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[pagebreak]
In order to bridge that gap, Claire has to find a way to pass the resolution that would see the U.N. send peacekeeping troops into the Jordan Valley. Russia may not have their veto anymore, but that doesn’t mean the resolution will pass easily. In fact, just hours before a vote is to be held and everything seems ready to go, Claire finds out that Africa is going to introduce an amendment that would demand they have control of the troops. It’s an outrageous ask and one that will immediately kill the resolution, so Claire and Frank think that Russia might be behind it.
Russia quickly denies the accusation, and that’s when Claire realizes that in fact Israel is now backing down. They’ve gotten cold feet, assuming that the U.S. won’t follow through on its promise to send troops, so now they’re essentially bribing Africa. They’re sending money to the Zimbabwe in exchange for Africa’s proposal of the amendment.
The only way Claire can combat the move is by bribing Zimbabwe themselves. While Frank initially balks at the idea of sending money to the country, which is known for its human rights violations, he eventually realizes that it’s the only way to get the resolution passed, and maybe even get his marriage back on track.
While Claire and Frank wield the United States’ economic power, Doug Stamper, in the season’s most tiresome storyline, continues to work with Gavin on finding Rachel. It’s a plot point that’s been dragged across two seasons, and there’s no end in sight. Doug’s work with Heather Dunbar has the potential to be interesting, in that Stamper formerly worked for Frank and is now working in opposition to him; but rather than focus on that drama, the show continues to peddle the tired mystery that is Rachel’s disappearance. Add in the fact that Doug sleeps with his physical therapist, for really no dramatically significant or compelling reason at all, and it’s safe to say that, for now, the Doug/Gavin/Rachel story is spinning its wheels.
Thankfully, this episode gives us a few moments that reveal a lot about the Underwoods. We get the lengthy scene where Frank and Yates share more than a few drinks, resulting in Frank opening up about some of his past and present demons. When Yates asks the President why he doesn’t sleep in the same bedroom as his wife, Frank says it’s just a habit they fell into when they moved in. It’s a lovely moment, one that gets at an honest truth about how committed relationships can fall into familiar patterns, and that it’s important to recognize which patterns are comfortable and rewarding, and which are toxic.
Thus, after a hilariously on-the-nose visit to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, where Frank observes that Eleanor’s statue was secluded, a wall between her and Franklin (see, I told you it was on the nose), we get the reconciliation of Frank and Claire. As the episode fades out, Claire and Frank are back in the same bed again, hands intertwined. Like the symbolic nature of the mandala, their love is built, destroyed, and then built up once again. The questions is: how long until the next dismantling?