[This is a review of THE ENTIRE House of Cards season 2. There will be SPOILERS]
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:
An Actual Change of Pace
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.
Frank's Unchallenged Ascent to Power
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.
Subplots & Supporting Characters
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.
A Conflicting Tone
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.
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.
Does the Story Amount to Anything?
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.
House of Cards season 3 is tentatively scheduled to premiere sometime in 2015 on Netflix.
Photos: Nathaniel Bell/Netflix