[This is a review of the House of Cards season 2 premiere. There will be SPOILERS]
When it premiered last year, Netflix’s super-slick political thriller House of Cards certainly looked like the kind of prestige drama the streaming giant needed to legitimize its foray into original content. Sure, the underwhelming Lilyhammer had already come and gone, as technically the company’s first original series, but that was a joint production with a leading man who didn’t necessarily draw a tremendous amount of attention. House of Cards on the other hand, was a veritable who’s who of Hollywood elite, featuring not only two-time Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey in the lead role, it also had director David Fincher at the helm of the first two episodes, before shifting his role to an executive producer capacity.
For the most part, the series came off as a serviceable political drama that certainly carried itself with the kind of attitude necessary to convince audiences it belonged at the prestige-y end of the television spectrum, without necessarily demonstrating what it had done to deserve such a seat. The first season had plenty of standout moments, and a handful of terrific performances that helped elevate the series above the sometimes-unremarkable tale of Senate Majority Whip Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian rise to a spot in the White House. Aside from Spacey’s fourth wall-breaking antics, the series stood out largely on the performance of Corey Stoll as Peter Russo, a recovering addict and unwitting pawn in Underwood’s scheme.
Stoll’s performance not only afforded the series a sense of humanity and gravitas that evened out the more cynical nature of characters like Underwood, his wife Claire (Robin Wright), and the ambitious, but ethically challenged journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), it gave the series an ensemble quality that suggested greater things beyond the central plot of Underwood’s ascension. But when Russo was killed off late in the season, House of Cards once again became the Frank Underwood Show – a workplace revenge story that just happened to be set within the confines of the United States government.
Surprisingly, ‘Chapter 14’ of House of Cards doesn’t simply plod along like Frank and Claire’s leisurely jog connecting the seasons; it jumps right off a narrative cliff without checking to see what’s below. Or perhaps I should say, the season gets pushed off its platform into the path of an oncoming train. That, of course, is in reference to the rather shocking development of Frank killing Zoe Barnes – in public, no less – near the end of the first episode. It’s certainly a bold move for series writer and creator Beau Willimon (adapting the story from the 1990 BBC TV mini-series by Andrew Davies – itself adapted from the novel by Michael Dobbs) to take the deceitful, crafty scheming of soon-to-be Vice President Frank Underwood and to transform it into full on psychopathic behavior, but this is where we are.
On one hand, it’s easy to see why Willimon went with murdering Barnes. Her death allows the series to move forward without devoting all of its time to the Slugline.com reporters investigation into Russo’s death (which, yes, was also Underwood’s doing, but it was an act that felt more plausibly a part of Frank’s gradual progression than shoving a young woman of mild prominence in front of a subway train, while dozens of potential witnesses stood just a few feet away). But it also demonstrates the stakes with which the series is now playing – in other words: no one is safe. That’s a commodity for a series that was just renewed for a third season before the second one was even available to viewers, but the question is: Other than shocking viewers, will the gamble to kill a major character pay off in the narrative’s long run?
The answer to that is unclear, but right now, we’re left to examine the downside of Zoe’s death, which feels (at this moment anyway) more like a detriment than an advantage. One of the series’ strong points was its depiction of the simultaneous ascensions of Zoe and Frank, and with Zoe gone, not only does that leave Frank at the top (more on that in a moment), but it also robs the series of a genuinely interesting character (which the show really needs to start hanging on to), as well as robbing the narrative of what was shaping up to be a compelling conflict between two insanely ambitious professionals. Moreover, since Zoe’s no longer a factor in the series, the larger fallout is that veteran journalist Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) is suddenly too scared to pursue what could be the biggest story in her career (if not one of the biggest stories in the history of the United States), leaving the whole thing in the hands of Zoe’s boyfriend and fellow journalist Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus). This radically alters the perspective of the series, as it distressingly eliminates two central female characters in one fell swoop (though Skorsky could certainly come back at any time), but it also places the immediate emphasis on Frank’s role as vice president, effectively shrinking the scope back down one man’s ruthless ambition.
That’s certainly the conceit of the series, so the attempt to refocus makes sense from a logistical standpoint. But the thing is, Frank’s ascendance drove the plot of season 1, even though there was no real understanding of why he was so ambitious. Now, as he prepares to settle into the VP spot, the plot feels unmoored from even Frank’s unrelenting determination. Frank can now seemingly kill with impunity, and that’s before he is sworn in to the second highest office in the country. Zoe represented a clear and present danger, and for the series to retreat away from that feels like the wrong move. Now it’s left with the ethically clean Lucas on the hunt to bring her killer to justice. This isn’t simply reductive from a storytelling standpoint, as Frank has no relationship with the person who is now hunting him, but the black and white of Frank and Lucas is just too far removed from the more interesting moral gray area that Zoe and Frank were splashing around in all last season.
Committing heinous acts under the umbrella of pragmatism seems to be the show’s modus operandi in ‘Chapter 14.’ The episode also managed to deal with the battle between Gillian (Sandrine Holt) and Claire in succinct fashion – as Mrs. Underwood demonstrated a willingness to let an unborn child “wither and die” in order to win against her enemy – but even that felt like it was brushed off the table too swiftly.
And if there were one word to sum up the premiere, it would be just that: “swift.” Perhaps the increased pace of the premiere will lead to a wider story with more interesting results (nothing is stopping us from finding out). But it also makes one concerned that House of Cards’ pursuit of a faster, more action-packed narrative will become too ridiculously scandalous to honestly earn that title of prestige the show keeps insisting it has.
House of Cards season 2 is available in its entirety on Netflix. Screen Rant will have more reviews on the season soon.
Photos: Nathaniel Bell/Netflix