[Review] - House of Cards, Season 2

Courtesy of Media Rights Capital
Last year, Netflix entered the original content industry with a thunderclap. The one-two punch of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black made the service an instant contender in the premium content business. It was a bold move, kind of like starting off your career with Symphony #40, or Don Quixote. Which also meant that the pressure to make the follow-up seasons as good as near perfection was immense. House of Cards, you'd have thought, wouldn't have felt the pressure as badly, for two reasons. First, it's based on the British series of the same name, which lasted three series, and whose plot the Americans appear to be following in broad strokes. And second, the series was pitched (and ordered) as a two year series, which assumes that Beau Willimon new where he would be taking things in the sophomore season.

The result however, is that while the second season is still home to some of the best performances in current "television," and still makes for intriguing watching, it isn't as interesting as season one. The manipulations are far less subtle, and strain credulity in their effects. While in the first season, there was a joy that built up watching Frank Underwood make Washington his bitch, this season his cold plotting lacked enthusiasm as it built towards it's inevitable conclusion. After a shocking start to the season, it lapsed fairly readily into obviousness.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers for the entire season, even the guinea pig stroking bits.

My biggest issue with season two is that it lacked any heroes. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) has never been anything but a villain, and the show has never shied away from that depiction. But in season one he was surrounded by those on the side of angels. The show is heavily pessimistic and cynical in tone, so even the good guys tend towards a shade of gray, but at least there were those that were actively working against Underwood's machinations for reasons other than personal achievement or revenge. There were agents of the Greater Good. Season two lacks them almost entirely. Underwood remains a villain protagonist, but in that scenario, his antagonist needs to fall on a lighter side of the spectrum than himself. Season two opted instead to have the major conflict come from Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), who falls well on the dark end of the spectrum. The rest of the characters too all share real estate on Underwood's darkened path, and what few representatives from the lighter side of things are dispatched early on.

Which wouldn't be a bad thing, per say, so long as we had a reason to route for Underwood's personal brand of villainy. Season one introduced him as a villain, but one we were able to sympathise with. He had motive for what he did, we understood why we was doing what he was doing, even if we were unclear about what exactly it was that he was doing until the end. And the show took time to remind us that, despite his selfish actions, he had a human core. The breather episodes that saw him return to his home district, and later his former school, showed the Francis Underwood that was able to put away the effect of Washington and exhibit something deeper, something that had been stamped down hard by years in the capital. Season two is devoid of that. He begins the year a man having achieved his goals, and is given over to his greed. He doesn't need more power, he wants it. And that sees him transcend from con man into thief. He immediately launches into a power play that involves direct assaults on both houses of Congress, ignites a trade war with China, destroys a proud man's reputation, and commits another act of murder. And none of it is done with any finesse.

The first episode focuses entirely on wrapping up the plot lines left over form last season, and it's clear that the show isn't interested in lingering on the past. Claire's lawsuit story is resolved briskly, as is her pregnancy subplot (thankfully, as neither of those plot lines worked, and were mostly used last year to keep Robin Wright in episodes until the finale). Zoe (Kate Mara) continues were crusade against Underwood, until she begins to fall under his spell again, right up until she falls under a train in what is a brilliant surprise, and really the only one of the season. Nothing else that happens in these 13 episodes is able to match the suddenness and unexpectedness of Zoe's death. Not that the show should be trying to be M. Night Shyamalan, but keeping some cards close to the vest can make more more engaging TV. With Zoe's departure, the conspiracy against Underwood falls apart, as the show quickly dispatches Janine (Constance Zimmer) and turns Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) into a grief ridden, obsessed maniac. Thus, the path is cleared for a new season's stories, all of which follow on from season one's, but none of which are as engaging.

New to the series is Underwood's replacement as majority whip, the war-haunted Jacqueline Sharp (Molly Parker, in a perfect bit of casting), whose story intersects with Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) for a short fling that adds depth to his character while unfortunately reducing her own potential. She is at her most effective when she's showing off her whipping talents, something we only get to see once. The rest of the time, the show is more concerned with waffling back and forth on whether she'd be seduced by the same power that transformed Underwood. She declares often that she is not her predecessor, but the writers never really take a definitive stance. She's willingly destroys people she cares for, for the sake of her own career; she is more than willing to lie to get her way, and she is self serving in her motivations. Yet, she also shows signs of self sacrifice, of occasional ethics and virtuousness. She, of any character this season, had the opportunity to be the counter-Underwood, to be the White Queen moving against his Black King. And the show does brush up along side that idea, but never fully embraces it.

The character who gets the best material to work with this year is, thankfully, the one who got the worst last: Claire. Last season, Claire was only at her most engaging when she was backing up, or working against, Frank. Her independent storylines were tedious (her fling with the photographer), rash (the firing/lawsuit) or cliched (the sudden want for a child). This season's sadly relied on another standard "woman's trope," that of a rape, but it was engaging and gave Wright plenty of opportunities to be impressive. The fourth episode, Chapter 17, was a strong episode across the board, and probably the strongest of the season, having Frank penned in his old office with an old rival, his wife airing her past on national TV, while Sharpe whips votes to prevent a government shutdown. The isolation of the characters from each other allowed for them to reveal more of themselves to us, that which they usually keep guarded around each other.

Quite a lot of this season felt like filler. Many of the middle episodes dragged, with Chapter 22 being possibly the worst of the series (or at least in need of a better edited script). There was more of a focus on the secondary characters this season, with Remy, Doug (Michael Kelly) and the President (Michel Gill) getting the most additional attention. Unfortunately, these stories languished either in extension or in lack of pay off. Which is odd considering how willing the writers are at severing story lines when they've stopped serving their purpose. Doug's relationship with Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) took an odd turn, and they nicely tied his behavior into his established compulsive control issues, but Rachel herself didn't get to share in much of the character growth. If Zoe and Janine were so easy to dispatch, why Rachel wasn't discarded just as readily seemed odd. Janine's absence was all the more bizarre considering the show almost immediately introduces another reporter character, far less developed or engaging, who spear heads the investigation that targets Underwood and Tusk. Since Janine already suspected Underwood, would a familiar character not have made more sense from a narrative stand point? Not to mention the hacker subplot that just wouldn't go away (hopefully they discard that one for season three, but considering Doug's fate, I doubt they will)

Then there is the President, who lacked any definition at all last season. Presented as initially a puppet to Tusk, this season showed us more on the conflicted man, who is lured into a friendship with Underwood. The best of Underwood's actions this season was his seduction of the President, while Claire did her thing on the First Lady (Joanna Going). The worst of Underwood's actions this season was how heavy handed and obvious his actions were, in his dealings with Tusk (who equaled the lack of subtly), in his dealings with Durant and other members of the House, and with the President himself. The best moment Walker had this year was when he figured Frank out. That realization came far too close to the end, and never had time to play out. Maybe the writers were so dead set on the ending they wanted, they weren't interested in investigating any other possibilities. When Walker became his own man, starting working against Frank, leaving the Vice President out in the cold, was when this season was the most engaging. I'd have liked to see Frank forced more into desperation as he has to act behind the scenes rather than right in the man's face. Sadly, the writers took the easy way out, buckled the President's backbone, and had him seduced by Frank's southern charms nearly as quickly as he had burned him.

In the end, the inevitable happened. And while the long-con style plot that played out over season one made Frank's accession to the Veep's office seem plausible and cunning, his assumption of the Presidency seemed rushed, cheap and barely believable. True, Gerald Ford rose to the same office much quicker in real life, but this is a story, and a story needs to maintain a certain level of believability. That Walker would have given up so easily, that he wouldn't have immediately suspected Frank of being dishonest again. That the country would turn so completely. And, you must remember, that impeachment does not force a President out of office, as many believe. Clinton was impeached. It's an official admonishment. There isn't a reason in the world why Walker couldn't have stayed on, and worked his last two years to raise his approval ratings, and bow out of the 2016 race gracefully, leading to Underwood's running in his stead. But the show isn't as interested in taking it's time, it wants results, and it wants them now. even if the narrative suffers because of it.

The series has already been awarded a third season, and Frank sits on top of the mountain. It seems like three should be the last, because the show doesn't seem interested in stagnation. It won't be content for Frank to simply be the President. But he has no where left to go. But down. And it takes a lot less time to fall than it does to rise. Unless you're a Netflix original series, in which case it might only take a year each.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.