Somehow, the sixth episode of this season of House of Cards is both a wonderfully paced political thriller and a perfect example of some of the show’s most glaring issues. I’ve already established that the show is a fantasy of sorts; it allows viewers to imagine an intriguing, absurd version of politics that often veers into the ludicrous and uncanny. Too often though, there’s hardly a protagonist in sight, someone with whom the audience can identify with or cheer for. In the first season, Frank and Claire were arguably protagonists. But as they slowly manipulated, and eventually killed Peter Russo, they became very unlikable.
Now, television has certainly had its fair share of anti-heroes with guys like Tony Soprano or Walter White in the earliest season of Breaking Bad, but I’m not sure the Underwoods fit into that category. There have been plenty of moments this season that have allowed us to root for the Underwoods, but this episode drives home the point that these are not good people. These two are sociopaths, and they destroy the lives of everyone around them, whether on purpose or through some serious negligence.
The episode starts off joyful enough, with Frank detailing some early childhood stories to Yates while they’re flying to the Kremlin to meet with President Petrov. When Yates asks him about his first job, Francis tells him that he couldn’t possibly talk about that. He smirks and goes on to tell him about how, when he was young, he packaged weed for a man everyone called Uncle Henry. How else was he going to pay for all those schoolbooks?
Even once the Underwoods arrive at the Kremlin, with the purpose of not only negotiating a plan for troops in the Jordan Valley, but also the release of Michael Corrigan, things seem to be going swimmingly. If Petrov was particularly hostile the last time we saw him, he’s almost cheery this time around. Okay, he doesn’t trust Frank, and he’s working from a position of weakness now that he knows the U.S. can bypass Russia’s veto, but still, he seems to be in a good mood, all things considered.
Before long though, things start to go south. Petrov has agreed to release Corrigan, but he must read a prepared statement at a shared press conference. The statement, written by the Russian government but toned down by the State Department, is appalling. It asks Corrigan to apologize for breaking Russia’s laws, but even more egregiously, to apologize for exposing children to non-traditional sexuality.
Claire meets with Corrigan in his cell, detailing the terms of the agreement to get him out of Russia and back on American soil. Corrigan refuses to read the statement though. Claire tells him that he doesn’t have to mean what he says, and that he can recant the statement as soon as he’s back home, but this is more than empty rhetoric to Corrigan. These are his belief, and he will never betray them, and he’s disgusted that Claire would even ask.
The scenes with Claire and Corrigan are seriously powerful and explore some of the most interesting territory of the season. Their discussions touch on morality, leadership, and sacrifice. Claire believes in fighting your way to the top, getting in the system, and then making changes. Corrigan believes that’s just a veiled way of becoming, at best, part of the status quo, and at worst, part of the problem. The very notion that Claire and Frank expect Corrigan to read the homophobic statement, and that they’re doing so not out of care for him, but rather to make the troop deal with Petrov more palatable, is despicable.
NEXT: Claire finally takes a stand[pagebreak]
I mentioned that the Underwoods destroy the lives of those around them, and that this episode in particular emphasizes just how toxic they are. For instance, Gavin is still trying to get information from Lisa about Rachel’s whereabouts. He’s posing as an addict named Max in order to get close to Lisa. He even goes so far as to fake testing positive for HIV in order to gain her sympathy. It’s hard not to see his reprehensible actions as the outcome of his dealings with Doug, and therefore the Underwood team in general.
You see, the Underwoods don’t care who they step on when climbing the ladder in Washington. They move through the ranks with a reckless abandon, and while flawed, horrible, mean characters are not inherently a bad thing on television, House of Cards does seem to operate within a moral black hole. As evidenced by this episode, the show peddles a lot of hatred and cynicism, and asks the audience not to feel uncomfortable about it, but to condone it and then demand even more sinister behavior. When, near the episode’s end, Corrigan hangs himself in his cell, unaware that Frank has managed to negotiate terms that would see him read a statement instead of Corrigan, it’s another testament to just how toxic and uncaring the Underwoods are.
If there’s a saving grace for the Underwoods, it’s that Corrigan’s words and eventual death seem to have spurred something in Claire. After all, Claire has always been a bit of a grassroots activist, typically fighting for causes that don’t necessarily benefit her directly. So when she takes a stand at the press conference, moving away from the prepared statement and lambasting Petrov for his barbaric gay propaganda law, and suggesting that Corrigan’s death is the direct result of Russia’s flawed system, it feels like Claire getting back to her roots.
Frank can’t be saved though. When he first hears of Corrigan’s death, he’s shocked, but quickly brushes it off and reconvenes talks with Petrov about the troop deployment. That’s because Corrigan was just another pawn, another obstacle that Frank can either use to his advantage or brush aside if need be.
As the episode comes to a close, there’s a clear divide between Claire and Francis. They’re marriage seems on rocky terms, and the Jordan Valley project might fall through. Frank is still his domineering, delusional self, but it looks like Claire is finally reckoning with every horrible thing that they’ve done. “We’re murderers” she says, exasperation evident in her hushed tone. It’s one of the few times someone on this show has acknowledged just how morally corrupt the Underwoods are, and the fact that it’s Claire is explosive. What does this mean for their marriage? What does it mean for the Presidency, or Claire’s position as Ambassador? Only time will tell, but for now, House of Cards has very few characters to feel good about, so here’s hoping that Claire eventually sees the light.