– Heather Dunbar
Boy, she’s got him pegged. But if anything, Dunbar wasn’t cruel enough to the sitting president. She took him to task for plotting behind her back — as well as what she learned about him while acting as special prosecutor last season — but came up short of noting just how soulless he actually is — and how power-hungry. What’s frustrating Frank at this point in the season is the futility of his dream job. He’d been striving for the presidency his entire life, but not an office without power. That’s what he truly craves, and he can’t have it as a president inheriting low approval numbers from a party on its way out.
Ironically, the same problem plaguing Frank is proving cumbersome to his audience. As Indiewire’s Andrew Fiouzi pointed out to this critic, one of the big thrills to take away from Seasons 1 and 2 was the collaborative conniving between Frank and Claire. They were either hatching a master plan or executing it in order to garner more political capital. Now, even though they have the highest office in the world, they’re stuck in a hole they didn’t dig. They still need more power, but they’re not doing enough to procure it. “Chapter 28” indicated a plan was set — and it’s the best episode so far this season — but the pieces haven’t fallen into place just yet, if they do at all.