Review: HOUSE OF CARDS, Season 2

House of Cards returns for its second season with a renewed sense of purpose.  Be forewarned – there are spoilers in this review.

While many questioned Netflix’s brand of viewer-suggested, binge-watching television statistics as a programming model last year, it would be difficult to argue with the results.  The initial season of House of Cards became the first ever Emmy-nominated drama from a web streaming service, it netted star Robin Wright a Golden Globe win for Best Actress in a Drama Series, and received critical and public acclaim.  The entire second season was just released on Friday February 14th, and by Monday the 17th over 600,000 subscribers had already viewed all 13 episodes. House of Cards has dominated the social media water cooler for nearly two weeks and because of the show’s indisputable popularity, Netflix has already committed to a third season.  But after a handsomely mounted (though dramatically suspect) first season dominated by director David Fincher’s icy-cool aesthetic, how exactly does the show’s second outing stack up? The answer is somewhat surprising – not only does the second season surpass the first’s potential, but it finally fully commits to last year’s near show-derailing twist and matches Kevin Spacey’s mustache-twirling, all-knowing Bond villain, campy performance with reckless abandon.  What we are left with is a show that has turned slightly moronic, while heightening every aspect of its production to ludicrous faux Shakespearean heights.  House of Cards has become delicious tongue-in-cheek political theatre and is all the better for it.

Season 2 begins with a masterfully directed episode by Carl Franklin that rivals even David Fincher’s instantly iconic work on last year’s pilot.  House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) has sneakily positioned himself as the nominee for Vice President of the United States of America after many backhanded shenanigans, which included murdering a fellow congressman.  Reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) is hot on his trail while simultaneously questioning her involvement in his unethical dealings.  Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright) continues to have her own agenda while benefiting greatly from her husband’s new-found power.  Director Franklin is careful to honor Fincher’s tone and style for much of the episode’s running time.  Conspicuously missing is Frank’s constant breaking of the fourth wall by talking to directly to the audience.  Instead, the show plays things out more naturally than it ever has before, the camera lingers, and the result is intentionally uncomfortable.  None of these characters are particularly redeeming — all of them out for their own personal gain — so for the show to suddenly place the audience on the outside looking in is, at first, a questionable move.  Though once the episode reaches its climax, its effect is undeniable and this where House of Cards makes the much-needed decision to commit to the more preposterous aspects of its narrative.

After deciding that Zoe knows too much for her own good, Frank tosses her in front of a moving subway train and the act is at once gasp-inducing and wickedly funny.  The punch line comes when in the episode’s last couple minutes Frank finally acknowledges the camera and delivers his most delectable monologue to date –

Did you think that I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you hoped I had. Don’t waste a breath mourning Miss Barnes, every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless, at first, small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk. But once their claws get long enough, they draw blood. Sometimes from the hand that feeds them. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: Hunt or be hunted. Welcome back.

The message is clear – there is no going back from last season’s killing of Congressman Russo and you either have to ride this wacky train to its conclusion, or get the hell off while you can.  The premiere ends with Frank (and the showrunners) figuratively telling last season’s naysayers “fuck you” as the camera pans down to a well-positioned pair of cufflinks featuring his initials, F.U.  It playfully sets the tone for all that is to come and courageously points the show forward with the promise that anything could happen.

Much like Fincher’s pilot, the rest of season 2 can’t quite reach the heights of its premiere episode, but there is plenty of intrigue, drama, political happenstance, and scenery chewing to keep things plucking along at a deliberate, but engaging pace.  And like season 1 the middle section of the current season seems to drag with all of its set-up for events to come, but if you are one of the 600,000 (now probably many more) binge-watchers you will hardly notice.  One of the delights of the new season is observing Frank struggle, more than ever, with people with more political pull than himself.  In season 1 everything seemed to go according to plan for Frank, which diminished the drama considerably.  Here there are many more obstacles such as a meddling Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) who has the President’s ear, President Walker himself (Michael Gill) who continues to be a susceptible weak-willed puppet, a new House Majority Whip who has her own ideas of how things should be run, and a political scandal involving money laundering with China that could possibly implicate Frank as well as the rest of the White House cabinet.  Of course, you go into the show knowing that in the end Frank will win through his manipulative wit and deadly cunning, but that is part of the fun.

Season 2 of House of Cards also appears to be more relevant than ever with today’s modern politics.  The show’s cynical tone and disgusting back-room dealings have begun to mirror our own feelings about Washington.  The government depicted within the show is an ineffective showboating mess filled with scandal after scandal and blatant public manipulation.  The plot also includes some hot-button current issues such as abortion, rape in the military, and the U.S.’s relationship with emerging world power China.  Some of these references work better than others, but the show seems tapped into the zeitgeist, which keeps it firmly planted in a pseudo reality and helps ease the ridiculousness of some of its more dubious twists.

Kevin Spacey continues to be theatrically committed to Frank Underwood as a character and it’s refreshing that the show has finally caught up with his style.  It has always been a big bold performance that flirted with high camp, but now it appears more grounded without losing any of its edge.  As good as Spacey is this season, the show still belongs to Robin Wright.  She extends her take on Lady Macbeth with deceptively detached calculated precision.  The performance sits behind her frigid stare and Wright can do more with a single eye shift than most actors can do with the best-written monologue.  She also gets to play one of this season’s biggest and best moments when, during a live television interview, she accuses an Army General of raping her when they attended college together. To see Wright scheme and quietly dominate all those around her is a thrill that never gets old.

Season 2 of House of Cards ends with Frank Underwood in the ultimate position of power, which leaves the show in a bit of a quandary.  Frank’s entire reason for doing everything that he has done up to this point was to seek revenge on those whom he perceived had wronged him.  It could be argued that he has more than wrapped that plotline up.  Now the trick will be to see if writer Beau Willimon and his team can successfully map out a convincing downfall for the character, or if season 3 will see Frank conveniently outwit everyone yet again.  We’ll have to wait another year before we find out the answer, but after this season’s intoxicatingly dopey ride the time spent away might be well worth it.  House of Cards remains gorgeously produced and though not everything works, its commitment to the absurd has given it new life.  Bring on Season 3.

Grade: B+

3 thoughts on “Review: HOUSE OF CARDS, Season 2”

  1. For me, there are a couple of huge issues that almost took me out of the show, despite its compulsive watchability. First, what the heck are Frank’s politics? Obviously he wants power, he wants the chair, he’s ruthless, but what kind of President is he actually going to be? What does he believe in? He spent so much of this season flip-flopping between viewpoints just to manipulate people — surely his constant duplicity leaves a lot of his colleagues with questions.

    Second, the Tusk/China kerfluffle was needlessly complicated and confusing. I got bored with episode after episode simply being Tusk and Frank circling each other, with Frank ALWAYS getting the upper hand. And, for what it’s worth, if Tusk was really out to hurt Frank, why did he not think to go anywhere near the Peter Russo Murder thing? For Pete’s sake, ZOE BARNES was all over that, and she was a moron. There’s a trail of bread crumbs to follow a mile long, and Tusk goes after Claire’s affair? That’s the best he can do? Puh-lease.

    Third, when the President goes down, in what universe does that leave Frank unscathed? Especially after all the time Frank spends 1) defending Walker 2) taking responsibility, wouldn’t Congress be hell-bent on removing them both? Everyone knows what an awful person he is. Him assuming office is their worst nightmares come to life.

    But while the series is deeply flawed, it’s still fiendishly addictive — there’s a lot to like, as long as you don’t stop to think about the plot machinations for even a second. Spacey is a ham, but Robin Wright is brilliant…that moment at the end of the season, where her stone mask finally crumbles and she shows human emotion for pretty much the first time ever, was the (second) most shocking scene of the whole batch of episodes. I also really loved Molly Parker as Jackie. She’s one of the few characters actually worth rooting for.

    Finally: my last name doesn’t come up on TV often, but when it does, it’s being spat out with venom by Kevin Spacey. So there’s that.

    1. All of these points are completely valid and while they would have bothered me considerably more in the first season, for the second I was able to give a lot of the logical writing issues a pass. Let’s be honest, this is trash television masquerading as prestige drama. Also, I feel like we are going to see a lot more of Frank’s personal politics and the fallout from him taking office in the third season. I thought they had written themselves into a corner last year with the murder of Russo. They cleverly committed to their actions and redeemed themselves while remaining as stupid as ever. I expect more of the same next year. Robin Wright might want to get her Emmy speech ready. Her performance this year is too powerful for voters to ignore.

      1. “Trash television masquerading as prestige drama.” Truth.

        And while I’m not so sure that Wright has anything in the bag (Anna Gunn is still eligible, after all), she’s definitely going to get a stronger push. Her character and performance took a bigger leap forward than anyone’s, and she’s sure to get rewarded somewhere. Probably the Globes.

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