Chapter 4: Directed by James Foley, Co-written by Rick Cleveland & Beau Willimon
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The Man With No Politics
We’ve established Frank’s apolitical nihilism centered on an ideology of power and control. Two compelling comparisons come to mind when trying to define the deeper layers underneath this essence. The first is to the hired gun drifter in Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name Trilogy played by Clint Eastwood. A nameless man whose only ideology was his own, and to which he paid homage by playing various antagonists against one another to come out the winner. The moral ambiguity of Eastwood’s epic anti-hero, in its own odd way, taught us something about the way the world really worked and about how we as people manage to survive in it. It made the brave statement that the best way to face a fundamentally unstable and screwed up existence was to let the world go at it while you climb to the top of the wreckage heap, with your dignity in tact.
The second comparison comes in the form of Tom Reagan (a Man With No Name derivative character), played by Gabriel Byrne in the Coen Brothers masterpiece Miller’s Crossing. The Coen Brothers drew on thematic and visual motifs from Leone’s films as well as from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. In that film, Reagan starts as a Machiavellian number one to an Irish-Mob kingpin as the latter goes to war with a local hot-headed Italian Don. Byrne’s character plays both sides off one another in a complex web of manipulations, which even the audience is kept in the dark about until the end. However, Reagan’s motivations are less about power and chiefly about his freedom and independence (much like Eastwood’s character), costing him his soul and friendships in the process. In an early scene Reagan can’t bring himself to execute John Turturro’s Bernie in the woods at Miller’s Crossing in a classic and heartbreaking scene that will leave you blubbering in a pool of tears (“look in your heart!”). Reagan’s morals get the best of him and as a result Bernie comes back haunt him in more ways than one. Later, at the climax of the film, the scene in the woods is mirrored when Reagan has the one-up on Bernie again. He is begging for his life and shouts the familiar refrain, “look in your heart!”, to which Reagan this time replies: “What heart?” before shooting Bernie dead.
Politics & Promises
After a closed-door meeting between Congressional Democrats and President Obama in early February of this year, various news outlets reported that several democratic congressmen were angry with the president. Anonymously quoted attendees described the president as “aloof”, “disengaged” and “unresponsive” to concerns that he had not cultivated relationships with Hill Democrats since he’d taken office. The same Hill Democrats who hooked their boot straps to Hillary Clinton during the primaries were expecting some Obama lovin’. So much for integrity. Some congressmen were even quoted as saying Obama was “acting like a Republican.” All of this of this probably a hold out from four years of what seemed like Obama compromising too much on principles and relinquishing too much to the Republicans, particularly during the 2011 budget and debt ceiling fiasco (if there had been a movie about that period it could have been titled Fiscal Cliff: The Beginning). In essence, to Democrats, Obama was behaving like a Republican and to the Republicans Obama was a socialist cypher. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Oi!bama!
Cut to Chapter 4 and Democratic Speaker of the House Bob Birch (Larry Pine) telling Francis Underwood that he won’t budge to a Democratic president “acting like a Republican.” Bob is also upset that the president won’t meet him directly about the issue. Frank wants to include an anti-collective bargaining provision in the bill as leverage to wrestle performance standards from the teacher’s unions. Problem is, Birch won’t have any of it and it won’t see the light of the House floor as long as it’s even a consideration. Birch is Frank’s immediate boss and doesn’t mince any words when he says Frank is resorting to lying because he had told Spinella (in Chapter 3) that collective bargaining was off the table. Then a terse but fascinating exchange:
Frank: “No, I revised the parameters of my promise.”
Birch: “Which is lying.”
Frank: “Which is politics.”
It seems like an intuitive point but essentially reaffirming that a politicians promise is revisable at the precise moment of political expediency and as far as the morality and ethics of “lying” goes, politics inherently is about misdirection in the process of negotiation and self-interested strategic thinking. “Which is politics” is Frank’s way of saying “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
Most of us hate both.
Monumental Finks and Phalli
Linda tells Frank that Bob gets no face time with the president before the bill goes to the floor and that she won’t budge on collective bargaining despite Frank’s advice that the provision be struck from the bill so as not to burn bridges with House Democrats. For the first time we see Linda and Frank butting heads and having conflicting desires. Despite Linda’s gratitude for Frank’s advice, she doesn’t take it (at least not this instance).
The next scene at the urinals does a couple of things. First off we see classic male pattern insecurity as Birch takes a piss to mark his territory and flashes Frank his, presumably large, nether regions to reassert his authority. Frank doesn’t flinch and I wonder if the writer’s are winking to us about the late-season reveal about Frank’s sexuality or just telling us that he isn’t phased at all by Birch’s posturing. Either way, Bob is flippant about what the president wants and uninterested in Linda Vazquez’s demands. Bob tells Frank “I don’t care what he ran on, he can’t steamroll the House…You work for me, not for him…if he wants something on the floor he’s going to have to talk directly to me.”
Frank delivers a speech laced with one honking double-entendre about “Manhood.”
“I know you take a lot of pride in your Manhood, Bob, and it’s impressive. But as big as it is, Linda can still shut the door on it.”
This won’t be the first time this chapter we see an establishment old white male losing it after being nipped in the bud by a woman with considerable amount of power.
Aside from the literal phallic drop employed by Bathroom Bob, phallic imagery appears in symbolic ways in this Chapter. In the opening scene in Bob’s office the Washington Monument peeks through the window. Not its last cameo of the chapter.
Speaking of monuments it really is true what they say about the universal male compulsion to compensate for their shortcomings isn’t it? Don’t believe me? Here’s a small sampling:
Machiavellian Copyright Infringement
The Man With No Politics rears his mighty head again when, in a meeting with Vazquez and President Walker, Frank reverses on his earlier advice to strike the anti-collective bargaining provision. Vazquez, with her own Machiavellian panache on full display, steals Frank’s idea and he doesn’t miss a beat in countering her “advice” to the president. Frank tells the President that the provision should be kept in, with the Bill going to the House as is, because kneeling down to Birch would mean four years of impotency with congressional Democrats (sound familiar Obamamaniacs?). Vazquez doesn’t see the reversal coming of course but she can’t say much without outing herself. The president agrees to let Frank work his magic.
Frank confides in us on his way out about her stealing his pitch:
“That was her trying to take credit for my idea, advice she wouldn’t take from me. Unacceptable. I will not allow her to sell my goods when she cuts me out of the profits.”
If this isn’t enough to sell Frank’s apolitical nihilism, I don’t know what does. It’s a good move for now, but it’s going to leave him with the same Birch problem he was trying to get rid of. A new approach is called for and we’ll see it unfold in the rest of the chapter in a brilliant sequence of calculations that we’ll talk about later this week.
Reclamation & The C-Word
Feminist literature is littered with theories about the “reclamation” of oppressive patriarchal, misogynistic and sexist language, including the C-word. Much in the same way that sectors of African-American progressives believe the reclamation of the N-word has allowed Blacks to control the terms of engagement in terms of its usage, power, politics, cultural cache and meaning. Chapter 4 makes astute commentary on this when the C-word shows up in this memorable scene between Tom Hammerschmidt and Margaret Tilden (Kathleen Chalfant), who are exchanging views on Zoe’s recent recalcitrance:
Not only does Margaret’s anecdote get the point across that Zoe’s agitator-in-chief qualities are good for business and readership, but it also reveals Margaret’s cynical motives. Margaret is using Zoe too because despite appearances, she isn’t as concerned about journalistic standards as much as she is with “cutting through the clutter” and stemming the tide of a dwindling readership.
Margaret’s anecdote also makes subtle commentary on class and culture. Namely Southern culture and its penchant for pride, integrity and blunt honesty. It also seems to imply that there isn’t really a “Northern” culture in the United States, only money and class. Money and class is what stands for culture in the blue-blood North East and the rust belt to the South West (i.e. the Union “Yankee” States). Southern Culture is as much about religion, tradition, dignity and rebellion as much as it is about money, class and race.
In this scene we also have another successive sequence of a female authority figure cutting a man down to size. Vazquez indirectly keeps Birch at bay, while here Margaret tells Hammerschmidt what’s what. In many ways it’s also about the white male establishment watching the way things have been begin to crumble to economic, technological and sociopolitical pressures.
This exchange echoes into the later scenes between Zoe and Hammerschmidt, who offers our intrepid reporter a promotion to Chief White House Correspondent. A quantum leap forward for Zoe, but one can read this as a roundabout strategic move by Hammerschmidt to handcuff Zoe and getting her out of the way (one wonders if this is the same tactic he used with Janine in years past).
Surprisingly, Zoe is hesitant to take the job, for one because she’s got to check what repercussions this has for her arrangement with Frank and for another she needs to ask herself whether this is really what she wants. A talking head press-points regurgitation-machine isn’t exactly a path to a legendary and powerful career. Remember Frank’s wise and apropos philosophy about the easy win:
“Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.”
In many ways big and small, Zoe is thinking along the same lines. This isn’t just about getting the cushy White House gig and melting into the comfortably numb bubble of oblivion. This is about joining the ranks of journalists who made and changed history by speaking truth to power and exposing corruption and crime at the highest levels of American power. This is about exposing lies: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Libby-Plame Affair, Abu Ghraib, “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” and the Drone Program. It’s about leaving a journalistic legacy at any price.
Fast forward to a few days later and Zoe’s gotten the harsh flip off from Frank who sees her consideration of the promotion as a violation of their pact:
“This changes everything…call me if you find yourself available again.”
When Zoe goes back to Hammerschmidt to turn down the promotion, he flips his lid and unleashes the C-word on her. This pays off the set-up from his exchange with Margaret as Tom has taken her rather liberal use of the C-Word as some sort of passive permission to wield it himself. Bad move. It may sound like a double standard but the rules of reclamation say that when a woman uses it, the context of its meaning is altered, but when a man uses it, its misogynistic. Reclamation is about re-appropriating powers originally in the hand of the oppressor, so within that context it’s not a double standard, it’s simply trying to level the playing field.
Even as Hammerschmidt is kicking her out of the office, she’s coolly sending a text of the incident into cyberspace. Like all things Zoe, she’s got a plan B and this is going to come back and bite Tom in the ass:
“Call me whatever you want, but you should remember, these days, when you’re talking to one person, you’re talking to a thousand.”
This is about old/young, man/woman and digital/analogue. Classic stuff.
Zoe = Claire = Zoe = Claire
We’ve made a big hullabaloo about the motifs that overlap, contrast, mirror and repeat themselves in terms of the relationships Zoe and Claire share with Frank. With that in mind, lets jump ahead to Remy’s arrival at CWI to meet with Claire, only to bump into Gillian. Remy’s in search of the dearly departed Evelyn, with whom it seems he knew well enough to drop in to say hello . Gillian introduces herself and when she asks Remy whether he works with Claire, his response is cryptic: “In a way.”
Gillian begins to sense that things aren’t as they seem at CWI and the writers begin to plant the seeds of eventual differences between Gillian and Claire. The same differences we outlined a few posts ago about Gillian being the ‘anti-Claire’. The Claire-Remy-Gillian triumvirate will ultimately cause some dire complications for Frank later in the season even though we don’t see them yet. I love these moments because they show a writing staff thinking several steps ahead and when you get the sense that there is someone at the wheel guiding you down an orchestrated path, it makes for good television.
Let’s get back to the Zoe/Claire dichotomy for a minute. Re-treading for a moment (bear with me, I’m heading some place with this): Zoe gets an offer she can’t refuse from Hammerschmidt, an offer Lucas Goodwin explains he would have killed for when he first got to the Herald, and that she was only recently begging him for a leg up. Zoe sees the White House as a ‘graveyard’ as opposed to when she was younger (perhaps a zing at the Obama Administration’s notorious unavailability with the WH Press Corps). Zoe hesitates as well because she has to check for Frank’s approval first. Frank, at least for the moment, controls her fate; she can’t make a decision like this without his blessing. She tells Hammerschmidt: “I need to think about it.”
Remy meets with Claire and makes her an offer she can’t refuse as well. San Corp has reversed course, as a practical matter of optics, and is now ready to pony over a $1.5 million donation. Claire can’t believe it, but immediately she’s skeptical that this is just a means to more leverage over Frank. Remy pleads innocence and that accounts are even-Steven and that this is purely a matter of PR. Much in the same way that Hammerschmidt seems to be attempting to get Zoe out of the way, Remy seems to be trying the same gambit with Claire. Or at the very least, attempting to drive a wedge between Frank and her. Speculation aside, the other parallels are evident as Claire is also hesitant; even though it’s something she would’ve killed for two chapters ago. We get the sense that she too needs Frank’s approval as well. Both of these women are inexorably tied to Underwood’s whims. Claire’s response to Remy is the same as Zoe’s: “I’ll think about it.”
The parallels don’t end there. Claire goes home to tell Frank. Just as with Zoe, he’s not happy about it, “you know better than that”, he tells Claire. Just as we see the first signs that Linda Vazquez and Zoe’s interests begin to clash with Frank’s own, we start to see the weeds of division begin to sprout between husband and wife. In all scenarios, Frank is putting his own plans ahead of theirs but this one seems to bite the most because it’s been largely understood that Claire is his partner in ambition:
Frank: “I’m asking you.”
Claire: “No you’re not. You’re telling me (gets up to leave). I’ll tell you what I told him.”
Frank: “Which was?”
Claire: “(defiant) I’ll think about it.”
Unlike with Zoe, to whom Frank basically said “it’s you’re call, but suffer the consequences”, Frank pleads with Claire not to take the offer. She is his equal and he knows it and he genuinely loves her, or so we think. Also unlike Zoe, Claire leaves him in a lurch and takes the prerogative from him defiantly. In terms of their behaviour and Frank’s corresponding reactions, thematic parallels and foreshadowing contrasts continue to show themselves in compelling and dangerous ways.
There’s also a deeper message in Claire’s dilemma. Claire is genuinely keen to follow-up on Gillian’s plan to build a flagship water well in the South Sudan. But as much as with anti-collective bargaining provisions in a historic education reform bill, politics is trumping useful policy that could benefit millions. Politics is winning out over progress.
Back at her office, in addition to pressure about budget numbers from Gillian, Claire gets a package from Frank. It’s a framed campaign photo of the two of them on the trail from back in the day. Better times. A hand-written note on the frame says, “you don’t need San Corp, you have me. xx, Frank.” Her fate is sealed and she’s got to sort out some other plan. The photos on her office wall remind her of her more noble objectives but also of an old friend. She picks up and dials photographer Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels channeling a bit of Michael Fassbender), an old friend. But Claire betrays sadness and nostalgia; perhaps she’s been looking for an excuse to make this phone call. The subtext behind her words to Adam is clear: “I need to use you.” Indeed, in more ways than one.
Nothing Is Ever Black Or White, Except For Dresses
Back at the Underwood household mirror of horrors, we find Frank and Claire together in reflection once again with him peering from behind her (this time from the bed) and again futzing about a dress.
Claire is preparing to go see Adam, presumably to prostitute herself for a major donation to CWI so that she won’t have to take Remy’s offer. The subtext is so thick in the air it’ll fog your computer screen. With little to be said, both of them implicitly know that this is what must be done to meet their ends.
The most interesting bit by far, which will pay off later in the chapter, is when Claire asks Frank what colour dress to wear. Black or white? They both like the white dress, one that looks precisely like Zoe’s white tulip dress, we might add. Frank curiously remarks that “the first one’s better,” and after realizing that Claire is on her way to “raise money,” Frank’s reply is laced with pragmatism and exemplifies his philosophy on everything:
Frank: “Did you speak to Remy yet?”
Claire: “I haven’t.”
Frank: “If you want to look inviting, wear the black one.”
Ice cold right? The underlying philosophy here is that it’s not about what you like, it’s about what works. What gets the job done and achieves the ends. The means are the ends as we like to say.
Monumental Levels of “Excitement”
The Washington Monument makes another cameo appearance as Claire struggles to do the deed with Adam at his hotel room. Her conscience, or so it seems, gets the best of her and she can’t go through with it, getting Mr. Euro-Cash in a lurch just as he’s ready to get it on. The monument is majestically lit outside and in center frame, telling us rather emphatically that D.C. is not only a male-dominated patriarchal wasteland of penis-measuring Neanderthaloid white men, it’s also one big “fuck you” to the world, isn’t it? The monument is at once a finger to the universe and a giant pathetic white phallus left hanging, like Adam Galloway, all pent-up with no place to go.
Adam shares a nicotine-free cigarette with Claire at the window, calling it an “illusion,” not unlike their relationship. You don’t have to be a genius to see the parallels to her sharing of real cigarettes with Frank at the plotting window.
Back At The Plotting Window
Claire shows up at home after ditching Adam, again subtext hanging in the air like the smoke from Frank’s cigarette.
Claire: “Adam is staying at the Mandarin.”
Frank: “And you?”
With that brilliantly written little exchange we all understand that she didn’t go through with it.
Frank continues: “I appreciate this was not easy.”
Claire: “We don’t like easy, do we?”
Frank: “All evidence would suggest it.”
Frank not only managed to avoid the Remy dependency but his wife didn’t sleep with Adam after all. Claire’s going to have to do this the old fashion way: Fundraise. And Frank is going to help her by rounding up his Washington pals. He owes her one.
Zoe’s New Dress
After her blow-up with Tom, Zoe leaves the Herald. She goes for a couple of stiff ones at the bar, where she’s contemplating next steps. Determined she gets up to leave, but not before a cool little beat with her drink, which she gulps down confidently. Remember when Frank offered her a drink in their first meeting and she coughed up a storm after a sip? That was a test of strength then and now with a defiant gulp we can see that Zoe is stronger than ever.
She makes a call to Frank to let him know she gave the Herald the bird and was now free and clear. Frank is pleased of course, “you’ve made yourself available,” he says. In more ways than one, she is. Zoe is playing her game, the same game that Claire had to consider only Zoe’s going to go the distance. She invites Frank to her apartment, and of course he accepts. Notice that in the limo behind Frank, centre frame, is the Capitol Building, another one of Washington’s towering monuments looming over the seduction between Frank/Zoe, as one did over the seduction scene in the hotel with Adam and Claire. These monuments to democracy have been built in part by this process of seduction; centuries of lust, greed, ambition and manipulation.
When Frank arrives Zoe is ready and waiting in a, wait for it, black dress, thus paying off Frank’s earlier exchange with Claire about the dresses. He likes white, but black works especially if she wants to “look inviting.” It seems Zoe has had the same thought. The white dress she wore before was nice, she liked it and so did Frank, enough for him to check her out in it. But the black dress will do the job and seal the deal.
In these subtle ways are Zoe and Frank’s methodologies and philosophies matched and amplified. Just as Claire wore black to seduce Adam, Zoe is wearing black to seduce Frank to meet her own ends. Zoe may be young and a bit naïve, but she isn’t stupid. In many ways she is both a victim and reinforcing the patriarchal systems that she battles, having to stoop to getting ahead by selling her body. That and perhaps there is a genuine attraction to Frank, something which remains to be seen. What we do know is that Zoe is going to go the lengths that Claire couldn’t and perhaps the lengths once taken by her Herald nemesis, Janine .
The exchange that caps the chapter is telling:
Frank: “Are you cared for? Do you have a man who cares for you? An older man?”
Frank: “But you’ve been with older men before?”
Frank: “Then you know they hurt you. And after they hurt you, they discard you.”
In other words “don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
Zoe: “You can’t hurt me.”
I see this as a veiled threat delivered partly in drunken jest.
Frank: “Take your heals off.”
(SMASH CUT TO BLACK)
If that doesn’t bring you back for more, you’re a lost cause.
Fridges and Fate
We’re going to leave Frank’s machinations with Bob Birch and David Rasmussen for our dedicated analysis of Peter Russo later this week because the story line has as much to do with Frank’s political progress as it does with setting into motion Peter’s tragic fate. In that piece we’ll also talk about the role Christina (played by the wonderful Kristen Connolly) plays in Russo’s life. In addition we’re going to deliver dedicated character breakdowns for Janine Skorsky and Doug Stamper, examining their motivations in the show so far and contextualizing their characters with real world parallels.
In many ways this chapter reinforced Frank’s on-going battle against fate, randomness and the meanderings of a careless God. Frank ensnares everyone around him: Claire, Russo, Zoe and by extension unassuming do-gooders like Gillian, getting them to compromise their principles and, if they have none, at least their own best interests.
Going back for a moment to the phone call Zoe makes to Frank when he’s chewing down on his favourite ribs and learning about meaning and causality at Freddy’s. Zoe wonders where Frank is and he says:
“I’m on the other side of the tracks trying to find the meaning of life.”
Every existentialist who ever lived will tell you that suffering, not joy is what gives life meaning.
Zoe’s response: “Find anything for me?”
On the surface she’s fishing more another scoop but at a deeper level she really means find any meaning for me? Because guess what, she’s already suffering and still can’t find a reason for being.
Either way they are both on a raging journey to find meaning in the meandering corruption of their D.C. existence. They demand it and while God has given everyone else reflexes to get out of the way of wayward flying fridges, both of them believe it’s actually the fridge’s job to swerve out of theirs.