Chapter 2: A Woman Mightier Than The Sword

Love is the only thing dirtier than politics.

In House of Cards, Love is as dirty as politics. Maybe dirtier.

Chapter 2: Directed by David Fincher & Written by Beau Willimon
Follow us on Twitter: @livingintheHOC
Vitality & The Two-Headed Snake Of the Underworld

Our first real conversation with House Majority Whip Frank Underwood was in Chapter 1,  at the 2013 NYE party held by President-Elect Garrett Walker. Unaware that he’d been passed over as Secretary of State, Frank confided in us that he had:

“…latched on to [Walker] early on and made myself vital. After 22 years in Congress, I can smell which way the wind is blowing.”

As Chapter 2 rolls out, and the machinations of Lady Claire Underwood begin to unfold a little more clearly, Frank’s words begin to ring to the tune of a philosophy that was borne of a life with a spouse whose ethos is not so different from his own. Perhaps, without his being conscious of it, Frank’s political methodology is not really of his making. Claire, as we’ll see, has a way of embedding seemingly insignificant ideas into the psyche of her significant other. Frank’s ideology may just be the fruition of a million small ideological seeds planted and nurtured over the years by his loving wife. Perhaps she is the real political creature in this partnership. Frank surrounds himself with ‘tools’ to achieve his ends, but little does he know that he is a tool himself in a longer con.

The underpinning theme of Chapter 2 is that the pair are latched onto one another, and have become vital to one another. Two heads to one body, as expressed subtly in the first frames we see of the couple together in Chapter 1, where Frank zips her dress and we immediately get a glimpse of them together, in the mirror. Gaping at their gloriousness, they look like Nehebkau, the two-headed snake from Egyptian Mythology who guarded the underworld. Nehebkau is said to be the creature formed by the combination of Ka (vital spark) and Ba (soul) of humanity after death. It’s no coincidence that in the shot below, both of them are wearing black, merging into one another.  Nor is it coincidence that this two-headed beast is on its way to a gathering of Washington DC’s most powerful people, an underworld of political chicanery. You’ll also note that she fronts him, protecting him. The question this poses: if being vital is leverage towards wielding more power, who in this relationship is more vital? Perhaps one as much as the other? Who is the vital spark (Ka) and who is the soul (Ba)?

The Two-Headed Snake, Nehebkau, examining itself in the mirror.

The Two-Headed Snake, Nehebkau, examining itself in the mirror.

In The Way Of Every Great Woman, Is A Weak Man

Let’s get the cliché narratives out of the way so that we can talk about more interesting parameters vis-a-vis women and power. Contextually speaking, I have always found the notion that ‘behind every great man, there is a great woman‘  to be sexist in both directions. On the one hand it implies that a woman’s greatness is only defined by the greatness of the man standing ahead of or above her. On the other, it implies that a great man can’t do it alone. The latter might be certainly be true in many instances, and so might the former, but in general I find the expression overlooks society’s systemic flaws in a post-feminist world: fact remains, we’re not on an equal playing field. Even now with all the progress we have seemingly made, women remain at a steep disadvantage. Underpaid, underpromoted, underhired. In Washington, some sectors of DC still feel a woman’s place is not any different than any other ‘minority interest groups’, only there to fill a quota or worse yet to fill the binders of Alpha Male Republicans (paging Mitt Romney). Feminism, especially in politics, has faltered and its journey circumcised by the an alternative form of female empowerment as entertainment, brought to you by Oprah Winfrey. If you don’t believe me think of all the ‘analysis’ churned out by self-serious political pundits about what Michelle Obama is wearing, or how ‘haggard’ Hilary Clinton may look on any given day.

The writers are quickly establishing that Claire won’t merely be another ‘woman behind the throne’ archetype who fulfills gender-specific stereotypes. Time and time again, Claire will make it abundantly clear to Frank that it is her throne too.

What is also evidently being established is that Claire is ruthless in a way that Frank could probably never afford to be. Frank is a public figure and has to be bombastic, larger than life and quick on his feet, wearing a face for every person he meets so as to draw out the precisely desired and calculated reaction in order to achieve a measured outcome.

Claire, on the other hand, is Michael Corleone to Frank’s Sonny. She must be silent, slow, plotting and civilized using a ruthlessness that surfaces only in resolute calm and decisiveness. That said, Claire understands the usefulness of expressed rage, something made evident when Frank comes and reveals that their political and financial position has been compromised. She demands that he get angry because in her eyes, there is no room for doubt, questioning or lingering. There are only ruthless decisions and action. Claire is also the classic anti-First Lady: She wears no pearls, no pant suits, no 1950s bob (in fact it’s a short stylish crop), no over the top make up and no prissy white gloves. Claire is more Anna Wintour than Jacquie Kennedy. Implying women are more pliant, sensitive and caring, it’s often said that they ruled the world there would be less war, death and crime. History has shown that most women with great power have been made of steel resolve, not due to a copycat instinct to act as a man would in a male dominant world.  See uncompromising women like Thatcher, Golda Meir or even the stubborn justice seeker and freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi. Women are women and the notion that they would automatically make good or moral leaders is a sexist notion that ignores thousands of years of evidence to the contrary. Because the greatest equalizer are not only the laws and reforms we make to ensure that women have the same opportunities and rewards as men; rather, the true equalizer is the self-evident truth that women are just people too. Therein is the leveling property: People, as a whole, are relentless in their struggle to survive, control and assert their dominance against the massive ebbs and flows of human civilization. Civilizations built by men and women alike.

What Fresh Love Is this?

Claire Underwood is just as ambitious as her husband. But unlike her husband, Claire lacks charm and a way with words. She says what she means, and does as is necessary. In Chapter 1 we saw what pragmatic lengths Frank would go to reassert his order. Likewise, after Frank is passed over for SecState, and an expected donation to her Clean Water Initiative (CWI) non-profit organization doesn’t come through, Claire is forced to act quickly and re-align by firing half of her staff. Unlike Frank, Claire is not amoral or apolitical. Last time we declared that Frank is a nihilist at heart. This remains true, but in stark contrast it seems that Claire is repressing a deep sense of moral self-reckoning. There is a conscience and there is pain, deep down, as well as some hidden secrets that are yet to be revealed, but not ones that would prove her weaker than Frank; rather, much more evolved. Her ruthlessness comes from a superior place, while Frank’s from a reptilian core.

In the limo after the NYE party in Chapter 1, we see our first examples of Claire’s micro-control techniques applied in the prepping of her husband for his expected ascension to the President’s cabinet. Let’s break down this expertly written scene’s dialogue:

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The initial part of this exchange is interesting because it reveals micromanagement with a broad, macro strategy in mind. While it seems contrary to the fact, these are not petty domestic things that Claire is giving attention too. In politics, optics is everything and a trimmed coiff and dress are essential to the package. Note the subtlety in her concern for what Frank will wear to the announcement of his appointment and not the meeting with Linda Vasquez itself. She clearly understands the importance of optics vis-a-vis the public eye. Claire wants to polish him up for the masses, who must be won over on the path to power. She knows that a Cabinet position is one step removed from a run for the presidency itself. Immediately after this, Frank gets to the heart of the matter:

2

At the risk of getting anal, I have to flag a moment in the editing of this scene which I found curious. As the discussion unfolds, about mid-way through when Claire asks Frank what he’s going to wear, there’s a brief cut to the limo driver taking a peek into the rearview and listening in on the conversation. I wondered why this reveal of the driver’s voyeurism was necessary, because very few cuts to reaction shots are done idly in the editing suite. I couldn’t figure it out in the moment, but after multiple viewings I got to thinking that perhaps his is a nod by showrunner/writer Willimon to himself. A subtle head nod to his years as a campaign volunteer and fly on the wall, like the limo driver. Willimon seems to be writing this exchange from a place of having witnessed or heard a million of these domestically political discussions. Just a musing, but keep in mind nothing you see on-screen is by accident. Sometimes, edits are practical ones but beyond practically lies the necessity for and dedication to narrative. In that sense, I read it as a conscious cut.

This scene is so well written because it conveys so much about the relationship and also the individual nature of these two central characters. It conveys the symbiotic essence that this relationship will have (at least for now) without saying too much. Through the lens of seemingly innocuous domesticity, the subtext is glaring.

One of these subtexts is that behind all the manipulation there seems to be genuine care and love. Again, the theme we discussed last time was that the ends are the means. Care and love for one another are the means and the ends. They are real but calculated. Why? Because care and love are also political. How brave are the writers of this show to essentially say that Claire and Frank share a love which is inherently political. In other words, they love one another because everything is a considered act. Every word, gesture and silence carries with it a deep meaning, a solitary chess move in the game of married life. They aren’t going to be your average married Jim and Jane who bicker over mindless things. It’s almost an American Football or US Army Marines mentality where if one person fails, everyone does. The game is lost and the battle waged without gaining ground and with a great number of casualties. Claire isn’t self-prophesizing a stereotypical ‘female’ obsessing over Frank’s appearance. She’s affirming her own primacy,  acting as the politician that she is, as well as the consummate professional wife. It’s tit for tat. She’ll look out for Frank and make sure he looks his best for his public. In turn, Frank assures her that the donation for CWI is just a matter of time. It’s going to be a big year indeed.

It’s All About The Zig And Zag

Frank gets sidelined of course. He doesn’t get the SecState appointment and that is the essential ‘inciting incident’ that propels the destinies of our characters and those affected by them. After his meeting with the newly minted Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez, Frank has a real moment of crisis. He sits alone as the sun sets over DC, ignoring his wife’s calls. Meanwhile Claire, expecting the best, plots expansions and new hires at CWI. This period, where Frank avoids his wife, delaying the inevitable confrontation betrays fear, helplessness and maybe even some shame. The writers have decided to knock our main characters down a few pegs from the get go. Traditionally, we are introduced to a status quo where the main character is where it wants to be before facing an existential complication that sets it on a new course of action. Here it happens early, again a brave choice, and a smart one because it’s telling us that our journey with Frank and Claire will take us upwards towards a summit.  This journey will be not without its inevitable drama, but first Frank has to confront Claire with the awful truth:

3

After Frank apologizes for having kept her out of the loop, she admonishes him for not being angry enough about the betrayal they have suffered. Frank apologizes, to which she retorts “My husband doesn’t apologize.” There is no room for sulking, there is no room for idleness, there is only a time for action and retaliation. Claire must quickly right the ship and refocus her husband on the task at hand. He blames his own hubris and arrogance, but she internally blames herself for having grown complacent. An error she won’t be repeat.

"We'll have a lot of nights like this."

“We’ll have a lot of nights like this.”

Claire picks up the shards of a vase that Frank had tossed aside in anger (cleaning up his mess, figuratively and literally). She then goes to the kitchen to prepare drinks, passing a rack of knives on her way. Afterwards, Claire joins her husband for her first session at the Plotting Window (as I’ve coined it), under the moonlight, with only a cigarette to share and light the way. I can’t help but be reminded in this instance of Lady Macbeth, laying out the daggers and poisons for her husband to commit the crime of slaying the King. She will pave the way. She’s also laid out a suit for him, “the navy blue one”, a wonderful pay off of the set-up from the suit conversation in the limo. Set-up and pay-off, the signs of a writer who is thinking and creating for an audience who that is ready to process complex ideas. This simple little recognition that Frank will put on his navy blue suit as planned, signals that this is just a bump in the road for Claire, a zig before the next zag up the mountain. It will take more time to get to the top, but require less expended effort because the path is now clear. Betrayal has cleansed them of doubt and cleared their vision.

Later on in the church, Frank and Claire sit and listen to the priest as he extols that a person’s character is not determined by how one enjoys victory, but rather how one endures in times of defeat. And that is what they are doing, and certainly how Claire has decided she will approach this crisis. Afterwards, outside the church, a friend expresses how upset she is with President Walker’s decision only to have Claire dismissively declare that Frank feels much more at home in Congress anyway. Indeed this betrayal on the part of the President (the King) may be a blessing in disguise, giving Frank (and Claire) the strategic leeway they need to achieve greater power than they would have imagined if Frank had been appointed SecState.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Gently Into The Freeze

In both Chapters 1 & 2, there is a recurring allusion to how cold it is ‘out there’, which initially seems incidental but eventually becomes a motif. The first instance is when Zoe exits the cab in front of the symphony and begs for a jacket from her date because it’s so cold (coincidently Frank is a few feet away pretending to talk on cell phone). Later, as Zoe is leaving her first meeting with Frank at his home, Claire eerily warns Zoe to “drive safe, there’s a lot of ice on the road.” A threat or genuine concern? Is that her way of keeping her at bay or a subtextual warning about dealing too closely with her husband? Or is it simply one half of the two-headed snake saying what the other half won’t say. It’s here where I begin to see Claire evolving into the ‘vital spark’ of these conjoined spirits, with Frank (all wit, charm and personable) being the ‘soul’.

This reference to the iciness of Washington DC’s exteriors makes its most compelling cameo in Chapter 2 when Claire is convincing (ordering?) Frank to start exercising on a rowing machine she’s bought for him and subsequently installed in his den without his prior approval. Frank finds its mere presence offensive:

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“Aggressive and true”: This is the essence of Claire. The exchange continues:

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Again, you have a reference to how cold it is outside. I don’t think this is accident and is a subtle motif that will run its course throughout the first season. The motif has twice been hinted at in the context of danger (Claire to Zoe) and as an alternative to “monstrosity” (Frank to Claire above). When Zoe steps out of the cab at the symphony, the cold she feels is both physical (i.e. the temperature outside) and metaphysical as Frank and all that he will represent to her stands nearby.

Speaking of the symphony, the classical piece that begins to play as the Underwoods take their seats is the third movement from the Summer Concerto of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Read into that what you will, but I think this is a foreshadowing of the turmoil to come in the first 100 days of Walker’s Presidency. The first 100 days was the deadline Vasquez gave and Frank promised when she asked him to shepherd the President-Elect’s far-left Education Bill.

“This is on you Frank. If you can’t get this passed in the first 100 days, you’re going to have to explain to the President why he lied to the American people.”

Incidentally, 100 days from the President’s first day, January 20th, is April 29th, just on the cusp of Summer. Is Frank plotting a summer storm for the Walker administration or is there one in store for Frank himself? A storm he doesn’t see coming. We’ll see. Maybe I’m stretching the intent of the writer, but the subtext is between the lines if you care to find it. Continuing on with Frank and Claire’s exchange about the rowing machine, she insists:

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Frank’s last line in this scene is not a throwaway, it’s an allusion to the medieval subtext of his relationship with Claire. In fact, I think it’s a wink to Claire’s Lady Macbethian ways and his own medieval (and primeval) world views. Claire is readying Frank for his ultimate crime by ensuring her tool for ascension is healthy and well. While she loves him, the politics are the ends and means all at once. As a political tool Frank needs to be sharpened and in shape. When she ‘suggests’ he could be in better shape, she’s actually saying he could be more focused and match fit, out there in the cold of Washington, plotting his way to the top with her at his side.

Later on, at the Plotting Window, Frank senses a tense silence and wonders aloud to Claire on whether she was scolding him for not using the rowing machine. Indeed she was: “I don’t want to outlive you by 25 years. Use the machine.” It has now explicitly become a direct order from a political partner and no longer a mere suggestion from a concerned wife. After she exits that scene, Frank says to us:

“She’s right, I should take better care of myself but I won’t be a slave to anything or anybody that you can order with a toll-free number.”

It’s interesting to note what meaning, if any, there is in ‘anything or anybody‘, because up to this point we as the audience assume that his problem has been just with the machine. Who is the anybody who could be ordered with a toll-free number? Claire? Perhaps this is a throwaway line but again, as a writer, I know better that nothing is left to chance.

After a painful firing of her long time managing partner, Evelyn, Claire displays even more resoluteness. There is no room for tears.

After a painful firing of her long time managing partner, Evelyn, Claire displays even more resoluteness.
There is no room for tears.

Near the end of Chapter 2, Claire arrives home, sneaks down into the basement to find Frank doggedly exercising on the rowing machine. She watches him quietly without interrupting. We finally see that Claire knows herself to be stronger than her husband, because this has been a slowly plotted victory. She has laid out his navy blue suits, stoked his anger, refocused his resolve, ensured his hair is trim and now has him keeping fit. All of these are daggers being laid out for her husband to use on his journey of retribution, to slay the King (the President) so that one day they may rule. But where will these calculations take Claire spiritually? She is not soulless, so how far will she go and what will it do to her?

In many ways Claire resembles Shahrazad, the teller of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. She is the princess who regales her murderous prince (and keeps him from killing her) with tales of adventure, magic and wonder night after night.  One day he falls so deeply and madly in love with her, that he wants to be with her forever and is dependent on her. In this way, slowly, methodically and intelligently, Shahrazad latched onto her prince early on and made herself vital. She could smell which way the wind was blowing.

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