As House of Cards hits its halfway point, Frank Underwood is still the smartest guy in the room at all times, and by a long shot. He's still Terminator-determined in his march towards revenge, but what's changed about the show is that now we've been given something of an insight into the source of its drama. Frank is definitely an interesting character, and one who's ripe for some seriously heavy drama, but the show's earliest episodes simply depicted him dominating everything he touched. Of course, this turns out to be pretty important, as it sets a precedent that comes into play over the course of the show's first season. Plainly enough, we've got to understand how successful Frank's ruthlessness has been for him so far, so that we can care when it eventually fails him and/or leads to his undoing (which we assume it will—the show has branded and marketed itself in such a way that more or less suggests we should expect this). At this point, we're starting to understand what the titular house of cards actually is. Frank might be able to machete through all the nonsense and get done the things he needs done in a very special way, but he's able to do this because of the people in his pocket. Arguably, Frank can't do anything he does on his own. He accomplishes the things he does because he's a master manipulator, and by default this means his schemes rely on others. What we're starting to realize is how dangerously the house wobbles when he starts to lose control of the cards that comprise it.
Things continue to get nicely fleshed out, and the education bill finally gets interesting as we get to watch Frank goad hot-tempered labor union lobbyist Marty Spinella into a series of embarrassments and then eventually a face-punch. Their tussle is easily the most entertaining little arc Frank has gotten so far, despite the fact that it featured some serious, serious potholes. For one thing, the historical gravity of the teacher's strike—which was mentioned more than once, but only in passing, for some reason—was a missed opportunity.
For another, Frank's appearance on CNN was just terrible. It came completely out of nowhere, showed Frank acting in a way that he had never acted before (and will not again, for the rest of the series), and was played with an almost insulting amount of pathos. As Frank spirals out of control on TV, we hear sad, ominous music. The moment is a heavy one, as though Frank wasn't about to spend his very next scene talking about how he needs to find and exploit some sort of tragedy involving a school-aged child, that he might prop up his fight against the teacher's strike. The dude's a fucking out-and-out monster, but when we get moments like the tail end of the CNN interview, House of Cards comes across as seriously confused.
Corey Stoll is great as Congressman Russo, and his fight to win over the people in his home state is easily the show's emotional core. A character that initially looked to be a one-note Congressman Douchebag type has steadily evolved into a living, breathing human being. In fact, Russo quickly emerges as something of a foil for Frank, by embodying his antithesis. Russo struggles at almost every turn, but his is a story of hard work motivated by a desire to do the right thing. It's nice to see a tulip trying to push itself up in a garden that's so thoroughly choked with weeds.
Oh, and also...
• Sorry, Claire. Your shit is just not very interesting.
• "I don't mind that you improvised. I just wish you had done it better." Boom.
• Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Frank is how genuinely petty and almost insecure he actually is, underneath all his bravado and confidence. Oh, and he loves video games.
• Also, former gay lover best friend a capella group member roommate, for the win.
• Frank and his buddies singing "Oh, Shenandoah" was quite possibly the show's most beautiful and moving moment thus far.