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House of Cards – The Second Season

houseofcardsseason2
It’s funny how a readjustment of expectations can drastically alter your enjoyment of a TV viewing experience. When House of Cards debuted its entire first season on Netflix in February 2013, the political series was being hailed as TV’s next great drama and a brand-definer; Netflix’s version of The Sopranos. The cast featured two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, movie star Robin Wright, American Horror Story’s Kate Mara and a whole host of underrated character actors. Not only that, the talent extended beyond the cast to the directors and producers, with people like David Fincher and James Foley. As such, there were huge expectations going into House of Cards in season 1 that it was bound to be hailed as a disappointment if it were anything less than perfect. While much of the response was positive, there was still a huge group of TV critics who considered it nothing special, a show that might not even succeed if it were on television proper. I considered myself among this group of critics sorely disappointed by the show’s many flaws. Regardless, the show garnered a number of Emmy nominations, a win for Fincher’s directing, and a key level of buzz to help build anticipation for season 2. Knowing that the show was nothing special, I watched the second season with an entirely different framework — that of a ridiculous, campy, plot twisty political soap opera — and I surprisingly found myself enjoying House of Cards a lot more.

The second season of House of Cards kicks off mere moments after the season 1 finale, with Frank Underwood (Spacey) getting ready to assume his new position as Vice President of the United States. He is tipped off that Zoe Barnes (Mara) and her ragtag team of journalists are getting closer to the truth about Frank killing Peter Russo (the sorely missed Corey Stoll) in season 1. So Frank does what he always does when someone stands in the way of his rise to power and that is to try to get rid of them. The event that occurs in the premiere episode (those who have seen the premiere definitely know what I’m talking about) propels the season forward with exciting urgency and foreshadows what ultimately becomes a season of Frank getting what he wants, no matter who he forces to pay the price. With his wife Claire (Wright) by his side, Frank must deal with a series of obstacles standing in his way of rising to even more power, particularly Raymond Tusk (Gerard McRaney), the clever billionaire best friend of President Walker (Michel Gill). Frank is a clever, clever man himself, but each card he places on his metaphorical house of cards seems like it could be the one to make them all come tumbling down.

Those hoping to see Frank get knocked down a peg or two, as I did for a vast majority of season 1, will not get their wish in season 2. For the most part, Frank continues to be 10 steps ahead of nearly everyone he comes into contact with, flawlessly out-manipulating those who could come anywhere close to exposing all of the skeletons in his closet (and by the end of season 2 those might literally be skeletons). Season 2 features the introduction of some new characters, such as the hot, new Majority Whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), whose ruthlessness in getting people on her side is almost as terrifying as Frank’s. The show also smartly covers some of the smaller characters of season 1 and expands their roles even further, allowing them to go from cardboard cutouts to flesh and blood humans. Frank’s right hand man Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) has a fascinating arc this season as he gets a little too invested in taking care of one of Frank’s liabilities. Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), the oil lobbyist in season 1, becomes much more prominent as he too gets too involved with someone he shouldn’t.

 

The real star of House of Cards season 2, however, is Claire Underwood. Claire started off as “the wife character” who had her own separate storylines that never related to the main action of the show, never having anything particularly interesting to add in season 1. With season 2, I was shocked to discover how invested I was in her machinations, which also tend to rival her husband’s. Claire truly ascends to Lady Macbeth status as she manipulates Frank and everyone around her, both behind-the-scenes and directly. She becomes even more direct this season, telling the pregnant, vengeful Gillian (Sandrine Holt) in the season premiere that she would allow Gillian’s baby to wither and die inside of her if that’s what needed to done. She later outwardly exposes the man who raped her in college, broadcasting his name and information on live television for her own political gain. Claire is a true force to be reckoned with, and Wright’s perfectly composed demeanor through almost every single scene makes her downright terrifying. At one point in the season, Frank says that Claire possesses about three layers of armor, and each of those layers show how ruthless of a woman she is. But it is when we are allowed a glimpse behind the armor — the tiny little cracks that form in the midst of her scheming — that the characters shines best.

While much of the character work in season 2 is an improvement from season 1, the actual plot of the show still needs some improving. A majority of this season is spent in a geopolitical battle with the Chinese over fraudulent economics, a plot line that’s about as interesting as it sounds. A lot of political jargon is thrown around and the storyline moves at a glacial pace, which is a lethal combination if you’re trying to create compelling drama. I suppose the plot could be interesting. After all, The West Wing was able to make filibustering and other dull political proceedings into compelling fun. However, House of Cards is not The West Wing, even though there are points when it tries to be. The show ultimately works best when it’s not taking itself so seriously, which has been an unfortunate carryover from season 1. There are a series of stupid storylines in season 2, such as the hacker with his pet guinea pig, but at least the show embraces the campy ridiculousness of itself in these moments.

House of Cards is still a show that doesn’t necessarily know what it wants to be quite yet, but season 2 narrows the focus quite a bit and at least tries to embrace the political theater of it all. Frank and Claire are mostly despicable human beings, but the way they are able to carefully cater themselves to whomever is around them is quite a feat to behold. The Underwoods are a couple that almost never allow themselves to be seen for what they really are, carefully creating these artificial characters in order to curry favor with others. Frank may have his Southern charm and Claire may be elegant and serene, but underneath they are rotten people with little to no regard for those around them, especially those closest to them. They are able to create an immaculate house of cards by the end of season 2, with many of their closest friends left unaware of how they were just a pawn in the Underwoods’ twisted game.

Frank and Claire’s journey through two seasons suggest, to me, a powerful image. Like many politicians, both of them have accomplished a great deal and influenced many people. Yet, as Frank and Claire hypothetically marvel at their house of cards, with Claire purring, “Oh Francis, isn’t it wonderful?” and Frank smirking, “It’s just perfect,” there remains an unspeakable trail of carnage behind them, whose stink is bound to reach someone’s nose eventually.

Season Grade: B
Season MVP: Robin Wright
 
Awards Potential:
Drama Series
Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Kevin Spacey for “Chapter 14”
Lead Actress in a Drama Series: Robin Wright for “Chapter 17”
Supporting Actor in a Drama Series: Michael Kelly for “Chapter 22”
Supporting Actress in a Drama Series: Molly Parker for “Chapter 15”
Directing for a Drama Series: Carl Franklin for “Chapter 17”

 

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