House of Cards ended its first season not with a cliffhanger, but with a halfway marker. There was still the matter of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), and Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) trying to discover if Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) killed Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), but for the most part, Frank had all but schemed his way into the vice presidency. In its second season, House of Cards considerably ups the ante by giving Frank a serious rival, putting him and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) at the center of multiple scandals, and introducing new characters to join other pawns already in the game. Although the new season holds on to some weaker plotlines for too long and hits some anti-climatic conclusions, it still commands our attention and we’re powerless to turn away from “ruthless pragmatists” who crave power at all costs. [This review contains spoilers since a 13-episode season requires more plot details than a movie review]
Season one was a showcase of Frank and Claire’s considerable talent for manipulation and penchant for cold, calculated behavior. There were a few obstacles in Frank’s path, but nothing that couldn’t be easily handled. If there was a protest, he could calm it down with free barbecue. If there was a difficult politician, they could be dispatched in a variety of ways. In the case of Russo, Frank went in for a mercy killing, albeit one that also benefitted him politically. It was a callback to the opening scene where Frank explained he had no use for “weak pain”, and then murdered a suffering dog. For all of Frank’s nastiness, there was still an argument to be made that he wasn’t completely evil.
Season two dismisses that notion completely in the first episode’s (and the entire season’s) most shocking scene—Frank killing Zoe by throwing her in front of a train. There was no patience, no mercy, or second thoughts. He’d had enough, she’s a threat, and he dispatches her in a horrific manner. No matter what Frank does from her on out, there’s no way to win us back in terms of someone we can morally support. Even when Walter White killed others, those people weren’t exactly saints. Instead, we’re now Frank’s accomplices, and it’s a test of Spacey’s magnetic, charismatic, and mesmerizing performance that we stay with the character. The Oscar-winning actor passes this test easily. There’s now nothing Frank Underwood can do to turn us away, and his hunger for power far exceeds getting away with murder. He wants to get away with a country.
At its heart, House of Cards isn’t really about policy, politics, or even politicians. It’s about power, and Washington D.C. is the arena. Making Frank a democrat is a hedge against accusations from conservatives, but the show is apolitical. At most, Frank is willing to sell out some of the beliefs of his party’s more liberal members, but there’s very little in the way of wedge issues. The major political plotline has nothing to do with hot-button issues; it’s about dealings with China, an issue which doesn’t conjure up strong feelings in the same way as healthcare reform or income inequality, for example. Slightly more controversial issues—Claire’s abortion (which isn’t a political cause) and passing a law to crackdown on rape in the military—are left in the periphery and are mostly tools rather than a final product.
The final product is Frank’s byzantine and clandestine attempts to maneuver around worthy adversary Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) in order to curry President Garrett Walker’s (Michael Gill) favor. Throughout the season, Tusk throws Frank against the ropes. He exposes Claire’s affair and even destroys the innocent Freddy (Reg E. Cathey). The battlefield is strewn with bodies, with some lives destroyed like Lucas’ and other literally ended like Zoe’s and Doug’s (Michael Kelly). This is war, and only the canniest, uncompromising players can win. House of Cards inhabits a mean, nasty universe that’s not entirely unlike Game of Thrones but with a different setting, less murder, and fewer redeeming characters.
The most compelling storylines are about Frank’s quest for power and his battle against Tusk, and every tangential plot feels less important, especially when the central machinations are so complicated. Lucas’ investigation into Zoe’s death drags on far too long because we know he’s never going to win, and he doesn’t even come close to getting the definitive proof he needs. At most, his storyline serves to introduce hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson), whose presence, when combined with Rachel Posner (Rachel Rosnahan), ultimately serves to eliminate Doug in an anti-climatic finish. Although these plotlines do tie back into the entire power dynamic, none of them are as strong as Frank’s story, so they feel like filler as does the secret affair between Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) and new House Majority Whip, Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker). Thankfully, none of these stories feel too tedious thanks to the strong performances, especially from Kelly and Parker.
Even though some of the storylines peter out or don’t match the intensity of what Frank and Claire are doing, House of Cards remains perfect binge watching. I was up from 7pm to 4am watching, and eventually had to force myself to go to bed. It’s all there for the taking, and while that’s partially the benefit of Netflix’s model, it’s also a credit to how showrunner Beau Willimon perfectly paces his story so even when all the storyline aren’t clicking or essential, they’re never detracting from the overall strength of the series. That’s also due to excellent directors and writers who manage to keep a consistent tone throughout every episode. House of Cards doesn’t play like one long movie, but its close.
Each episode may have its contained themes and the occasionally contained plotline, but it’s all in service to the big picture, and Willimon doesn’t really start moving the pieces into place until the final few episodes as we see that Frank wasn’t going to patiently wait for the presidency. His lust for power knows no limits, and his manipulation of Walker works so well not only because of Spacey’s commanding performance, but because Gill is perfect as a man who looks Presidential, but only has a fraction of the cunning and strength of Underwood and Tusk. “The Leader of the Free World” is reduced to a pawn in a much larger game, and while Underwood’s murder of Zoe is shocking, his capture of the Oval Office is disturbing. Once again Frank has won without a single vote cast in his name. As he tells us in the second episode, “Democracy is so overrated.”
Naturally, this kind of far reaching narrative lends an air of ridiculousness to the whole picture, but House of Cards plays everything so straight and with such confidence that it rarely has us rolling our eyes. We’re caught up in Frank’s plans because we’re now complicit in his crimes. Sickeningly, we want him to succeed because ultimately we’re just as enamored with power as everyone else on the show. While the season finale could have served as knockout series finale, House of Cards will return for a third go-round. I, for one, welcome our new world overlord, Frank Underwood.