“A wiseman once said everything in life is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.”
In episodes 7 to 9, Frank Underwood utters these words during the latter of two memorable sexual encounters with his forever muse Zoe Barnes. And while it’s evident House of Cards has power as its center by this point in the series, this trio of episodes is all about life’s other driving force.
And it makes perfect sense. When examining the season as a whole, Underwood is seemingly an all-powerful being on the hill. Every string he pulls works and it’s part of a highly calculated, several step process towards some end goal. He’s invisible in every situation—except one. Sex.
Whatever forces are working against Underwood directly result from sex. There’s Rachael, the whore who Russo fatefully stumbled upon earlier in the season. Initially this gave Underwood power over an up-and-coming politician he could treat as a marionette. But seemingly it’s a loose end that could strip it all away. Fittingly, her re-emergence in episode 7 is the first time an hour focuses more time away from Underwood than on him. Rachael’s arrival is no surprise after Stamper’s initial handling of the situation, and this time he’s able to provide the cleaner role he always does. But what’s to say she won’t be back again before all is said and done? Based on the ethos Underwood himself lays out, you can bet on it.
In the grand scheme, Rachael wasn’t Underwood’s doing and she’s accordingly only a minor threat. If Russo ultimately fails, that doesn’t publicly fall onto Underwood despite political circles recognizing him as the motivating factor in that campaign. It’s recoverable. But Underwood’s direct sexual encounters will likely have much harsher long-term ramifications. Because unlike everyone else in his life, Frank Underwood holds no power over the three people we know he’s been intimate with:
Claire, Zoe… and Phil.
In what may end up as the series most interesting hour (episode 8), Underwood’s alumni weekend at the Citadel reveals a highly intriguing past relationship with Phil, his collegiate bestfriend turned outdoor equipment salesman in Colorado. This homecoming episode seemingly functions as a standalone, as Underwood reunites with Phil and the rest of his acapella group to drink, parade about, and reveal small glimpses of the politician’s past. But Phil and Underwood never make it out of an abandoned library the quartet sneaks into, so they sleep side by side until the morning light starts to wake them..
“We were so close.”
“More than brothers.”
“C’mon we were kids Frank, we messed around a couple times.”
“I was so drawn to you”
Suddenly things may click into place. Underwood and Claire were never “fortunate” enough to have kids. Underwood’s sex with Barnes is entirely a political play. Everything Underwood does is motivated by his own ambition, practically all of the political variety. Frank Underwood could absolutely be a gay man who simply valued his career more than a real relationship that might deter it. In this interpretation, Underwood is a tragic a figure as he is a villainous one. (Possibly even more so.)
But we may never know if this is the true interpretation. Episode 8 features no soliloquy for Underwood to spill his most personal thoughts. And Episode 9 slams him back into his more pertinent sexual relationships with Claire and Zoe, each starting to show signs of cracks and a shift in power.
Underwood experiences his first real defeat as the Watershed Bill fails, and it’s Claire who proves dominant. When Underwood simply brushed aside her needs with the CWI funding (telling her to try political ally Catherine Durant to OK supplies from the Sudan), Underwood only threw salt in the wound—requesting her help in convincing a few swing votes. Claire knew precisely how and where to hit, and it hurt. This relationship may be the least sexual of the three sexual partnerships, but perhaps that only gives Claire license to be as politically manipulative as her husband.
Which all leads to Zoe Barnes. Underwood’s public mouthpiece has been invaluable thus far, and in return Zoe got to climb the career ladder quickly. But she’s tired of the useless sex—maybe a bit creeped out by one of the genuinely perverse scenes of the series thus far (“Happy Father’s Day!”). Why doesn’t she get the power for power exchange like does Claire? She tries standing up an Underwood house call in episode nine, then tries calling off the sex entirely later in the episode. But it ultimately leads to a post-coital question about vote counts and everything comes out. They’re both using each other (duh), she finds it gross (hurtful, but probably duh). Underwood gives up the information and the illusion is now gone. And as evidenced by how things end on account of Claire’s handywork, once the illusion wears off there’s only the sex that kept it official. Zoe Barnes may not realize it yet, but she has the power and results could be worse than a lost Watershed Bill for Frank Underwood.
Can you skip these three episodes?
It’s clear what’s different in this stretch of Netflix TV when compared to conventional programming. While all of the above is highly interesting, it’s not exactly active. Particularly when compared to the mini-arc of the education battle, very few events or action-driven climaxes take place. You could theoretically skip from episode six to episode 10, only needing to know that 1) Rachael showed up 2) Zoe and Claire are mad at Frank 3) the Watershed Bill failed.
But should you skip is a question of whether or not you subscribed to the Netflix narrative freedoms. These three episodes are almost entirely for the personal dynamics. And while that seems slightly counterintuitive to a “binge show” (where some action would propel you on and on), it’s perfect for the situation Beau Willimon and company received. They knew they had two seasons up front, that fans could watch as quickly or as slowly as possible, and that reaction to the show (whether from fans or execs) would have no barring on if the season could continue.
For a quick comparison, season six of Mad Men’s 7-9 stretch featured the merger of two competitive ad agencies, a messy hotel room trap/break-up, a new partner death, a break-in, some Wet, Hot American summer camp, and a stabbing/break-up. Season five of Breaking Bad‘s 7-9 stretch features a major death, an insane prison murder montage, the villain “leaving” villainy, and a confrontation that pushes everything frenetically to the end.
This stretch of House of Cards may be something uniquely Netflix. All of the logistical power is with the creatives, so we as viewers can take what’s possibly a detour to learn about these characters and how they interact in a manner that achieved depth quicker than most shows. Because if you need to fight for your life, aka season two, can you do a standalone hour in the Citadel that’s essentially just background that may or may not ever come up again?
Whether or not this is the right way for a show with this advantage to operate, it’s extremely interesting to consider as the season plays out. And for House of Cards in particular, this little detour (think of it as all three or perhaps just that day at the Citadel) is among the most gripping moments of the season yet.