72 hours with House of Cards Season 2 (Spoiler Free)

I haven’t decided yet if I like Netflix’s model of dropping an entire series in your lap all at once and giving you the option of whether to binge or not to binge. Call me old fashioned, but I still really like appointment television where everyone gathers around a single hour or half hour and either talks about it on social media as it happens or the next day with friends or coworkers who saw the same thing. With shows like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, there’s an orgy of attention the weekend the series premieres, but then it drops off dramatically. Picking up a show in the weeks following its debut, the buzz is diffused and sporadic. Sure it’s great to be in control of  our own viewing and moving on to the next episode whenever you feel like it, but if you don’t do it right away, you might be doing it all alone. Of course, if you don’t care about the social component of watching TV, then this is the way to go.

Me? I couldn’t help myself and motored through the entire second season of House of Cards over the course of about 72 hours. The question now is how to write about it. Should I go episode by episode for those who haven’t started or haven’t finished? By then it seems like those who binge watched will have moved on to something else. I don’t know, but in the interest of surfing the buzz while it’s fresh, here for now is my look back at the first season and a spoiler-free overview and opinion of season two.

house of cards

It took me a few episodes to warm up to the first season of House of Cards, but it finally started to click in the third episode where our anti-hero Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) tries to patch up a tragedy back in his home district while simultaneously wrangling the teachers’ union back in Washington in order to get an education bill passed for the President. We already know by this time Frank is something of a ruthless monster, but here we finally learn that he’s also actually really good at his job as a legislator. Ultimately, the characters themselves and the dramatized glimpses the provided behind the scenes at governmental sausage making were more interesting than the overt narrative which often seemed a little silly, implausible and contrived. The watercooler conversation surrounded the soap opera, but it was the nitty gritty that made the whole thing tick.

The other thing that made that season go was the somewhat tragic figure of Peter Russo, so well played by Corey Stoll. At a certain point, it’s easy to get caught up in Frank’s machinations and to root for him to succeed no matter how horrible his actions. Kevin Spacey makes it easy because he’s so great at playing a snake and the story naturally draws your focus onto him at all times. You can’t help rooting for Frank, but in this case his ultimate victim is a generally decent guy. Russo’s deep flaws only make him more human and you want to see him succeed in the end. For a while it seems like success for Frank will be success for Russo, but sadly Russo turns out to be just another pawn in Frank’s grand plan. While there’s a dark thrill at the end when all of Frank’s plots fall into place and he achieves a higher goal than the one he started the season with, the fate of Russo is a bitter note amid the triumph. It’s one thing to glory in Frank’s quest for power, but know it comes with great consequences for everyone else.

That brings us to Season 2 of House of Cards which in some ways is an improvement on the debut season, but in other ways doesn’t quite satisfy as much. The story picks up on the same night that the first season concludes. The Vice Presidency is in hand for Frank and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) – if it wasn’t clear in the first season they are truly a partnership, season 2 drives that point home – but there remain from the first season lots of loose ends to be tied up.

Young reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) is torn between her guilty complicity in what Frank may have done in his rise to the top and the access his new found power could provide her. Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), the prostitute used to ruin Peter Russo, is being kept out of sight but her continued existence seems fragile at best. Meanwhile there is Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), the billionaire with a direct link to the president and an agenda at odds with Frank’s own. Added to the mix this season are Jacqueline Sharp (Molly Parker), the war veteran and ambitious California congresswoman whom Frank would like to replace him as House Majority Whip, and Xander Feng (Terry Chen), a Chinese billionaire partner of Tusk’s who figures prominently in the thread of US/China relations which gives a backbone to this season’s narrative.

In addition to multiple conflicts with the Chinese over trade, currency manipulation and cyber terrorism, this season’s current-events-based storylines also make drama out of government shutdowns, the Tea Party, military rape and campaign financing. Of course, all these things just provide a realistic-seeming framework to the assorted tawdry goings on between characters – the sex, the murder, the back stabbing – that keep viewers moving from one episode to the next. If the realistic framework this season seems a little more complicated and inscrutable, the overall machinations of Frank and company seem a little more plausible this time around and they require a bit less suspension of disbelief. On balance, season two is a better put together series than season one.

On the other hand, it doesn’t quite satisfy as much when all is said in done. The first season parceled out its drama and kept raising the stakes until everything reached a kind of dramatic climax late in the season revolving around the ultimate fate of Peter Russo. Season two starts off with a bang, delivering a surprise plot development about 3/4s of the way into the first episode. It’s one of those fun, potentially season-defining moments that announce to the audience that nothing is sacred, no one is safe and that anything can happen from one episode to the next. The problem is, season 2 never quite lives up to that heady promise. The show has its share of unexpected developments, but none that quite have zing of that first episode. I kept waiting for the stakes to be increased, but they never really were.

There also isn’t quite a replacement for Russo this season. The only character whose destruction would have quite the same sting is sad, lonely, conflicted Rachel. She’s given a lot more to do than she was in the first season, but her story never packs the same punch as Russo’s and it lacks the same level of depth. One of Frank’s other possible victims – the President himself – isn’t nearly as interesting of a character as Russo was. He’s never much of a match for Frank either. There’s no doubt Frank could crush him if it came to it.

That’s a big picture view of the show anyway. While it didn’t have quite the same zing as season one overall, there was a lot to love in individual characters and in each individual episode. Molly Parker’s Jacqueline was probably my favorite new addition to the show – strong, smart and a little bit twisted. It was also fun to see Claire Underwood continue to get equal time to her husband and prove herself his match in terms of ruthlessness. Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), the entertainingly shifty lobbyist who once worked for Frank, also returns in an elevated role. We even get to learn more about barbecue king Freddy Hayes (Reg E. Cathey).

On balance, season 2 has a higher quotient of jaw-dropping moments than season 1 – either unexpected turns of plot or surprise character developments – and it never fails to entertain. It’s also nice to see a range of directorial talents being represented, from Carl Franklin (One False Move) to James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) to Jodie Foster and even Claire Underwood herself Robin Wright. The rich, polished, cinematic look achieved by director of photography Igor Martinovic is also worthy of a shout out.

I still haven’t decided if this show is a smarter than ordinary guilty pleasure or if it’s a quality show that simply likes to get its hands dirty and wallow in the muck. Either way, it’s a great deal of fun and the new season is a worthy successor to the first.

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4 comments

  1. Avatar
    Marshall Flores 8 years ago

    Great recap, Craig. I’m in agreement with most of it. S2 really doubles down on the back-stabbing, overarching machinations, and the WTF moments really, really start to pop up in the last quarter of the season. (Especially Episode 11’s ending).

    But despite the drama, the fun, the entertaining performances – I agree that on the whole, S2 doesn’t seem as satisfying. Rachel’s and Megan’s (Pvt. Hennessy’s) storylines do help fill in the emotional void left by Russo – pawns, who through no fault of their own, are swept up in theUnderwood tempest and suffer for it – but we really don’t get to spend all that much time with them. It also seems that there still are no compelling nor capable adversaries for the Underwoods. Tusk, POTUS, Goodwin – all seem to be easily outmaneuvered or mostly ineffective in their counterpunches. Sharp is a decent foil, but she never really butts heads with the Underwoods all that much either.

    In the end, I too spent a 72 hour binge with House of Cards this weekend. It was great fun like S1, but the Machiavellian wish-fufillment fantasia is really only good for a one-night stand, nothing more. Speaking for myself.

  2. Avatar
    Craig Kennedy 8 years ago

    We’re pretty much in agreement, Marshall. This is not high art, but it’s fun. I don’t believe in the concept of a “guilty pleasure” – if something is pleasurable, I’m not gonna apologize for it – but House of Cards comes close to being that.

    Season 1 too often made me roll my eyes and suspend my disbelief, but season 2 didn’t do that nearly as often. Loved Jackie and Claire most of all this season.

    **Spoiler*** is Episode 11 the one that features the out-of-nowhere menage a trois? ***END SPOILER***

    Tusk was a potentially good adversary, but too often their battles were relegated to phone conversations which lack a certain dramatic impact. Feng was pretty good too, but they didn’t take full advantage of his potential.

  3. Avatar
    Marshall Flores 8 years ago

    **Spoiler*** is Episode 11 the one that features the out-of-nowhere menage a trois? ***END SPOILER***

    ****SPOILER****
    Yep.
    ****END SPOILER****

    The introduction of Feng was the first “WTF?” moment of S2 for me (I know most people would probably pick the ending of Episode 1, but I totally saw that coming, hehe). I did like his policy tete-a-tete with Frank on Chinese economics – probably one of the most really substantial, though abbreviated, policy wonk segments on the show.

    I really wonder what the plan for S3 is going to be. Especially with the relative ease of Frank’s ascent. But then again, everyone should be gunning for him now. Maybe, hopefully, Frank finally meets his match – the immovable object to his unstoppable force.

    1. Avatar
      Craig Kennedy 8 years ago

      Having seen the BBC show, I half expected the “surprise” in episode 1. The opening of Episode 5 with Feng, I actually thought I’d started the wrong show.

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