‘House of Cards’ Season 2 Premiere Review

Published 9 months ago by , Updated February 14th, 2014 at 3:45 pm,

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards Season 2 House of Cards Season 2 Premiere Review

[This is a review of the House of Cards season 2 premiere. There will be SPOILERS]

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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.

Kate Mara House of Cards season 2 episode 1 House of Cards Season 2 Premiere Review

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.

Kevin Spacey and Kate Mara in House of Cards season 2 episode 1 House of Cards Season 2 Premiere Review

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.

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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

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  1. Dug first episode after having refreshed my recollection of things by reviewing episode 13. I agree with your review wholeheartedly. Echos my sentiments decidedly. While the sudden “train push” garners shocking immediacy, the long-run implications are more profound in terms of not having any true antagonist now. The specter of Frank attaining his VP slot and Lucas leading into the investigative fray doesn’t seem so compelling. Hopefully though, they have this covered. On to episode 14!!

  2. I don’t know about anybody else but as soon as I saw Zoe enter the train station, I knew he’d end up killing her…

    • I felt like it was possible, but I really didn’t expect him to actually do it. Then again, I felt dumb for awhile afterwards considering that he’d already committed murder literally days earlier (in show time), so it was naive for me to underestimate him.

  3. Pump the breaks a little. One shouldn’t prejudge the entire season based on the first episode. This episode felt almost like a Season 1 finale. Episode two seems to slow things down a bit once more.

  4. I thought it was brilliant. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to miss seeing Kate Mara, especially her fantastic body, but the whole newspaper storyline thing was one of the weakest parts of the second half of S1, and I’m glad that it’s being pushed aside.

    Damn, it really hit me for six, I was stunned.

  5. How awesome wasn’t the foreshadowing with the slaughter scene?

    Btw, Robin is soo stunning!

  6. I agree with your review to a degree. However, the thing is this show is entirely about Frank. As irritating as it can be sometimes to see Frank just have his way over and over, that’s kind of the entire point of the show. To expect anything else would be asking the show runners to be dishonest to the original British show and books it’s adapted from. Zoe’s death isn’t that shocking except that it didn’t come sooner. Zoe’s British counterpart died in the first season/series of the British version. She was never more than a side story and pawn from the beginning who people felt was a main character due to her stunning looks and acting.

    Ultimately the show has no redeeming characters and it’s not supposed to. Everyone is terrible to some extent and works for their own personal interest. Those who don’t… well we know what happens to them.

  7. Zoe’s death might close some doors, but I think the ones it opens are far more interesting: remorse. Sooner or later Frank will feel the pangs of remorse. Zoe’s death will only become more relevant as the show goes on and Frank delves deeper into his own abyss.

  8. Watched it yesterday and knew i wouldn’t bother to watch the following episodes. Utterly ridiculous for some fancy political show. In what dumb world, a future VP will kill himself in PUBLIC a girl, who btw a lot of people knew they were close… Even DEXTER wouldn’t pull a stunt like that, ’cause we’re in Dexter territory obviously, if you want to watch political drama with very bad people, have a look at “BOSS” instead.

    • Sorry for the mistakes. I would add that I already thought that season 1 was overhyped. It’s confirmed now. And what’s with the stupide monologue Spacey give us at the end : supbar sociopathic drivel.

      • I cannot take your comments seriously since you obviously don’t know how to write or spell in the English language.

        • Just because someone has difficult with the English language doesn’t make their opinions irrelevant.

  9. I have to admit that I did not even think for a second that something like that was coming.
    I’ve only watched 2 episodes so far so I don’t want to pass judgement to quickly but I have to agree with a commenter above who said that was pretty close to an episode of Dexter in terms of plausibility.

    Just for starters, How did Frank know Zoe would chase after him? How did he know another person wouldn’t pass by in that moment?

    You could go on and on but I don’t want to go be to harsh because I do love this show and I’m willing to forgive and forget if what comes next is on par with season 1 but I don’t think you can deny that when the writers take a chance like that you’re going to be pretty heavily scrutinized and if what follows doesn’t hold up people will go back to that moment and pinpoint it as when the series fell apart.

    • I’m not sure frank’s first intention to kill her. I thought he was trying to manipulate/regain control of her, but when she kept pushing he knew that she wouldn’t stop (can’t have any loose ends).

      • He intended it. Remember the bed talk with Robin Wright? They weren’t talking about getting pregnant.

  10. For anyone questioning the show’s portrayal of Frank and his decision making, I would encourage you to go back and look at episode one of season one. Dude clearly shows signs of a sociopath in the very first scene of the show. It’s who he is, and it’s been consistent since the beginning.

  11. Ultimately, the character of Zoe was no more significant to Frank than the dog he killed in the very first scene of the show (in season one). He does what (he feels) needs to be done — what he deems as necessary.

    Besides, are we supposed to believe that someone as powerful and experienced as Frank can be brought down by a baby-faced journalist who’s still wet behind the ears? Not likely. However, her murder compounding Frank’s previous sins certainly makes following his story much more compelling.

  12. Just binged season two. It has all of the flaws of season one, but the way it ends, I understand why netflix picked up another season. I can’t decide if I like this show even a little bit, but by god I want to know where the heck they can go from here.

  13. I just finished the whole season… OMFG!!! I NEED more! I can see why they ordered the third before the second aired. I could not stop watching these episodes and I’m sad that there isn’t any more yet

  14. i find it funny that this review was only on the first episode of season 2 and not the whole season as a whole..lol..for those who are hampered by kate maras death…do not be worried,that’s just the tip of the iceberg..theres plenty more surprises and mindblowing revelations to come… mindBAAlown!
    also I wonder if down the road with the popularity of putting out full seasons right away that Netflix may shoot 2 seasons at a time,then release them seperately and sooner than what regular networks do where they might shoot like 20+ episodes then split them up (fall/winter, spring/summer)? I wonder if that would be more cost effective in the long run,then having to wait a whole year for only 13 episodes?
    For example: since the 2nd season was just released this month-lets say they had shot already another 13 to be released lets say this fall. If that was the case that would free up alot more time to do the next round or also give the other actors time to do other projects..
    Just an idea.. Its great that they release the whole season at once,but then you literally have to wait a whole year..sounds counter productive..just a thought,am i the only one who thinks this would be a better system down the road?