House of Cards "Chapter 18" Review: Beating on That Backchannel
Netflix wants us to binge on House of Cards. You know that, I know that. But since the company started producing original programs, I've wondered about how that directive actually impacts the shows themselves. Are writers asked to develop episodes and stories so that they're primed for proper binge-watching? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing that "Chapter 18" really underscored for me is just how weirdly structured the early portion of House of Cards' second season has been. While I've definitely looked forward to watching consecutive episodes, stories have come and gone in an odd fashion, resulting in a somewhat rocky flow. And I'm thinking maybe that's less of an issue for House of Cards (or any Netflix show for that matter) than it would be for a network TV show, because Netflix just assumes we'll sit down to watch a few at a time, which often smooths out some of the pacing issues.
Case in point: The United States' tensions with China (and the underlying chess match between Frank and Raymond Tusk over said tensions) dominated much of the season's second episode. Then other things took hold in Episode 3 and Episode 4, with the occasional reference to China, and then in Episode 5, with some amount of time having passed, and it was all China, all the time, once again. That's not necessarily an awful thing, mostly because it's easier to let the show's goofy rhythms wash over you and also because it allowed for Underwood v. Tusk, Round 9, but for a show that provides all the episodes at once, I think I expected more stable plotting. I get that political problems come and go, and I'm guessing that House of Cards is trying to make us see just how long-simmering the U.S.-China issues are. But, I don't entirely buy it. Something feels a bit off. Not bad, just... off.
In any event, Frank found himself working the backchannels with an interesting Chinese representative named Feng (played by the typically solid Terry Chen). And we knew Feng was interesting because "Chapter 18" introduced him mid-coitus, strapped to a bed, with a plastic bag over his head, as both a man and a woman serviced him. The universal signifier for Don't Trust This Person: non-normative sexual proclivities!
Bags and straps aside, the Frank-Feng conversations throughout the episode served as the latest passive-aggressive scheme-off between Frank and Tusk. Once Frank realized that Feng's personal goals weren't quite aligned with the broader Chinese directives, it wasn't hard to see that Feng had a relationship with Tusk. And yep, he sure did. The two are business partners, unsurprisingly trying to push international policy toward outcomes that will make them richer. As such, Frank worked on Feng, but was really working on Tusk and the president, just as Tusk used his still-strong hold on the leader of the free world to try to get his way—and put Frank in the doghouse.
To be completely fair, House of Cards has already drawn from this well a number of times in its 18 episodes, and even in this young second season. We've seen Frank tell Tusk one thing and then whisper something else into President Walker's ear, just as we've seen Tusk take the same approach. That's the bad news. The good news is that I think—or at least I'm going to assume—that the show is doing this on purpose as a way to build to a larger story about the ultimate impact of Frank and Tusk fighting for the White House's soul. By the end of this episode, President Walker was fed up with both of them, but of course decided to hold strong against China, which is what Frank wanted all along because it hurts Tusk. Even when Frank finds himself in the presidential doghouse, he gets what he wants. I really wish the show wouldn't do that as much.
"Chapter 18" did a better job with the season's other two big stories: Lucas's crusade against Frank, and Claire's public assertion that she was raped by General McGinnis. This episode reflected a strategy that the show should enact with these particular stories, which is that Lucas's trip into the dark internet and back shouldn't run through the entire season. Here, Gavin tried to nudge him into backing out as a last-ditch attempt to save him, but it didn't work and now Lucas is facing major prison time, if not worse. If House of Cards wants to eschew the repetitive storylines that tend to hinder Frank's rise to the top, the sooner Lucas is out of the picture, the better. Frank simply isn't going to be caught by a half-decent journalist, so what's the real endpoint other than prison? Good call.
But if this episode was any indication, Claire's accusation of General McGinnis is only the beginning of a much larger—and hopefully compelling—story. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Claire decided to use her experience for a larger purpose, which right now appears to be trying to change minds about sexual assault. "Chapter 18" showed her pulling the first lady into her web and going head-to-head with the joint chiefs. She's quickly integrating herself into the White House and using this issue, theoretically, to enact real change. Of course, with the Underwoods we have to assume that there are probably 10 other reasons why Claire is doing this, many of them nefarious in nature.
And speaking of things that are nefarious in nature, this episode also introduced the weird Seth Grayson, a man who tracked down the personal diary of the doctor who performed Claire's abortion, information that could have destroyed her narrative about General McGinnis. But because nothing ever really goes wrong for the Underwoods, Grayson used this information to prove his value as a communications director. I guess we can expect some fireworks between Grayson and Connor Ellis, who was just hired for the job not too long ago. Though none of this stuff was especially good, it showed House of Cards' investment in the stories swirling around Claire, and as I've said a few times now, that's what the series needs.
HOUSE OF NOTES
– My dude Doug is under some real pressure here. I feel something very bad coming on for him. Let's hope it doesn't involve drinking. We need Doug.
– I'll be curious to see how the show handles Lucas in prison. Like I said, it's probably better to move on, but we'll probably get at least an episode or two with him in jail before he takes a plea deal and goes away. Does this mean the end of Gavin too?
– This one also introduced Mozhan Marnò's journalist character, Alya Sayyad. She had very little to do, and will likely be a pawn later. Welcome to House of Cards!
– The episode tried to humanize Frank a bit with the reenactment stuff. It wasn't clear to me whether he actually didn't know about his ancestor's involvement in the Civil War, or if he was just playing dumb.
Did this one keep your attention? And do you care about the China stuff?
HOUSE OF CARDS SEASON 2 REVIEWS ON TV.COM
Note: Due to waning reader interest in our episodic coverage, after Episode 7, we skipped ahead in our reviews to the finale. However, the discussion pages for Episodes 8 through 12 will remain active for anyone looking to chat about those installments individually.
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