Chapter 3: Directed by James Foley, Co-written by Keith Huff & Beau Willimon
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Vending Machine Democracy, Dodgeball Politics
and The Tyranny of the Masses
Frank’s Gaffney crisis reveals a lot about the state of contemporary America and Western Liberal Democracies. It shows how constituencies, large or small, are considered strategic necessities much more than they are unique communities entitled to certain rights under the representative system of government. A small town of hundreds, given enough motivation, outrage and will power can bring down an entire republic, let alone a power-hungry congressman. If you find that hard to believe, an example that may sway you was in Tunisia where a young and educated street vendor had merely to set himself ablaze, in utter desperation, to inspire a revolution that brought down an plutocratic dictatorship. Despite outrage that fizzles after a media cycle or two, American communities are becoming increasingly agitated, alienated and motivated to act. The apathy seems to be slowly but surely melting off to reveal a hairy mammoth rage simmering inside. There will come a breaking point as the radicalized polarities in American society clash amidst an economic and fiscal spiral. Small-ball politics, as much as Frank hates to acknowledge, can be dangerous to the established elite on Capitol Hill. That and nothing more is why anyone bothers to “think locally.”
The flip side of this is the noise which distorts the average voter’s understanding of what Democracy really is and what politicians are meant to do. Democracy is a human system, with profoundly nobel foundations but incredibly visible flaws. It is the best out of a large pool of fundamentally flawed socio-economic and political systems. Many writers and philosophers have opined the tyranny of the majority, which simply means that if the 51% majority (or more) decide who governs, what for the needs of the other 49% (i.e. the ‘minority’)? Many lose out when Democracy prevails. The alternatives are not any better, so what does that say about how we structure our societies and define unified experiences and histories.
The average voter believes in Vending Machine Democracy: you drop in a $1.25 in quarters and out comes a bag of Skittles. Input in, output out right? Wrong. That is not how Democracy works! The media and politicians themselves, especially around election time, market Democracy as a sort of deterministic process, or worse like ordering delivery pizza. If you vote, then you are affecting change, or so they say, but what does it mean when ‘change’ is just getting what you want? Is social change really about voting in someone who believes what you believe and enacts policies that benefit you and your immediate environs? Is that what Democracy is about? Or is it about voting for what’s best for you as an individual within a national context?
In truth, voters empower candidates who represent a policy agenda built on a value and ethical platform. When that candidate is voted in with a so-called ‘mandate’, it is no guarantee that this candidate can deliver on that mandate. The problem with campaign promises is not only do they often turn into lies, but that the set-up is inherently false. Getting voted into power is only a small part of affecting policy and passing into law elements of your ‘mandate’. President Obama is not the only example of this, having been swept into a legislative and executive majority only to find himself stonewalled. What does that say about governance and the Democratic process?
In reality, when we vote, we send our candidates into the hallways of power with an agenda in mind. The candidate then must navigate through the ugly, tedious, slow and mediative morass that is governance. Out the other end, through compromise or defeat, usually comes something either akin or completely opposite of what the candidate was fighting for. This is the blessing and risk behind the tyranny of the majority and the narrowness of the minority. Minorities also rule, holding us back through endless and petty filibusters. The checks and balances are certainly there to protect against the tyranny of one (i.e. dictatorship), but it guarantees that voters will often go disappointed. What politicians should be preaching on the campaign stump is compromise and prudence, but that isn’t sexy or sensational enough to get people into the voting booth.
Politicians represent us, they are not embodiments of us regardless of the idealism in ‘of the people by the people’. The minute power is attained, a man or woman is no longer ‘of the people’, despite notable and rare exceptions in history, they become something else entirely: Person plus power. A dangerous combination to say the least.
A campaign promise is a vote-getting exercise meant to get voter buy-in to the fundamental ideals of a candidate. Do politicians lie and steal? Sure they do – all politicians lie and steal, but unfortunately all things are political. That’s not defeatist, it’s just realist until the status quo becomes something else entirely. Just because we vote for a majority candidate, doesn’t mean we get what we want. Not only is it a practical impossibility but, more importantly, it’s undemocratic.
So when a small town like Gaffney, rightfully or wrongfully desperate for attention, plays dodgeball politics by dragging in a congressman amidst the drafting of a crucial and historic education reform bill, it is emblematic of how easily clogged and distracted the process of governing can get. A manufactured crisis that forces politicians into ‘dodgeball’ mode as opposed to proper and thoughtful engagement with their constituents. As a result, political representatives get busy holding back perceptions in the media and in the Agora of public opinion. Sitting in living rooms with priests and victims of calamity, reciting placating prayers and committing to provincial gestures like ham and cheese sandwiches. Frank is forced to do all of these menial things that ultimately will change nothing. Meanwhile, quick and unsophisticated, almost insulting, band-aid solutions are applied post ipso facto.
Case in point, while meeting with the city’s administrators Frank is quick to develop ‘quick fix’ ideas: A scholarship in Jessica’s name, stop-lighting the Peachoid tower, putting up texting and driving ‘safety billboards’ and installing new guard rails. Frank suggests to Jessica’s begrieved parents that these will ensure this kind of thing never happens again. Therein is the problem with sociopolitical perceptions in contemporary America, approaching every tragedy or malady with a series of stop-gap measures that give the illusion of change, progress or prevention. Floods, shooting massacres, kidnappings, murders, terrorist attacks, being hacked by the Chinese and small town, southern teenage girls veering off the road and slamming into a giant peach. No matter what processes or policies or precautions we enact, these things will still happen, though Americans continue believing there is a way to eradicate them entirely. How does a society not become increasingly disillusioned when promised a way to end all impending forms of doom and danger, only to have them happen time and again regardless. On some philosophical grounds, that kind of Sisyphean despair is grounds for mass suicide. Where does this grande illusion come from and how much is it hurting the act of efficient and effective governance, and above all on what course is it setting American society as its expectations and meager political attention spans continue to tear it apart? Time will tell, but to Frank it’s all a matter of the expediency made possible by cultural cache:
“Humility is at once the form of [my people’s] strength and weakness. If you humble yourself before them, they will do anything.”
A small aside: When Frank is consoling Jessica’s grieving parents in the living room, after having served them hand-made ham and cheese sandwiches, we once again find Frank addressing issues of “senseless” pain. In Chapter 1, Frank expressed his disdain for “useless pain” and by extension “useless things”. It gets me thinking of the parallels between the pup he euthanized and these yelping parents who grieve about a tragedy no person or God could have controlled:
“What are we supposed to do in the face of so much senseless pain?…What else can we do? But take what seems meaningless and try to make something meaningful from it.”
Frank Whips Gaffney Out Of Its Frenzy
From a character development point of view, Chapter 3 does an exquisite job of drawing out the qualities that make Frank so successful, likeable and dangerous. His ability to galvanize people behind simple ideas while his talent for acting quickly and decisively displays the charismatic qualities of a genuine leader. He’s there even though he doesn’t want to be, but like all things Frank he’s going to go at this 100% or not all. Frank doesn’t do anything half-assed or middle ground. The chapter contrasts Frank’s ability to bridge divides in the high stakes battle for education reform via cell phone, all the while sitting among his towns folk in a make-shift meeting room trying to resolve a brewing crisis. He’s not going to let this little dalliance with the hinterland’s daisies get in the way of his grander plan, not by a long shot.
Frank seems to rise above it all, managing and mediating groups of people in DC and Gaffney all at once and with the same devious aplomb. It reveals fundamental qualities about people in Western Liberal Democracies: In addition to being industrious, innovative and visionary they can be incredibly petty, vicious, tedious, slow and self-serving. Nothing happens without the mediatory magic of Frank’s whip, even though just below the surface simmers a deep disdain and malevolence, without a real care for these “thick” people and their “thick” blood. As he said in the opening, when Frank arrives in Gaffney, in many ways he has to transform back into one of them in order to control them.
After stemming the crisis, Frank goes to see Oren Chase again and is this time less cordial, asserting his authority over the petty councilman. Peering down on him like a monument over a blade of grass he warns Chase that Frank didn’t win the 5th District eleven times merely because of luck. There is a design behind it all, and Frank was certainly not the kind of man to leave things up to chance. Leaving things primarily in the hands of the masses is a dive off a short plank into shallow waters. To achieve longevity and real power in the American political sphere it requires more than simply garnering “the votes.” It requires the ability to maneuver and fit pieces of a puzzle into spaces they weren’t meant to fit which is the real art (or madness) of acquiring great power. Frank believes this because while he lauds President Walker’s ability to receive the votes of over 70 million Americans, Walker lacks the keys to the real powers of governance.
Claire Realizes She Can’t Outrun Mortality
Chapter 3 begins to fold together complex layers of character motivations for Claire Underwood. In Chapter 2, Claire bumped off half of her CWI staff and unceremoniously fired her long-time managing director Evelyn without so much as batting an eye. But as we said in A Woman Mightier Than The Sword, Claire is beginning to show the effects of a psyche buckling under the weight of her conscience and a looming mortality. Claire feels that her final judgement is coming and the legacy she leaves behind is now a multiple of the time she has left. Where is all this power-hungry manipulation going and what is it getting her? And while Claire remains steadfast, she begins to wonder where she may have gone wrong. Chapter 3 affirms my theory that while Claire and Frank have much in common and are in many ways mirror images of one another, in the most fundamental ways Claire is not amoral. Claire has a withered but surviving moral integrity which riddles her with some deep-seated pain. There are secrets she hides, but cannot immediately address.
There’s a wonderful little scene at the end of Chapter 2 when Claire is at a café buying coffee. The cashier is an older woman who struggles with a newly installed high-tech POS system. A younger staff member swoops in for the rescue and it’s immediately apparent that Claire is emotionally affected by this, perhaps reflecting on the fate of Evelyn who is in her professional twilight and will doubtless struggle to get on her feet again. Claire is haunted perhaps by the guilt of having cast Evelyn into a fate similar to the elderly cashier, and maybe remembers her haunting words:
“I am 59 years old, nobody hires anybody my age…and to do what? Bag groceries? What am I supposed to tell my kids?…No you’re not (sorry), you don’t give a fuck.”
The scene at the café has barely any dialogue and lasts for barely a minute but it is shot in a way that reflects a woman with a soul battling against her strongest political impulses. The scene also does a fine job of making subtle commentary on the ‘Obama economy’ that has no place for late-career white-colour professionals who cannot afford to retire and who’s futures may have been wiped out by the financial irregularities that caused the economy, and many people’s retirement plans, to collapse in 2008. Many professionals were thrown askew into a purgatory of service industry and retail, hourly wage work that have a habit of stripping the soul of its dignity. Another sign of the times, but also one of the several hints that Claire is also beginning to see herself in these embattled people. How many degrees of separation really buffers Claire from being the head of a multi-national NGO and the wife of one of America’s most powerful men, to a struggling cashier at a café. In today’s economy and in the cruel political landscape in which she exists, the separation is only paper-thin.
The Shame of Lady Claire
In Chapter 3, Claire embarks on a journey of slowly confronting her own Lady Macbethian shame and mortality. She’s at a point in her life when she can begin imagining the horizon and the twilight that awaits behind it. This theme makes itself apparent as Claire is on her regular morning jog, which takes her through a local cemetery. She is accosted by an older woman who berates her for jogging in the cemetery, “have you no shame?” she shouts at Claire. Flustered, Claire quickly gathers herself and exits. Later in the chapter, on another jog, Claire avoids entering the cemetery all together. She stops short at the entrance and turns around.
At the very end of Chapter 3, Claire is strolling through the cemetery this time merely as a patron instead of just a passer-by. The cemetery has become a place for reflection instead of part of a morning commute or routine. She spots a young couple making out in the grass, and while she finds this pleasing we can’t help but wonder what its like for her to be looking back in time to a place where she was filled with idealism, love and reckless abandon. The invincibility is gone and time is beginning to catch up with her.
Jiminy Cricket or A Greek Chorus?
The older lady in the cemetery, Jessica’s grieving parents, the wounded pup, Evelyn, Gillian, the lady in the café and the homeless man outside the capitol building. The first three chapters have offered a growing number of supporting and ancillary characters who are beginning to form a Greek Chorus that makes its own, unified, broad commentary about the moral direction of the core narrative drama playing out before our eyes. Moreover, they serve as the conscience of our play and in many ways represent us, the audience. They are our character’s Jiminy Crickets, serving as both active observers and as consciences. They will either be rejected and possibly deceived, in the case of Frank who operates with little remorse, or they will be let in by people like Claire who is struggling with feelings of remorse and regret.
The dichotomies of young/old, new/outdated and themes of mortality and regret come to play heavily in the relationship between Claire and Gillian Cole (played by Sandrine Holt). Claire has been courting Gillian as an eventual replacement for Evelyn. Gillian (coming from the name ‘Julian’ which can mean ‘youth’) is very much the anti-thesis of Claire and the writers have introduced an exceptional character who will not only play against Claire as an ideological thorn in the side, but also as a contemporary who represents everything Claire is not. In other words, through Gillian we see all that Claire wishes she might have been and could have been without years of political and power gambits. Gillian is living a version of one of Claire’s alternate lives, had she pursued higher ideals, made greater sacrifices and perhaps not married Frank. Lets look at the characteristics that make Gillian the “anti-Claire”:
- Gillian is young.
- Gillian struggles with making ends meet, but reconciles that with integrity and values that are not compromised.
- Gillian is not a slave to relationships and is in many ways a free spirit.
- Gillian gets pregnant. Claire has always wanted children but decided not to have any. This is very much about leaving legacies, which we will see Claire confront later in the season.
- Gillian has gotten ahead without manipulation and power.
- Gillian is an idealist and is not so quick to sell out.
- Gillian didn’t take the easy or cowardly path.
- Gillian has her whole life ahead of her, while Claire is struggling with an approaching twilight.
- Gillian seems fearless. Instead of rushing for medical attention, because not only can she not afford health care, she sees value in just riding out the flu.
- Gillian questions the ethics of Claire’s methods, while Claire sees them as practical realities.
Gillian also resembles Zoe in many ways, and we begin to wonder whether Gillian will ever get completely in bed with Claire. Zoe comes to Frank already decidedly corrupt, but Gillian is not corrupted by the time Claire approaches her. Gillian is faced with the dilemma many educated, young, single adults are facing in today’s America: Making a dignified living while keeping your soul in tact. Zoe went one way, Gillian seems to be going another, although we know she will reluctantly sign on with CWI and ultimately threaten Claire and Frank’s plans.
Big Things In Small Conversations
In this golden age of television, we are blessed with an incredible amount of great writing addressing complex dramas and themes in the most compelling and original ways. The “great scene” that audiences wait for to elevate our understanding of characters, their relationships and the drama that surrounds them is still rare and our sixth sense tells us when we are watching one. They stand out amongst the rest, and sometimes those scenes can be written in grande and consequential exchanges or epic visuals, or pared down into simple yet quietly powerful moments. Such was the case mid-way through Chapter 3 where we find Frank in his Gaffney residence mired in the “abstractions and specifics” of the education reform bill. Surrounded by paper work and books, Frank is exhausted but still putting out fires late into the night. A call comes in from Claire. Let’s examine the exchange:
In Chapter 1 Claire chided Frank: “Nine hours you don’t call me?”, but here Frank gets ahead of it by addressing the fifteen hours that have passed since they last spoke, only this time Claire’s response is curiously downplayed, “not even long enough to notice you’re gone.” Which is either her idea of sarcasm or a legitimate and stark contrast to her reaction in Ch. 1, signifying that a shift in priorities has occurred.
There’s also another reference to Frank’s ongoing obsession with pain (there are two in Chapter 3):
“It’s coming. Slowly. Painfully.”
He says this as he lies back onto the table, tumbling into a pile of legal documents and paperwork. Shot from a bird’s eye view, with the phone speaker to DC muted and a smile on his face Frank loses himself in conversation. With his cell phone on his chest and hands folded behind his head, Frank looks like a young man lying back in his college dorm room bed or in a field of grass on a summer’s day. Despite everything, what is apparent is that these two love one another deeply and their relationship is at once admirable and tragic. In its deep, dark and calculating core there is, in many ways, a stronger marriage than most of our own. In the stark honesty and transparency of infidelity, and its apparent necessity, emerges a relationship that lives on a strong bedrock of understanding. In many ways, it’s the kind of relationship many of us wish for but never really achieve: An honest one.
The conversation continues:
White tulips are symbolic of renewal, a fresh start and in a deeper sense, “heaven on Earth.” In this context I think the tulips are representative of the Underwood’s roots in Gaffney, emblematic of perhaps more idealistic and simpler times. Respect the writers for leaving us to wonder and assess the meaning of these little revelations, rather than inundating us with flashbacks, a technique incredibly abused in both film and TV these days. We’re left to ponder and wander through the nooks and crannies of little details like the planting of tulips.
Claire is talking about tulips bulbs just as she is walking through the kitchen and into the living room turning off all the lights in the house. This is an interesting choice and a drawn contrast, because it leaves her finishing off the conversation on the couch and in complete darkness.
Meanwhile, Frank is in Gaffney bathed in a warm light, ominously framed between two pillars of stone. Is this symbolic of his situation sandwiched between Claire and Zoe, like a rock and a hard place? Is this a sign that the walls are closing in on Frank? Or is it even more ominous: pillars or piles of stone signifying the ancient tombs or gravesite of a king? Are these grave stones? It’s considerably more interesting as Claire is trying to explain her strange confrontation with the elderly woman in the cemetery. In fact the framing of the shot pictured above looks a lot the shot of the entrance to the cemetery below. Mortality is staring both of them in the face, taunting them. Consider this possibility from Symbolical Masonry, by H.L. Haywood:
“In some cases these crude rock pillars were thought to be the abodes of gods or demons; in others, homes of the ghosts; and often as symbols of sex.”
Take note of the reference to Claire’s gardening and how it surprises Frank. For one, Frank is still learning new things about his wife, which maybe signifies that the relationship is still fresh and exciting. That you can still be surprised after years of marriage is a good sign (or can it?). Secondly, Frank says “I can’t even picture it”, a line that will echo in his next conversation with Zoe.
Finally, the gardening reference is interesting because in his final confrontation with Oren Chase, Frank grabs a gardening tool and draws a line in the grass. Once he’s delivered his threats, he emphatically stabs it into the ground having effectively “trimmed the weeds,” or so to speak. Oren himself is mowing the lawn. There’s certainly a recurring motif about plants, earth, gardening and flowers in this chapter.
Later, we’ll find Frank picking and assembling a bundle of Claire’s white tulips. Curiously, once Frank returns to the Capitol, he asks Meechum to deliver the tulips to Claire. Meechum arrives at the Underwood residence and doesn’t find her, so he helps himself in and places them in a vas in the middle of the kitchen, where Frank and Claire have done so much of their plotting. He leaves the tulips bathing in one lone kitchen light, whilst the rest of the house sits in complete darkness. This is the final, haunting and foreboding image we see before fading out:
A Zoe By Any Other Name Would Be Claire
Let’s pick up right after Frank says goodbye to Claire and starts up a texting session with Zoe:
The obvious parallels between this conversation and the one with Claire further builds on the push/pull dichotomy between the two women with Frank at its centre (like being flanked by two pillars of stone?) For one, Zoe pulls a Claire and chides Frank about the precise amount of time its been since she’s heard from him, “68 hours, 23 minutes, 11 seconds.” This contrasts nicely with Claire’s decidedly laissez-faire attitude about the fifteen hours that have passed since Frank’s been gone. There seems to be a recurring obsession with the passage of time. Time is ticking for everyone and the inertia seems to be carrying them to some place disastrous. This won’t end well for anyone.
Zoe questions frank incessantly about where things are and what’s next. “Feed me”, she says with sexual undertones, again mimicking Claire’s Chapter 1 insistence that they do everything together and inform one another about everything, “otherwise we’re in free fall.”
Frank playfully chides Zoe for being “unstoppable,” which she embraces emphatically and to which Frank replies “I can’t even imagine”, referring it seems to Zoe’s propensity for ambition. This echoes the expression used with Claire about her gardening: “I can’t even picture it.” Additionally, both Zoe and Claire are talking to Frank ensconced in near complete darkness, in small nondescript areas of their homes. This contrast of light and dark is a recurring motif, particularly in the context and symbolism of white tulips.
The biggest parallel of course is that both conversations end with sexual flirtatiousness. Claire and Frank curiously exchange a bit of explicitly dirty repartee in French, while Zoe promises Frank a blown kiss on her TV appearance, with their conversations now increasingly peppered with sexual subtext.
Isn’t scene breakdown cool? The art and craft of writing and performance mixed with the filmic grammar of shot selection and production dessign dance in unison to create something incredibly studied, informed, resonant and beautiful. Gotta love it.
Zoe’s conversation with Frank is bookmarked later on by Zoe’s appearance on CNN’s Starting Point with Solodad O’brien. Zoe openly addresses the boys club of politics and media and the challenges she faces as a reporter. I find it interesting that Zoe is wearing her white ‘performance dress’, the same one she wore the night of the symphony. This seems to be Zoe’s go to when she’s putting on a show.
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that when she is confronted later on by a livid Hammerschmidt, she’s still in the white dress as she stands in his office and I couldn’t help but think of the white tulips. In fact, come to think of it, every major character appears in white at one point or another in this chapter. Just sayin’.
Soon after, Zoe is on the phone with Frank again asking for his advice on whether to quit the Herald or stay on. She suspects Frank will want her to stay on, but he surprises her: “For people like you and I, treading water is the same as drowning,” he says, and encouraging her to follow her own advice and do what she needs to do. Eventually she will decide to quit the Herald and enter the next phase of her journey. What’s clear is that Frank sees benefit in her sense of independence and freedom from the crutches of old-school journalistic standards. Old school journalism, dominated by stodgy white men isn’t going to cut it anymore.
To Caress Or Not Caress The Serpent
Meanwhile, back the ranch we begin to see Peter getting pieces of his life back together. He wants Christina to stay, she is the light in his life. If you don’t believe me, notice when he’s in the bathroom she’s searching for a light bulb (light bulbs, tulip bulbs, tulips = light? Get it?).
For me Peter is the only main character that fundamentally represents the average man from the streets thrown into circumstances larger and more complex than he can comprehend or manage. Peter is that broken soul looking for a reconciliation and a redemption. We sympathize with him and grow to care for him more than anyone else because he is so fundamentally flawed while wanting so much not to be. He’s that existential creature who is searching for a meaning among all the “senseless pain” that surrounds him, and somehow finds reasons to keep going on. How remarkable is it that we continue on in the midst of such relentless hate and sadness in the world? I’m reminded of a “to be or not to be” type reference on mortality in Voltaire’s Candide:
“I have wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I am still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our more stupid melancholy propensities, for is there anything more stupid than to be eager to go on carrying a burden which one would gladly throw away, to loathe one’s very being and yet to hold it fast, to caress the serpent that devours us until it has eaten our hearts away?”
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