The Destructive Power of Small Things
“Lets not get bogged down in abstractions. Let’s deal with specifics.” – Frank Underwood, Chapter 3.
The first two chapters of House of Cards establish the world we’ll be living in, the narrative rules we’ll be abiding by, the stakes at play and the characters who we are being asked to emotionally invest in as they stand to suffer or benefit from their respective machinations. For the first time, but certainly not the last, Chapter 3 draws us in and away from the abstractions of epic truth and consequences, and spends a masterful hour (its best yet) mired in the fine details of life.
Thematically, Chapter 3 is about the extreme power of small things, the requirement for baby steps to achieve adult goals and the futility of helplessness. It also examines causality, the narratives in random events and the withering away of America’s rural culture. The writers have decided to take us out of the urban pit of calamity that is DC and take us into the forgotten hinterland where the foundations of the United States was built. In the wide plains, deep south and high Rockies. Where are these people now and what has become of them? They’re out there still living, striving and trying to make sense of it all, especially in the south with its unique and defined culture, where many are still trying to reconcile its defeat in the Civil War. Why would someone like Frank Underwood even spare a moment to travel to his 5th District hometown of Gaffney, South Carolina? It’s simple: because they can vote, and votes mean power, which means votes always matter.
In the 5th District of South Carolina, No One Can Hear You Scream
In the midst of the chaotic negotiations with union leaders, teacher’s associations, lobbyists, school boards officials and political opportunitists, Frank is forced to step away from the task of making history (and running the country) with education reform and attend to a crisis in his home district. A local city council member and crotchety grouch, Oren Chase, has decided to literally make a federal case about Frank’s role in the untimely death of, Jessica, a local teenage girl. Back in his days serving the district, Frank fought for the erection (pun intended) of a giant peach, the Gaffney Peachoid, in celebration of the region’s peach farmers. Depending on who you ask in Gaffney, the Peachoid looks like a Penis, Vagina or Ass suspended in mid-air. While texting and driving, Jessica veered off the road and slammed into the Peachoid, killing her in the process. Chase has decided to take this opportunity to publicly flog, and directly blame, the girl’s death on Frank. If it weren’t for the Peachoid, he cynically claims, she’d still be alive. The townsfolk’s seem to have drunk Oren’s Koolaid and as momentum grows against Frank, he can’t afford ignoring a crisis that could cost him a congressional seat as a result of Oren’s shenanigans. Chase himself has schemes in mind himself, hoping that by getting Frank’s attention he can secure a seat in Congress in the next round of elections.
Frank, of course, has no time for the insignificance of ‘small things’ and ‘small people’. Frank holds his old stomping grounds with a deep-seated contempt, reminiscing about how suffocated he was in Gaffney as a child. This disdain for small things does not preclude Frank’s own logic about why he still must address the problem in Gaffney swiftly, because he understands that while small things and small towns don’t really matter in the grand scheme of historic reform, especially his scheme, they have a habit of becoming large problems. Frank understands that this issue in Gaffney is a nuisance that must not be swatted away like a mosquito, but smashed like a maggot, for while the former are mere annoyances, the latter multiply and latch on to things, causing decay.
In returning to Gaffney, Frank is also confronting another aspect of his past and Southern heritage, which he can easier escape in the urban pond that is Washington DC: God. God is alive and well in Gaffney and Frank not only has to confront God, but his constituents need him to address him as well. Frank, as we’ve seen, has a rather complicated relationship with God. God has let people down, and more importantly let him down and while he believes, Frank has no time to lament why humanity has been forsaken. Rather, Frank is focused on the business of picking up the pieces of the mess God has left behind. As far as Frank is concerned, he’s just doing everybody a favour.
With the weight of small things and the inevitable confrontation between Frank and his maker, one can look to Luke 16:10 in the Bible itself to understand how things that seem insignificance interact and effect those that are.
“He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.”
Frank may well be aware of this precept and perhaps he understands that part of attending to the largess of education reform, and ultimately his ascendency into the White House, is being “righteous in very little things.”
Our central characters having to take baby steps in order to reach adult goals, is a theme that which permeates all of the show’s plot threads in Chapter 3. Claire is aggressively trying to recruit Gillian Cole , in many ways her anti-thesis, in order to move CWI towards the global direction she wants to take it to. Gillian is well-traveled, humble, young, unconnected, relatively poor and uncorrupted by power and wealth. Gillian is wary of getting entangled with CWI particularly because of Claire’s reputation for initiating shady deals to get ahead (not the last time this will get in between them) . Gillian is uncomfortable with methods that maybe questionable in terms of ethics and integrity. Gillian wonders how CWI has money to pay thousands of dollars to a photographer (Claire’s lover Adam) while firing half of their staff. Claire explains that this is just a part of how things get done and how money is raised in the high stakes world of Washington NGOs. Gillian’s journey isn’t too dissimilar from Zoe’s in that again we have a young, educated and bright mind having to face the prospect of living sacrificing a dignified living in order to maintain integrity. While Gillian can’t afford health care, the reward has been not having to sell out. The alternative is to live well but sacrifice one’s fundamental morals, the story of many struggling youths looking to make a difference in a world that continually asks them to compromise and sacrifice a piece of themselves in order to get ahead.
Meanwhile Peter and Christina take stock of their personal and working relationship, feeling one another out as he fights to overcome drug addiction and she weighs a job opportunity with the Speaker’s Office. Both are in search of stability, but with Peter’s struggle drugs and alcohol, perhaps what’s needed to achieve that is to be apart. These are important and weighty matters that are addressed in small, subtle micro character beats confined to domestic spaces like at a dining table or in the bathroom while looking for a toothbrush or searching for a light bulb. .
Christina tests Peter by asking his opinion on whether she should take the job with the Speaker’s Office. Presumably, if he encourages her to take it, then implicitly he agrees with that they should put more distance between them. If he asks her not to take the job, it implies he’s committed to making things work with her both personally and professionally. Peter reluctantly takes the intuitively unselfish route, as any of us would, and supports her taking the job. Later in his apartment, Peter is in the bathroom looking for a tooth-brush, Christina is looking for a light bulb and he stumbles on a small bag of cocaine. A small bag that can make or break his destiny. The destructive power of small things. He decides to toss the coke and with that comes clean by telling Christina that he hopes she doesn’t take the job and wants her to stay. Deep down, it seems, this is what Christina wanted to hear and she agrees to stay on. The next morning, a Sunday, she finds Peter working hard on a presentation. She’s surprised because he rarely works on Sunday mornings, so something has changed for the better. She then emphasizes that she’s deciding to stay on, not because it’s what Peter wants, but because it’s what she wants.
The final shot of them together, in Sunday morning pajamas, going over the fine details of a power point presentation reflects the domesticity that this chapter will lend all the story lines. Every character is captured in moments of dressed down, human and small case casualness, dealing magically in tiny things.
A Toothache Might Be Worse For You Than The End of the Universe
Last week I read a report about experiments being conducted at CERN, which seek to understand the implications of the recently confirmed Higgs Boson, a sub-atomic particle believed to give matter its mass (another very small thing with larger implications). The report said that simple calculations based on assumptions involving the Higgs Boson indicate the universe is inherently unstable and on course to destroy itself in billions of years time. It so happens that as I read this, I was suffering from a massive toothache which, if you’ve ever had one, you know can completely dominate your thoughts and attention. If ever you wanted a profound example of how vulnerable we humans are and how we are at the destructive mercy of tiny things that we barely understand, there is no finer example than the toothache and its ability to incapacitate.
Before we tie in Chapter 3, think about these two things for a minute: On the one hand, the existential implications of a universe that is destined for destruction, whether that’s tomorrow or in ten billion years, is profoundly historic and large. The ability for us as a species to explore and define that our existence is finite, regardless of any religious beliefs or laws we may conjure up, is incredibly unique to humans. It’s debatable whether this knowledge is a curse or a blessing, but either way its revelatory.
On the other hand, what also makes us unique is our extreme vulnerability to small things. Small pain. “Useless pain”, to use the parlance of Congressman Underwood. A toothache nearly put me out of commission, to the point that I couldn’t sleep, eat, chew or speak. The solution to the end of the universe is really not something we can capably fathom (it is in many ways an “abstraction”), but perhaps it might be in something tiny, like the microbial power of antibiotics which are what I needed to solve my toothache. The smallness of a toothache and the massive scope of the fate of the universe, are both eternally destructive if left unaddressed. The end of the universe, or the historic quality of educational reform, are so large and abstract that one begins to wonder what real affect they have on the here and now for everyday folk who are just trying to live their lives. The end of the universe has little direct implications for us small people relative to the relatively small things that ail us, like a tiny, teeny toothache that can cause havoc, much like the Gaffney Peachoid.
Frank “James” and The Giant Peach
Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach is a classic children’s tail about an orphan boy who uses the magic bestowed onto him by a wizard to find escape from a troubled home life and an uncaring family. James escapes his world of trouble by planting magic seeds that turn a peach and its tiny insect inhabitants into large anthropomorphic creatures capable of human things like cruelty, selfishness, manipulation and redemptive qualities like kindness and friendship. James’s story is essentially about how the small things in his life grow into big problems.
In Chapter 3, Frank “James” Underwood (the assumption that the “J” stands for “James” is mine until proven otherwise)* descends into the small town of Gaffney, made large by the sophistry of the political machine. Frank must navigate the once insignificant insects that have now come alive and are large, powerful, manipulative and selfish in their goals and attentions. He must navigate them and the giant peach they live inhabit.* It has since been proven otherwise by a show insider.
Causality and the Abrahamic Tradition
Believe it or not, Chapter 3 addresses the philosophical and political manifestations of causality in terms of theological belief systems, especially the Abrahamic monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The people of Gaffney have been manipulated by Oren into believing that if years before Frank hadn’t installed the Peachoid, it wouldn’t have been there to cause the Jessica’s death. In other words, the Jessica’s fate was set the minute the Peachoid was installed. To blame Frank for this seems at first to be a reflex by God-fearing folk trying to make sense of seemingly random events.
Religious conservatives are at their most frantic when God bestows misery on good people, either through death or calamity of one sort or another. Gaffney has to blame somebody, anybody, other than God himself because that would simply be blasphemous. The irony of it all is that the concept of omnicausality in Abrahamic religions, is the belief that God has set in motion all events at the dawn of time; he is the determiner and the cause of all things. Which means, the entire town of Gaffney, in blaming Frank, is actually entering into a course of blasphemous presumption.
There’s a deep symbolism here, as Oren Chase’s politically self-serving attention-getting has in fact corrupted the town by steering them away from the traditional understanding of religious omnicausality. The entire town, in avoiding attribution of the tragic event to an act of God, is betraying their Christian beliefs. But how can you blame a town like Gaffney, itself a representation of a hinterland forsaken by the urban elites, for not blaming God. God is all they have in the face of a Godless world and a government that ignores their relatively small problems. It goes back to the end of Chapter 2 when Frank opined to the raging homeless man on the curbside: “No one cares about you. Nothing will come of this.” This is Gaffney’s plight, shouting to be heard after God has seemingly abandoned them. Sadly, the scapegoating of Frank and Washington will not provide much more comfort. But Gaffney is also indicative of the problem as much as it is of its victims, because it’s the small time issues of these towns that sometimes go about clogging up the pipes of bureaucracy and threaten real broad reform and political progress.
Who walks down the center aisle of Gaffney’s church, Bible in hand, to stand at the pulpit and address the denizens about the power of a loving God? Why Frank Underwood himself, thank you very much. This political nihilist who has cast away morality in exchange for power, is in the sake of political expediency going to go about trying to reaffirm the faith of an entire town by reminding them about Abrahamic omnicausality. What better way for us as an audience to get to see another one of Frank’s charismatic manipulations, but also to develop our understanding of Franks relationship with God, itself a recurring motif throughout the rest of the first season.
Frank Hates God But Loves the Truth
Frank is the classic narrative truth teller. We know this because he revels in living in and delivering the harsh truths of a neo-realist about the nature of the world: It is dark, broken, corrupt and God has abandoned it. That said, we must wonder sometimes how much of the Franks deceptive qualities extend beyond the fourth wall. We are beholden to the information Frank decides to share with us. In Frank’s scenes, we get insight from the character himself about his inner thoughts, feelings and processes. Can we be confident that he is always telling us the truth? What deceptions will we fall victim to? In the scenes that don’t involve Frank, what we see is what we get. We have to infer, sometimes to a frustrating degree what the character is thinking. Particularly in the scenes with Claire, who has moments that at times beg for a breaking of the fourth wall. In many ways, without us to talk to, the other characters seem to speak the truth more than Frank, or at the very least a different kind of truth. One that we have a hand in forming as opposed to the one Frank forms for us. Frank is lulling us, manipulating us, charming us along with everyone else in his world.
Within this context, we go back to the church as Frank screams to the gasps of the faithful: “I hate you God! I hate you!” There is shame for a moment as the townsfolk know that this is also what they have felt in the midst of this tragedy. In many ways it is what many Americans have felt in the face of recent tragedies, such as with the Newton Massacre. If only the powers at be would get rid of the guns, those children would still be alive. This is fertile ground for a seething hate for God. Frank confesses his truth:
“I know about hate! Hate rises fast and volcanic!”
Slowly, Frank uses the magic of his brute-force honesty, manipulation and charm to lure people of Gaffney back into the bosom of God’s love and his purpose. God planned this and while it doesn’t make any sense, you must have faith in him and not “lean on ones own understanding.” You must know that this makes sense in some larger, cosmic sense. Frank shares the pain he felt after the death of his father at a relatively young age, only to reveal to us that he had little regard for his father who “barely scratched the surface of life.” This exchange reveals a couple of things we should note.
For one, Frank believes in him but he does indeed hate God. He’s not merely making a dramatic point, although he presents it only as such, but he is expressing what he truly believes. God has let him down and failed humanity. In his exchange with us, we understand that Frank doesn’t seem to have any particular daddy issues, for he had no particular regard for his father. Though I would argue, he has anti-daddy issues, in the sense that he has no remorse for the loss of his father, and he would deny that his father had any influence on him at all. Perhaps this explains not only his attitude towards the world, in the sense that he is obsessed with becoming a historic figure of influence and power in order to make up for growing up with a lackluster patriarch, but also explaining his attitude towards God. In other words, Frank’s anti-daddy issues are also his anti-God issues, because God has been as ineffective and inconsequential as his father was.
“Trust in the lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. Lean not on your own understanding. God is telling us to trust him. To love him despite our own ignorance. after all what is faith if it doesn’t endure when we are tested the most. We will never understand why God took Jessica.”
And with that, Frank has won the masses back over. He has quelled their hate and ensured the ever-controlling presence of a God, which he can wield again and again in his quest for control, and re-ignited their faith for his own ends. If there is a hell, Frank has certainly reserved his spot.
Black Swans and Highly Improbable Events
Chapter 3 not only addresses causality from a theological perspective, it also examines the epistemological implications of highly improbably random events which have large and extreme effects. This is addressed primarily, and in wonderful prose, by philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his seminal 2007 book The Black Swan, where unexpected and unconsidered extreme events defy traditional prediction models and constantly upend our worlds, whether it’s WWII, 9/11 or an asteroid. Jessica slamming into the Peachoid and the crisis in Gaffney is a black swan, a highly improbably and surreal event that Frank could not have possibly considered regardless of how much strategic clairvoyance he or Doug Stamper could muster. Likewise, for the residents of Gaffney, the outrage over the Peachoid is only a reflection of the fallacy of applying narratives to a series of random facts. The “narrative fallacy”, according to Taleb refers to building stories around these facts in order to serve a purpose. Oren uses the events around Jessica’s death to manipulate his way into a position of having some kind of political leverage. Gaffney uses the events to address their political grievances and how ignored they feel by God and government. Frank builds a narrative around these events as a means of manipulating his constituents with stories of God’s greater plan. The inability of humanity and human systems, in the forms of governments, institutions and communities, to reliably predict or even be prepared for highly improbable, extreme effect events is one of the fundamental problems ailing American economic recovery and its political unity. In fact, it is a particularly powerful contributor to the radicalization of American life and politics. In other words, America should stop being shocked and instead prepare for more mass shootings, economic calamities and wars. America should bet more on the occurrences of highly improbable random events, positive or negative, and avoid wrapping false narratives around them in order to be less blind to their impending consequences.
Coming Soon: Chapter 3: Part 2: Tip-toe in the Tulips, Light & Dark, Claire’s Mortality, Peter Russo’s Redemption, Gardening in Gaffney and Ham & Cheese Sandwiches