Chapter 5: Directed by Joel Schumacher, written by Sarah Treem
Follow us on Twitter: @livingintheHOC
Power is as much about optics as it is about the practical maneuvering of military and economic might and infrastructure. Power can be crippling, leaving one leaden, anchored to the bottom of the ocean by the gravity of history and thousands of pounds of expectations. The calamity in Syria, the non-existing Palestinian-Israeli “peace process”, the brewing face plant with North Korea, drone warfare, torture and the slow band-aid peels that are Afghanistan and Iraq all point to an increasingly impotent United States. Let there be no doubt: America remains the most powerful nation on Earth, but a good mix of international blunders and domestic economic and political grid-lock seems to be weighing down the practical machinations of American power. Perhaps it’s just President Obama being his prudent, pragmatic and (let’s face it) deadly self, but I’m more inclined to believe that while America is too big to fail, it has become too big to move without destroying everything in its wake.
The common refrain is that the president is the most powerful man in the world. But is he really? Who is more powerful? The leader of a powerful democracy with institutions of governance leaving it unable to act quickly, decisively, morally or in a unified manner or a third-world dictator who merely has to wish his nation into action. Power can be illusory.
In Chapter 5 we begin to see Frank buckle a bit under the weight of his growing power and influence. In many ways it begins to hamper his ability to get things done, particularly when the minions around him each want a nibble of the big juicy pie he wants all to himself. Claire, Zoe, Linda and Marty Spinella are all becoming distractions from the big prize even though each of them plays a crucial role in Frank’s journey to the top. Frank is powerful, but he is not a dictator who can simply eliminate those he wants out of the way. He must negotiate, deflect and decoy his way in and around at every single opportunity in order to get the chess pieces precisely where he needs them to be before launching the check mate. Chief among these useful distractions and petty pawns is Congressman Peter Russo, who at this point has been firmly established as the a crucial emotional and moral core in the bleak universe of House of Cards.
Peter Russo: As Good As It Gets
In Chapter 5 we get to see Peter taken to the depths as his life and career quickly unravel: He sold out the Philadelphia shipyard, realizes that he has betrayed his friends and the people he represents, Christina leaves him, he’s a drunk and a drug addict and Frank has him wrapped around his little finger. The are only two directions Peter can go after Chapter 5: Up or out.
If I were ever tasked with something as trite as choosing a ‘favourite character’ among the lot of dastardly debauchers on HOC, I might single out Peter Russo as the most complex of the lot, if not necessarily my ‘favourite’. Peter is the everyman who finds himself mired in the political morass unsure of how he turned into a political chump in a game that is larger and more complex than he can possibly imagine. Up to his chin in shit, Peter is treading his way through a cesspool of political chicanery. A single dad unable to shape the future he may have foreseen for his two young children, disenchanted by a less than ideal political geography that probably was not so welcome to what may have been naïve idealism when he first got into the game. Peter didn’t get into politics for power, he’s that guy in college who headed the student union, who went to all the rallies and who organized all the community pot-lucks. One day he found himself a congressman and with that came the realization that he was more powerless in the sordid hallways of Washington D.C. than he ever was on the streets of Philadelphia. Peter is like any of us when mired in the dilemma of loving what you do but hating your job. Too far and too long into it to leave and the way out too distant to bother even trying.
It says a lot about the world we’re in when someone as fucked up as Peter is the most relatable of the bunch. If we were to zoom out and look at our entire cast of characters, Peter is as good as it gets and he kind of knows it, or at the very least, he wants to believe that he’s a good man. His tragedy is that he has allowed himself to be manipulated by Frank, and others like him, so far and so deep that he simply can no longer legitimately claim to be a ‘good guy’ without first making some drastic changes in his life. He wants so much to go back to his hometown and look his friends and family in the eye with a sense of integrity and pride for having looked after them and having done right by them. Peter isn’t a victim in the scheme of things, he knows that he screwed up and made decisions that lacked fortitude and ethics, and that’s ultimately what makes him a believable and universally relatable character. Many of the questionable choices we make in life, particularly when we are bestowed with a relative amount of influence or power over other people’s lives, are banal in how quickly and idly they are made. The banality of evil is defined by the ability of the every person to make terrible decisions that can adversely affect thousands of people in terrible ways.
Peter & The Puppet Master
Frank has other plans for Peter of course. As always, Frank is playing the long game and he sees an opportunity to get the vice president, a Pennsylvania native himself, out of the way. Peter will make a perfect candidate for the gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania and and allow Frank to pull the puppet strings in a key Democratic battle-ground state, particularly in the lead-up to mid-term elections. Peter’s destiny was set in motion back in Chapter 4 when Frank corners Russo into not testifying against the closing of the shipyards in Philadelphia. The shipyards were a big part of Russo’s mandate and he had to sell that promise out as soon as Frank pulled the trigger. This established Frank’s ability to ‘own’ Peter’s loyalty.
Why would Frank get behind Russo for Pennsylvania Governor? The answer doesn’t reveal itself for another few chapters, but we get a hint of it when Frank realizes that the VP is from Pennsylvania. We see the machinery start to churn in Frank’s head because while Peter Russo is someone he can control almost completely, he realizes that Russo’s recklessness might be at just the acceptable threshold to provide an opening when the time is right. Frank is less concerned with Russo’s eventual victory and more interested in gaining control of the gubernatorial seat itself. Russo is just a means and an in, not the end itself. He wants to be able to use Russo to take control of the governorship only to put in place whomever will make it politically expedient for him to move up in the ranks. I don’t think Frank really has much faith in Peter, but he knows that Peter earnestly believes he has what it takes to make a difference and change his life for the better, and perhaps recover some of his bygone ideals. Frank reads Russo’s desperation and is going to milk it for his own purposes.
The Spear of Destiny & The Fatal Wound
The scene where a drunk and high Russo is reading abusive e-mails from constituents establishes his deep desire for redemption. We want him to redeem himself as well and to establish this emotional connection with the audience is crucial (and a testament to Corey Stoll’s incredible performance) as Peter’s story plays out. More than any other character, our emotional investment in Russo is required to heighten the drama and stakes that form the foundation of his character arc. It’s a difficult balance as a performer and as a writer to do this with a character like Peter Russo only because he has so many fatal flaws. In drama there is a thin red line between a character who is universally fucked up and an unbearable asshole.
Peter’s arc has a fatalistic quality to it in the sense that tragedy hovers around him. Nothing about this seems like it will end well for him; in part because its not in Frank’s interest for it to and in part because HOC is just not that kind of show. There are no happy endings in this neo-realistic world of power-hungry double crossers. The question isn’t whether it will end tragically for Russo; the question is how, when and at what price? Whose soul will be forever sold as a price for Russo playing an unwitting role in Frank’s thirsty journey for power?
Peter’s destiny is symbolized by the golden letter opener he fiddles with during the drunken scene in his office. I kept thinking of The Spear of Destiny, the Roman soldier’s blade which pierced the ribs of Jesus Christ while he was on the Cross, inflicting the wound that many believe hasted his death. Peter stabs the golden dagger down into his desk in a rage, unable to come to terms with his having sold out his community and his followers. The dagger has, in a way, already pierced the fatal wound in Peter Russo, who is the sacrificial lamb (much as Jesus was) in the unyielding and unforgiving quest for control. The wound is already spilling his blood and he is slowly but surely dying.
Although I often don’t like kids being used to set up a character’s stakes (because everyone loves kids right?), Peter’s rapport with his children makes it difficult not to see someone with a moral core who we want to see succeed and overcome his demons. We get a deep catharsis watching Frank expose the hypocrisies and double standards of the political game, but in contrast we need someone like Peter to root for and though we can foresee the oncoming disaster, we sincerely hope Peter will overcome any of Frank’s manipulations. It’s strange, on the one hand wanting Frank to will his way to the top but cringing at the possibility that Peter will be collateral damage. For the first time a character we love is in danger of imploding. But that’s just Good Storytelling 101.
Wading In The Water On The Wrong Side Of The Tracks
At the end of Chapter 5, Peter gets all Philadelphia in Frank’s face for forcing him to betray his community. Peter knows that Frank took advantage of him, but Frank doesn’t flinch. Instead he offers Peter the cowards way out: A bath tub to lie naked in, hot water to open up the capillaries, Aspirin to thin the blood and a razor to slice his way with the tracks. Frank offers Peter the opportunity to quit with all the whining and end it all.
There are so many layers in this scene, but there are three beats in particular that “jumped off the page.” The first beat is simply the visual of a naked Peter in the bath of the devil himself, in a way being reverse-baptized and “re-born” as a disciple of the prince of darkness. It’s ironic that Frank is offering Peter a way out by giving him a choice: He can drift off into the warm bosom of oblivion, or carry on by choosing sobriety and a political ascension to the Pennsylvania governor’s seat, where he might have a chance at political and personal redemption.
The second beat is when Frank explains that it’s better to cut with the tracks (i.e. veins) and that cutting against them would be a “rookie mistake.” Perhaps a throw-away line, but I think it hints at the possibility that Frank might have been here before himself. Perhaps Frank, in the nascent crevices of his political youth, once had to make the same choice: The coward’s way out or perseverance. Like many character beats in HOC, the writers choose not to reveal too much and leave us grasping at the mysteries and allowing us to fill in the gaps. Mystery is good, especially when it’s not trite and makes characters robust and real. Mystery is smart and incredibly compelling to watch when it grows narrative entrails.
The third, and partially hidden, beat in this scene that I found interesting and which echoes loudly in later chapters is that this won’t be the first time Frank manufactures Peter’s suicide. The seeds are planted that Frank may end up with Peter’s blood on his hands.
Peter decides to preserver, offering exchanging a promise of sobriety for Frank’s support in winning the governor’s race. Frank has Peter exactly where he needs him to be. Peter’s wading into the bath that Frank draws for him and being re-born a sober, willing acolyte with a renewed sense of direction reminds me in part of the Negro Spiritual, Wade In The Water:
Wade in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water.
God’s gonna trouble the water.