Frank Underwood’s approval ratings after six months on the job aren’t particularly inspiring. The first episode of the season established that there was very little public support for the president who wasn’t elected. If Underwood wants to run for election, those numbers are going to have to change quickly, because the election is only 18 months away, and there’s plenty of organizing and campaigning to do in the meantime.
Public approval ratings just might be the least of Frank’s worries though. In a meeting early on in the season’s second episode, members of the Democratic leadership tell Frank that they don’t want him to run for election in 2016. They want to unify the party and bring in a fresh face. Frank, who thought the meeting would simply be about the details of America Works, is caught off guard, especially by Jackie, the Whip who helped secure the votes that got President Walker out of office and Underwood into power.
What really frustrates Frank about the decision is that he’s been given very little time to build a substantial portfolio. He has nothing he can point to that supports him running for election in 2016. This frustration is manifested in those signature Frank Underwood glances of disdain into the camera. Breaking the fourth wall is a bit of a sloppy gimmick on the show, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find a certain amount of joy in just how obtrusive and ridiculous they are. I like to think that Frank isn’t breaking the fourth wall, but rather that he’s so self involved that he imagines his life as this grand spectacle for everybody to observe (which isn’t too far off in terms of a psychological profile of this character, right?).
The second episode of the season is really about how the Underwoods continually adapt under pressure and find a way to get what they want. They’re like superheroes, with no obstacle too big for them to steamroll, no foe too smart to outmaneuver. If Frank’s obstacle is the inner-party opposition to his run for president, then Claire’s is the opposition she faces in her bid for the position of Ambassador to the U.N. When being questioned by the Senate, who will ultimately decide whether or not Claire is appointed as the ambassador, she shows off great skill and work ethic. She knows specific U.N. resolutions inside and out, and seems to have a grasp of diplomacy on an international scale. But when she comes up against a harsh line of questioning from potential Republican Presidential candidate Mendoza, who’s purposely misconstruing her statements in a effort to rile her up, she loses her cool.
It’s one of the first instances we’ve seen of Claire, or the Underwoods more generally, really losing favor in such a public way. Still, Claire is determined to get that position, and she spends the rest of the day and night calling Senators and campaigning for their votes, even appealing to Mendoza, asking him to back her privately among his colleagues.
The entire episode boasts a lot of moving pieces; Jackie, who wasn’t privy to the leadership’s conversation to oust Frank as President, wants a spot on the ticket as Vice President if she’s going to work to keep Frank in the good graces of the leadership. Elsewhere, journalist Ayla Sayyad is asking questions about the leadership meeting. Jackie’s tipped her off without giving her the details, so Sayyad is working to find out what really happened in that America Works meeting.
NEXT: Not-so-sexy sex[pagebreak]
As much as these players move around, there’s a wonderful focus to the episode that adds significant momentum and stakes to the narrative. There’s something infectious about watching Claire and Frank, who’s also on the phone all day doing his best to find financial backing for a campaign should he choose to defy the leadership, cold call a bunch of people and work their particular blend of menace and charm. The split-screen shot allows us to see why these two career-driven sociopaths (is it safe to call them that at this point?) are attracted to one another, and how their individual skill sets have come together and produced a major power couple.
This episode benefits from that narrative focus, something that was perhaps missing from the first episode, which forced us to check in with every character on the show. It makes the scene where Frank is sitting on the floor, his back against his desk, his head in his hands as he weeps, all the more emotional. It’s not easy to feel sympathy for the Underwoods; positioning Frank’s breakdown not as a reaction to anger, but rather a reaction to the very real possibility that his lifelong dream may now be fading away, works to humanize Frank.
That humanization only works for a second though because, before too long, Claire finds him weeping and decides that the only cure for his woes is to have sex with him. I mentioned in the review of the first episode that Frank is a machine, meaning that he lacks any human emotions and remains at a cool distance from everything he does. Every action is pointed, clinical, and devoid of feeling. Apparently that translates to the sex too, which isn’t even close to intimate. Rather, the sex is cold and purposeful. This act isn’t bringing them closer together; it’s serving a political purpose, as does everything else in their lives.
The sex is all for naught though, as the leadership still doesn’t want Frank to run, and Claire loses the nomination vote. That doesn’t stop the Underwoods though. Frank, rather than devising a plan to run despite the leadership’s disapproval, decides to embrace the lack of support. He tells the leadership that he won’t run in 2016, but that he will govern like hell for the next 18 months, which includes imposing his America Works plan on the rest of the government. It’s all part of a bigger plan that’s yet to be revealed, as there’s no way Francis doesn’t run in 2016. As with any of his plans, you just have to wait and see how it all comes together.
The first step in his plan though is a doozy, and it involves being honest with the public. House of Cards works best as an amplified, uncanny fantasy of politics, and Frank’s rousing speech about the America Works program is just that. He tells the public that they’re entitled to nothing, and that they have to get to work. He tells the public that politicians are constantly lying to them, that politicians are consistently working for themselves, not for the people. It’s the type of speech that would never happen in real life, which is why it’s a perfect fit on House of Cards.
Whether or not that speech gets Frank the support he needs is yet to be seen, but there may be more complications to his takeover than he had initially planned. In the episode’s final moments, not only does Claire ask for a recess vote in her bid to be the Ambassador to the U.N., she also pukes when he leaves the room. Seconds later, she’s cooking, after having told Frank that she’s not hungry. The eggs are a laughably on-the-nose image for Claire’s potential pregnancy, but part of the fun of the show is its laughably on-the-nose moments. And hey, if the smell of eggs is the only thing that will quell Claire’s morning sickness and allow her to continue to climb the ladder in Washington, who am I to argue?