‘House of Cards’ Season 2 Review: What Went Right and What Went Wrong

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Kevin Spacey is Frank Underwood in House of Cards Season 2 House of Cards Season 2 Review: What Went Right and What Went Wrong

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

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As the first significant salvo in Netflix’s epic power grab in the arena of television entertainment, the thematic arc of House of Cards – i.e., the rise of Frank Underwood and his seemingly unappeasable desire to displace those in power above him – made it easy to see why the streaming giant so eagerly snatched Beau Willimon’s David Fincher-produced adaptation of the ’90s BBC series from the clutches of HBO and Showtime. Aspects of a story about one unlikely individual’s ascent from being a mere launching pad for the developments of others to the master of his own destiny and pace-setter for the future of a nation were undoubtedly attractive to a company looking to do pretty much the exact same thing. And considering how the season concludes, such comparisons begin to feel all the more astute.

Now that season 2 has had time to sit and marinate in its own salacious juices, there’s a fairly convincing argument to be made on the ways season 2 was an improvement over season 1. While there are plusses, the series continues to have its problems and its shortcomings, like terminating storylines before they’ve reached a satisfying conclusion, introducing new characters without entirely justifying their existence, axing others without exhibiting much in the way of reason, and then conducting certain emotionally tinged subplots almost entirely through exposition.

All in all, House of Cards season 2 was something of a mixed bag; here’s some of the things it got right, and a few things the season struggled with:

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An Actual Change of Pace

Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey in House of Cards Season 2 House of Cards Season 2 Review: What Went Right and What Went Wrong

There were complete stretches of season 1 that were certainly entertaining in their own way, but had little to do with the season’s overall plot. The same is true for parts of season 2, as major plot points only became truly important in the final three (or so) episodes. But one thing that can definitely be said about season 2 is that its pace was livelier, more energetic, and far more intent on pushing the story toward those last few chapters. Episodes like the season premiere, ‘Chapter 14,’ absolutely flew by, giving viewers a necessary incentive to continue binge watching.

Herein we see the advantage of Netflix’s all-at-once delivery model, and Beau Willimon’s understanding of how that model affects the way he writes. Had audiences been required to wait a week for ‘Chapter 15′ – rather than 20 seconds – thoughts on the premiere might’ve been radically different. Instead, knowing viewers would just plow through, Willimon and the directors (headed-up largely by James Foley) followed suit, plowing through episodes like Frank does political adversaries and accomplices. With the added benefit of a few (superficially) weightier subjects like trade with China and a domestic energy crisis, the season overall felt more fleet-footed than its previous run, which, in turn, made it feel more entertaining.

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Frank’s Unchallenged Ascent to Power

Michael Gill in House of Cards Season 2 House of Cards Season 2 Review: What Went Right and What Went Wrong

Season 1 of the series established Frank’s unquenchable thirst for power but there was never much in the way of an examination into the driving force behind that desire, and, more importantly, what power meant to him. Early on, there was considerable evidence to suggest his dastardly use of influence and authority was intended to position him in the role of puppet master, a deceitful schemer working behind the scenes to achieve his goals by manipulating others to do his bidding, so as to avoid the scrutiny of public and, especially, the press.

However, as soon as he made a play for the vice presidency, and subsequently killed Zoe Barnes, all of that changed. Frank’s underhandedness and ability to evade detection helped to make the relationship between him and Zoe more persuasive; his climb to prominence was reliant on her and hers was on him. Moreover, the relationship itself hinged primarily on the question of where ethics and morality are overtaken by ambition – which is about as probing a thought on either subject as House of Cards ever put on-screen.

The problem with disposing of Zoe early in the season was that it removed the only potentially convincing conflict with considerable ease. There was a point when it looked as though Gerald McRaney’s Raymond Tusk was being positioned as a threat, but the character never persuasively came across as much more than a nuisance, even when everything seemed to be going his way. When it became clear just how unproblematic it would be for Frank to evade security cameras and throw a semi-prominent member of the press in front of an oncoming train, season 2 never bothered to look back. And from that moment on, it became clear just how simple it would be for Frank Underwood to undermine and remove a sitting president.

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Subplots & Supporting Characters

Sebastian Arcelus as Lucas in House of Cards Season 2 House of Cards Season 2 Review: What Went Right and What Went Wrong

One of the major issues with season 1 was the inability for the story to completely justify all of its subplots or appropriate the various supporting characters floating around. Early on, House of Cards halfheartedly shoved Zoe’s boyfriend Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) into a plot to expose Frank’s murderous ways, while sending seasoned reporter Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) running for the hills (or, in this case, a teaching position at a community college). Things predictably went bad for Lucas who ends up rotting away in prison after he meets up with computer genius Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) – who, with his laughably Matrixesque array of hacking equipment, love of pounding techno music, and his pet guinea pig Cashew, became one of (if not the most), hysterically inflated characters to have a semi-prominent role this season.

There’s some evidence to suggest the dumping of Lucas and Janine might be redeemed with an endgame that includes Gavin and the recently out-of-pocket Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan). At least they’ll fare better than Peter Russo’s former assistant Christina (Kristen Connolly), Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt), or the Underwoods’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-him media guy, Connor Ellis (Sam Page). Christina managed to linger around the White House for a few episodes until her dismissal was announced as little more than an afterthought, which is about as much consideration Gillian or Connor’s short-lived threads were afforded.

On a more positive note, however, the respective ends of Barbeque master Freddy Hayes (Reg E. Cathey) and photographer Adam Galloway felt more complete and satisfying than the others. Both ostensibly wound up as casualties in Frank’s war with Tusk, intimating that proximity to the Underwoods is toxic, no matter the circumstances of the relationship. While the characters had nominal value to the overall storyline, their ends at least managed to feel significant in terms of illustrating the kind of personal destruction wrought by Frank’s power grab.

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A Conflicting Tone

Gerald McRaney and Kevin Spacey in House of Cards Season 2 House of Cards Season 2 Review: What Went Right and What Went Wrong

Sometimes tonal shifts are the kind of nuance that makes a series great, but House of Cards doesn’t do nuance. The show frequently waffles between wanting to be a serious political drama and giving itself over to being the kind of sleazy thriller Joe Eszterhaus might have written. It’s a conflict that can sometimes cause certain plotlines to feel either a little disjointed or completely out of whack with one another. This is made evident by the peculiar sexual proclivities of Chinese businessman Xander Feng (Terry Chen) and the sudden inclusion of Secret Service agent Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow) into the Underwoods’ love life. There’s nothing wrong with a series delving into such territory – in fact, it almost feels like a pre-requisite for self-proclaimed prestige dramas these days – but such deliberate and undeveloped provocation often felt at odds with the overconfident Washington drama the show so frequently presents itself as.

While the tone was inconsistent at times, the performances were generally more coherent. For his part Kevin Spacey appears to be fully onboard with the outrageous amplification of his character as an extension of the series’ own absurdly exaggerated form of expression – which he gleefully plays up whenever he directly addresses the audience. But that usually carried over only in the instances when Spacey could savor the scenery he was chewing. Too often, Frank would be in a scene with another character playing it straight as a nail, even though the scene might’ve been better served with the actor recognizing the deliberate artificiality of Spacey’s performance and doing his or her best to match that. The end result was a tonal mishmash that made the series feel at odds with itself.

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Claire’s Storyline

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards Season 2 House of Cards Season 2 Review: What Went Right and What Went Wrong

Robin Wright’s performance as Claire Underwood is not only the best one on the series, the character has surprisingly managed to become the veiled heart of House of Cards. While a portion of her subplot regarding a past assault at the hands of Gen. Dalton McGinnis – which, subsequently, turned into an effort to help prevent and better deal with the ongoing problem of sexual assault in the military – was handled mostly off-screen, it was to the betterment of the Claire and Megan (Libby Woodbridge) arc. Pushing the perpetrator to the fringe and focusing on Claire’s effort to generate substantial, meaningful change, while at the same time depicting her occasional mishandling of the incredibly fragile Megan, granted the season its most affecting moments.

Thankfully, Willimon and the producers seemed to recognize this fact, as Wright was afforded a quiet scene late in the season wherein Claire must confront the ramifications her political wheeling and dealing have had on a young woman so far outside the political sphere she’s practically on another planet. The effect is devastating, but not just for the injured party; Claire feels it too, and for just a brief moment, the pain and anguish that stays hidden away under her steely veneer manages to crawl through, resulting in a moment as powerful as anything House of Cards has produced.

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Does the Story Amount to Anything?

Kevin Spacey In House of Cards Season 2 House of Cards Season 2 Review: What Went Right and What Went Wrong

There may have been a larger point House of Cards was trying to make about the state of American politics, and if it was that the president is essentially a powerless entity, shackled by lobbyists and the rich, then, there is certainly some of that present in season 2. But there’s really no sense that this was the series’ intent, or what any of it means beyond affirming many people’s beliefs about the ineffectualness and corruption of those in the government. Too often, the series tends to get lost in a vortex of cynicism where everyone involved in politics, in one way or another, is seen as corrupt or, at the very least, potentially corruptible. That’s a rather one-dimensional view of the American political system, and while it’s the kind of thing that clearly encourages binge watching, it doesn’t necessarily say anything interesting or nuanced about the show’s setting or its characters.  For many, that seems to be just fine, given the amount of people who breezed through all 13 episodes in the first weekend.

With any luck, however, now that House of Cards has afforded Frank Underwood the power he so resolutely chased, season 3 will see it develop away from such simple and obvious machinations to explore the more complex (and potentially rewarding) facets of a government brimming with pessimism and corruption.

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House of Cards season 3 is tentatively scheduled to premiere sometime in 2015 on Netflix.

Photos: Nathaniel Bell/Netflix

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  1. I liked season 1, but I really liked season 2.

  2. Great review. This was perhaps one the best paced, written, and acted seasons of television I’ve ever experienced. Now that Breaking Bad is off the air, and Bryan Cranston is no longer in the running for the Best Actor Emmy, there is no reason why Kevin Spacey should not win, as long as House of Cards keeps pumping out episodes.

    • I’ll give you a reason: Matthew Mcconaughey.

    • cool, the emmy’s now have an award for best ham?

      spacey was a major turn off this series. such a one-note performance

  3. I personally found season one to be better. Although I enjoyed season two, I had a lot of issues with it. Those include:

    - Franks unchallenged rise to power. I don’t care if it’s a TV show, fiction or whatever..no one could make the rise Frank did. There’s no way someone with a (rumored/publicized) rap sheet like his would become president with ease.

    - HoC’s habit of ditching characters out of no where. The season tended to bring in characters and then never fully address them.

    - HoC bringing in characters who were pointless. Many season two characters were unneeded and just felt like replacements for the ones they ditched.

    • I liked both seasons quite a bit, but I agree that the character switching happened far too quickly and too often. Very few character arcs had the chance to be fully explored.

      I actually think Frank’s rise is fairly believable. Once he was named vice president, all that had to happen was Walker leaving, and Underwood is president, no matter what rumors surround him. He is not trying to get elected, public opinion of him does not matter much, the presidential approval rating will get a boost because he isn’t Walker and avoided conflict with China.

    • …no one cold make the rise Frank did…are you serious? what about obama?

  4. Great stuff as always, Mr Yeoman. I unashamedly declare him my favourite contributor to this fine site. Admittedly, TV is more my bag these days than movies (never thought I would say that, to be honest), so I lend myself to bias. So…:

    Curiously, it is almost as if there was more clarity about the decision to give it a season two than there has been for a season three. Many a time I watched it and wondered what the rush was. No denying it made each episode fly by and therefore encouraged a binge (6 episodes each in two sittings it was for me), but the pay off is I simply do not see how there can be many more seasons left in it now. At the most you have two left, but it is a generous two with the final season detailing the fall. Overall it left with the impression that pacing was actually covering its attempt to prove itself as being smarter than it actually was and that was a shame.

    Everyone else in comparison just seemed to be a complete idiot lacking the same complexity as the main character. Plot ciphers and nothing more. Some lingering in the background for 5 minutes of foreground, others irrelevant overall as necessity of screen time to fill out the season (this itself will be my main fear if the show tries to hang around for 5/6 seasons).

    This is where I found myself comparing it to ‘Boss’ with regularity and where ‘Boss’ itself beat ‘House of Cards’ into the ground. You got the regular sense of what I mention above. That none of these characters actually mattered whatsoever to the overall plot other than the immediacy of watching it for the first time. I never for one moment felt there was any threat to Frank whereas I did with ‘Boss’ (none more so than from his wife). Also, you could sense the desperation of Tom Kane at times. We all knew Frank was going to ascend to power so instead it was about enjoying the ride. Which I did. But there is little replay value.

    The sexual deviance was just nonsense and there for shock value. As was the death of Zoe herself which bizarrely had all the hallmarks of a first episode audience puller more suited to cheap old fashioned network shows. If there is one thing we should be getting from a format such as this, it is acknowledgement of the core audience already involved. Like a movie sequel then explaining the plot of the first movie to potential newcomers.

    Claire was brilliant though. It is no coincidence that from episode four onwards, the season improved greatly. Okay, at times she did little more than tell Frank to do better, to win and that was enough for him to do so (see the final episode letter), but this is Lady Macbeth before the third act. I wonder then if her story is going to play out in a similar fashion once Frank is (inevitably?) exposed.

    Overall I am grateful and felt I got my worth of money. The format itself is splendid (although, you regret it slightly once you have watched all episodes. But you cannot win here. Many a time I bemoan having to wait a full week for a new episode of something). We are absolutely in a golden age of TV now and with full series orders now becoming the norm, I suspect this is going to remain so.

    ‘The Americans’. ‘Vikings’. ‘Hannibal’. All back this week. Be prepared for even more ramblings from me :)

  5. I didn’t find Season 2 as good over all.

    I felt the death would have worked better at the end of S1 (as in the UK version), having it so early just made it feel like an after thought.

    Another failing compared to the original was the utter lack of guilt FU had, not one flicker of an eyelid in remorse over the murder.

    By the end things were just a bit boring, the actual coup seemed to take ages to set up then seemed rushed and too easy when it happened. Presidents aren’t allowed to take Valium seemed to be the message.

    Some great performances, nice filming. I liked the Rachel-Stamper subplot, but over all it felt like a chance missed.

    Contenting myself with re-watching West Wing whilst wondering if it’s worth them making a third season of HoC. What’s he going to do? Take over the world?

  6. Great review. I personally see only one more season happening. Season 1 introduces us to Frank’s world and what he wants from it. Season 2 shows us how he gets it. Season 3 would be the ramifications of what he did to get there. It presents itself like a 3-act play. I am actually reminded a lot of a Shakespearean tragedy, specifically Macbeth, whenever I watch HoC.

    In fact, I watched the first ep of the original British version and the Francis character there even quoted the Macbeth line “First Glamis, then Cawdor, and finally king…” alluding to his intent on overthrowing the leader of the government (I don’t remember if Frank also said the same thing in episode 1 of the Netflix series).

    Much like the review I didn’t quite see how Feng’s scene in the cottage contributed to the overall story other than showing that he is into that kind of thing.

    Can’t wait for season 3 binge-watching. Make it next year already!

  7. I think the acting was excellent. I’m not a fan of evil winning over good. I understand there is lots of corruption in government, but i prefer good endings where justice is served. I,agree with a lot of the review about the characters coming and going. The media should discover Frank’s true character and expose it. Claire who showed a second of remorse she have a ‘breakdown.

  8. Brilliant show, killing Zoe was just great, such a boring character, I disagree it was convenient, he saw an opportunity and took it like he always does. You can really feel the pressure when the political consequences could go either way and they success with cunning a lot of hard work not with a typical Deus Ex Machina.

    Looking forward for season 3, Mr. President.

  9. “Claire Underwood is not only the best one on the series, the character has surprisingly managed to become the veiled heart of House of Cards. ”

    Whoa, a black heart maybe. She and Frank are despicable in the way the wield power. To them any means justify the end.

  10. I liked season 1 a lot. I watched the first episode of season 2 and was pulled out of the story. The characters motivations felt contrived, unrealistic.
    I probably won’t watch anymore, it’s not the same.

    • you are one of the lucky ones. i stuck with it. not worth it. a way to kill time in the evening until true detective airs.

  11. Life … is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

  12. Entertaining second season, thoroughly enjoyed watching Frank’s rise to the presidency. The season had a few hiccups here and there but nothing detrimental to the overall narrative. I think the director and scriptwriter had the Macbeth play in mind when developing the characters: Frank and Claire. Especially, Claire, she’s essentially Lady Macbeth in the first two acts.

    • Totally agree! That’s why I’m thinking that the series should only be 3 seasons. Or maybe 5 if they follow Macbeth.

  13. How is it possible that Lucas, an investigative reporter, did not ask to see the subway footage before and after his girlfriend Zoe’s death? Clearly he would have seen her looking for someone, talking with someone and ultimately pursuing someone into the darkness before she was hurled onto the tracks. I love the series but this was just too much of an oversight..

  14. The writer, Beau, is good but he rushes toward the end. It is almost too obvious that Frank has to become the President. Not subtle enough as the starting episodes. Shame on a good writer that he couldn’t control the flow towards the end…

  15. Honestly I was expecting at least one comment about poor poor meechum.

  16. I really got turned off the moment frank went from manipulating WHIP to pure out murderer. I gave season 2 a chance but I feel sorry that these actors give great performances to terrible writers that we see in this show. The minute zoe became a sex doll her character arc was ruined and had no chance to grow. Russo was built up as someone that should of been an advisory to underwood but instead he was easily dealt with. His wife betrays him then just leaves until she realized her husband fixed her mistake. There is literally never any serious conflict against the main character, who is an outright villain.

    Why should anyone be interested in his murdeous ways to presidency!? He would of been found guilty easily of russo’s murder because we all know strong government investigators would of found out underwood drove him home. Are they hoping that people will watch only for the positive feeling of justice when it comes? This show started strong but decided to ruin characters so they can show off evil man…… the best episodes in the series are early season 1 when you see struggle in underwood controlling outside issues and them hurting house issues. Now what is the story arc? Oh wait there is none….

  17. I enjoyed reading your analysis. Although I enjoyed both seasons overall, season 1 was more of a discovery than season 2. By season 2 we already know all that we need to know about Frank Underwood, he’s ruthless, he’s ambitious, he’s a killer, he will go to any length with the help of his conniving,mostly remorseless wife, and the lackeys which surround him only too eager to further his and their own ambition without any respect for fundamental values and the public good which, ostensibly, they are sworn to uphold. What was most irritating for me, overall, were the blinders which everybody seems to have with regards to Underwood’s machinations. He was always known as a snake therefore trusting him, at times blindly and foolishly like the President does time and time again, makes a mockery of supposedly intelligent who should know better after having achieved such pinnacles of power. I found Spacey’s portrayal too one note, not layered enough, there is no depth to his performance all we are allowed to glean is the conniving creature which doesn’t lurk behind the veneer but is there for all to see if you dare to. I’m hoping for a big downfall come season 3, the Underwoods have worked their way towards an epic fall, they deserve no less. Another irritant, slim story lines meant to distract from the main course, for instance the super hacker (not well explored or explained) Doug’s fixation on Rachel, Lucas’ inexplicably shelved story line once he conveniently disappears into the great beyond known as jail, the unnecessary ménage à trois tryst with Claire noting dryly “we needed that”, these are some which come to mind at present.

    • Should have said intelligent people, oops sorry for the lapse.

  18. As for the series having something to say about our current political situation, I feel it’s like watching politics 30 years ago. References are made to the tea party, but power politics feels like it’s being played mostly by individuals. Frank is a throwback all the way down to his Southern twang (not Texas, Southern). In that sense, because it doesn’t involve party politics, factions or liberal vs. conservative, I didn’t feel we were watching a cautionary tale about what could happen if we don’t watch out. What? A ruthless murdering congressman and his wife might singlehandedly out-manipulate everyone in Washington? I’m much more worried about a charismatic individual who could sway the teeming masses.

  19. Just finished binge watching season 2 on South African television. My first impression was that season 1 was better in terms of pace and in actively sustaining my interest in an uncontrived way. My understanding of the season 1 plot line (in review) was that we were made to feel that Frank engineered the downfall and eventual murder of Russo from the beginning. With knowing that, as I was approaching the end of S2E1, I predicted that Frank would push Zoe in front of the train, which unfortunately set the tone of predictability for the remainder of the season. Franks’ meticulous planning and projection is neigh faultless, and Zoe’s murder was a clear example of this – how he was able to predict the pace of their conversation and his premeditation of what would transpire depending on her answer, and making sure he is out of the bounds of the cameras etc. From then on it felt really easy, even though the writers attempted to establish antagonists in the forms of Tusk and Feng, the audience always knew Frank and Claire would win, and in that way the season was uninteresting in that regard. Missed opportunities included the Doug and Rachel subplot, as well as allowing the audience to gain an insight as to what drives Frank’s and Claire’s blind ambition, they seem like they should be more complex characters than merely wanting power for power’s sake, there needs to be a back story (and by that I mean actual flash back episodes, in fact they should make that the entirety of season 3, then season 4 should probably pick up mid-presidency), an investigation into the characters’ independent journeys, so it can make the characters more believable. Certainly Claire strikes more of an empathetic note, but what makes her tied to Frank in the way that she is? Power and Influence? But why do those things matter so much to her? And why do these things matter to Frank as well, we really need an explanation of their behaviour.

    The Hacker, Lucas etc peripheral character lines were just an annoying distractions.

    Walker was very well cast; Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey are simply excellent. So was Kate Mara throughout season 1.

  20. Season 2 is very confusing. Seems to be a rehash of season 1. Will try season 3
    but don’t have much confidence. Suggest that the authors could take some advice
    from British TV series.