One of the more enjoyable ways in which House of Cards has taken a step forward in its second season is in its episodic structure. Because all thirteen episodes of the season become available at the same time, a series like this risks feeling too much like one, continuous story that makes a retrospective look hard to pinpoint what happened at what time. “Chapter 17″ and “Chapter 18,” however, have wonderful little hooks that make that delineation rather easy. It can be boiled down to something like: “Chapter 17″ is the quarantine episode and “Chapter 18″ is the reenactment episode. Those might be crude identifications, but thinking about episodes of TV like this is both natural and useful, and it’s interesting that Netflix can come up with series that are able to replicate this while being completely different in how a normal season of television is viewed.
The “quarantine episode” sticks Frank and Donald Blythe into Frank’s office and doesn’t let them out because of a potential anthrax scare. It’s hard to imagine anyone sitting in a room with just Frank and not buckling under the pressure he’s able to exert – Frank wants Donald’s political support – but Donald is another character who is introduced as someone with respectable fortitude. Frank tries to manipulate the situation as best as he can once he learns about Blythe’s wife’s dementia, but Donald sees right through Frank’s attempts. It would have been nice to have definitively seen Frank lose a battle and experience genuine defeat, but Frank doesn’t believe in defeat and so the feelings of conflict aren’t really there as Frank tries to be Donald’s buddy, claiming that it doesn’t matter which way he votes – he’ll try to help with Blythe’s wife. It’s an episode that’s less of a cat-and-mouse chase and more of a game of chess, both Frank and Donald trying to play offensively and defensively; and using the limited mobility of the characters as a device makes that match much more entertaining to watch.
Claire also gets plenty to do in not just “Chapter 17″ but these three episodes altogether. Pressured into admitting to an abortion during a live interview, Claire lashes out against the general we met in the earlier episode, who Frank had to commend at a ceremony. When she says that she was assaulted by him, another woman who experienced the same thing calls in to the studio and sends Claire’s storyline this season down a much more interesting road. Standing up against assault, Claire receives many proclamations of bravery, but most importantly, she gets closer to the first lady in a way that helps her attack the military’s institution of law enforcement autonomy. Claire also uses her new position to turn the first lady against Christina, which will help keep one of the few people with the potential to hurt Frank at bay. It’s sometimes difficult to be impressed by anyone’s scheming in House of Cards who isn’t Frank, but in these episodes it is very clear why Claire is the perfect second half of the Underwood couple.
“Chapter 18,” though, has what is easily the best premise of a House of Cards episode to date: an historical reenactment of one of the Civil War campaigns. We’re dropped into it looking at Francis being bored and annoyed. But as the episode continues, Frank runs into someone playing one of his ancestors that he didn’t even know fought in the Civil War (on the losing side). The meat of the episode is mostly about dealings with China that keep Frank and Tusk at odds, but the structural device is what gives it its color. The scenes that take place on the battlegrounds are a showcase of the fantastic art direction that House of Cards has refined. And the inclusion of the character who plays Frank’s ancestor, Augustus, is both haunting and effective in drawing out aspects of Frank we haven’t seen. Despite how totally fake Frank is on the outside, the facade is only external in this episode – we can see some genuine emotion at work behind his eyes. After the reenactment is over, Frank calls for a moment of silence for the dead, and one can almost feel like Frank is remembering Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes at the same time that he is recalling Augustus. Frank has as little time to dwell on the past as he does to deal with apologies, but “Chapter 18″ gets as close as any episode since “Chapter 8″ (in which he returns to his alma mater for an honorary library dedication) to dealing with Frank as someone who has a personal history outside of his political achievements.
The rest of the events of these episodes are standard House of Cards fare, with little to note outside of Lucas being locked up and Hammerschmidt taking over his investigation. It doesn’t amount to much, even though it’s clear Hammerschmidt isn’t buying what Frank is selling when the two meet. That Janine wants no part in any of it makes the plotline even more superfluous. Because it’s hard to imagine anything real coming out of this until the very end of this series, if this thread is going to continue to be a part of House of Cards, the characters need to have other things to do than just running around stealthily and getting into trouble. They don’t feel like real people in the same way that someone like Rachel does. There’s still plenty of repetition in the scenes with Rachel, but there’s also other stuff going on, like whatever her connection to the church is. She’s trying to find a way to cope with her new life, and the time we spend with her is more interesting because she’s not just limited to being yelled at by Doug all the time.
That said, the cast of characters in House of Cards feels rather high at this point, with people like Christina being marginalized after appearing to have roles much larger than they do. There’s no clear way to balance every story (like whatever is going on in Jackie’s personal life), so the two logical options appear to be thinning out the cast or making certain characters take time off until their story becomes important enough to warrant more than just a brief check in now and again. I’d rather get an episode that is 30% about Rachel or Christina than six different episodes that are 5% about them.
[Photo via Kevin Winter/Getty]