Nestled amidst all the greed and corruption permeating the seventh episode of this season of House of Cards is a meditation on the Buddhist and Hindu tradition of creating and destroying a mandala. (The term is a Sanskrit word meaning “circle,” though sand mandalas also often take other, more geometric shapes.) At its base, the ritual of constructing and dismantling a mandala represents the transitory nature of life, the way things can be at once present and then removed; just because it’s been removed doesn’t mean it wasn’t once there.
It’s an intriguing way to drive home the themes of this episode. At the halfway point, this season of House of Cards hasn’t really differed much from the two before it. The plot has generally had the same structure: Frank has a bill or program that he wants to institute, and he and Claire must influence a handful of people, who then must influence a handful of other people, before that initiative is put into place.
The only difference is the potential dissolution of the Underwoods’ marriage. Since Claire took a stand against the Russians in the previous episode, there’s never been a wider gap between the couple. Frank is livid that Claire would compromise his peace plan in such a selfish way. Claire doesn’t see her act as selfish though, but rather the right thing to do. The ensuing argument saw them lash out at each other, and as Frank says, they each said things they can’t ever take back.
That’s not really true though, as this episode opens with the Underwoods renewing their vows at the same church in Gaffney where they originally got married. The vows are used as a framing device, as the narrative then jumps backwards and shows us how the reconciliation came about.
A lot of this episode is about the Underwoods getting back to their roots. There’s something about Gaffney that always humanizes Frank. When he’s there, we get a sense of his past and how he came to be the driven, angry, ruthless man who took the White House by force. Yates, the writer who’s working on gathering information about Frank for his book on the President and his America Works program, acts as an audience surrogate in this episode.
Yates is intrigued by Frank, spending the episode near-silent in his contemplation, just listening to the President tell his stories. Not unlike the audience the first time we met Frank, Yates is enthralled but wary. He sees a man with significant charisma, but also a man who’s deeply flawed and potentially dangerous.
More than that though, Yates understands that President Frank Underwood is mostly an act. Like so many politicians in House of Cards (or in real life, really), Frank has to censor himself at every turn. It’s something he’s done his whole life, and now, the divide between the private and the public Francis Underwood is unclear. It’s why Yates confronts him that he can’t write a book if Frank isn’t honest, and reveals to him that much of his first and most popular book, Scorpio, was written by a friend who died. His admission is meant to bring him closer to Frank, to enforce an intimiacy that will allow Yates to get the material he needs, to see the real Frank Underwood.
Frank’s division of self, and his seemingly muted reaction to Corrigan’s suicide in the previous episode, is what’s made Claire recoil from him; for her, Frank the politician was always different from the Frank that spent time alone with his wife, smoking cigarettes with the window of their brownstone wide open. Now that Frank is President, the two hardly have any alone time, and the two different selves they previously kept separate are now colliding. Claire wants her husband back, but she’s afraid he’s too far gone.
NEXT: Doug Stamper is still chasing Rachel