Exactly one month ago on Friday, the second season of Netflix’s “House of Cards” was released into the ether. Yesterday, I wrapped up the last two episodes, fully catching myself up with where the series currently stands. Today, we’re going to talk about the season itself. Later this week, we’re going to take a look at Comcast now selling episodes to anyone who has a cable subscription. Naturally, there will be spoilers below. If you haven’t finished watching yet, bookmark and kindly come back. If you don’t care about knowing what happens …
… well, it’s great to see you! Now, let’s go.
The most genuinely shocking thing about the latest “House of Cards” season comes in the first episode. This much, I know. Rarely is it surprising anymore to come across unforeseen developments on television or in the movies — more sophisticated entertainment means more sophisticated consumers, duh — but the untimely death of Ms. Barnes about a half hour into this latest jaunt brought forth an audible series of noises from me, at least. All totally, utterly, embarrassingly unbelievable visuals notwithstanding (you mean to tell me those hundreds of millions of dollars couldn’t buy you a viable death scene?!), it, if nothing else, reminded us of what we were watching, which, for those counting, is a television world so devious, it’s rivaled only by a mere handful of past TV series (“The Wire” killed off the greatest gangster in the medium’s history during its third run and managed to follow that up with, oh, say, the greatest season of a television show … ever).
Yet be it the pure shock of that move, or conversely, an inevitability so expected that by the time it came around, you couldn’t help but do nothing more than shrug your proverbial shoulders, getting that twist out of the way early set things up for a big, old, long comedown. A comedown of which that wasn’t any more disappointing than it was anticlimactic. It was only a matter of time before Francis Underwood became the President of the United States of America, and that reality created more of a “foregone conclusion” feel than it did a “Wow, really?!” reaction as the credits rolled on episode 13. The inevitability was so … well … inevitable, in fact, that all of the whos, whats, whens, wheres, and whys hardly even mattered by the time it came around.
I mean, what did you expect? Claire would have to live in that house all by herself with some bisexual robot of a security guard as we head into season three? Frank gets out of the clink to come home to a kitchen full of bastardized step-children? Sure, dude. And a cold open with Doug Stamper and Zoe Barnes canoodling in heaven as we begin the third go-around next February is imminent, too, right?
Actually, the former’s fate is a key source of apathy for me regarding any opinion on the show’s landscape. I loved the guy. Check back through all the meanderings about the series I’ve offered up through the years on this blog and you’ll see how he quickly became my favorite character. In fact, I even recall saying to friends the same thing I kept screaming about when it came to Jesse Pinkman of “Breaking Bad” fame: If he goes, I go. And, well … .
All soft-spots for supporting characters aside, though, his was a completely unnatural way of saying goodbye. In fact, Stamper’s story might be the single most frustrating part of the entire season for me, in retrospect. Doug was a fixer. And an invincible fixer, at that. A guy who practically bleeds shadows. True blue. No-nonsense. Hard-line. He understood what it meant to be in that position. He understood each precise expectation. He hardly even knew how to spell the word “excuse.”
So, to flush that character out with alcoholism (read: an addictive personality), and a strong case of good, old-fashioned creepy love, was a disservice to such a strong piece of the “House of Cards” puzzle. There are certain personalities you shouldn’t touch when it comes to these slow-moving dramas (another one immediately coming to mind is Alan Cumming’s Eli on “The Good Wife,” who also made some questionable decisions during the series’ second season), and Stamper brought forth a unique, unsettling aspect essential to keeping the ominous vibe of the narrative. Killing Zoe felt justified — you can’t go yet another entire season with the same back-and-forth her and Frank supplied throughout the first 13 episodes (also a great reason to get the obnoxious Lucas Goodwin out of the picture, which they thankfully did) – but sending Doug out to pasture with a few rock-blows to the head … really? Honestly? That‘s how the guy is going to go?
- Freddy! Boy, I loved his presence. That barbecue joint made the series fun. Plus, Reg E. Cathey is a dude who can command a screen. Seeing that rise and fall carry a mini midseason arc was saddening.
- Jacqueline Sharp. I go back and forth with her. There’s an element of performance in her presence, which I don’t much like. Yet her conniving ways echo those best seen from Frank, and if you can’t appreciate that, you can’t appreciate the show. They could have done without her love affair with Remy as well.
- The letter. You mean to tell me that after all the manipulating and maneuvering Frank Underwood pulls off for 25 previous episodes, all it takes is a letter written on a typewriter in order for him to win back the president’s heart? Really?! Finally, after being the Idiot In Chief for nearly two seasons, he smartens up, realizes what his VP is up to, and decides to … forgive him on account of the written word? Lazy.
- The First Pitch. Not in one trillion years does that even begin to look as though Spacey was in the same zip code as Camden Yards. Again: You have hundreds of millions of dollars!
- Cyber-terrorism. Bah. Forced. All of it. Every bit of that angle is a shoehorn.
- Predictability. Because outside of Zoe Barnes, it ran rampant throughout the season. You knew Meechum was going to be the Underwoods’ sex toy once he walked in on Frank … well … enjoying some alone time. It became clear, however heartbreaking it may have been, that Doug was going to go before the season ended, one way or another. The lesbian angle between Rachel and her roommate. The ramifications from Claire’s getaway weekend with Adam. Oh, say, pretty much everything that came along with Frank ascending to the presidency. All these things were far too expected to have a desired impact. It’s a shame, too, because a few of them had serious potential (wouldn’t it have been more fun if Adam and Claire kept their relationship in good graces? And again, remind me why they had to off Doug by a series of woebegone rock-shots to the head?).
Now, none of this — again, NONE OF THIS — is to imply that the season was a wash. Because for the most part, at the end of the day, the thing held serve. At one point, even, I tweeted out this:
“Wow, House of Cards doesn’t just get good in this second season. It gets really good.”
And all things considered, I stand by that. Why? Mostly because of the decision to emphasize foreign policy this year — it simply felt more organic, more true. With education reform being the subplot last year, there was a lot of putting feet in the water and pulling one of them out after the stuff became too hot. This time around, everybody dove right in, head first. Back-Channeling Was The New Black, and tension shared with the Chinese just seemed more believable, considering the current contention smothering a lot of international relations around the world. It was smart because we already understood that this was an utterly unbelievable depiction of our nation’s capital in the first place; with all that happened this season, it appears as though Beau Willimon finally caught up.
Oh, and who can forget this, from Cody Ray Shafer at Under The Radar …
“But where season one was a decadent showcase of Frank’s shiver-inducing monster, with his South Carolina accent laid on thicker than Freddy’s barbecue sauce, in season two his lust for victory turns rather dull. Luckily, the creators tap into the overlooked potential of Robin Wright’s character, Claire Underwood, Frank’s equally power-mad wife. In this season, they are at their best when they play off each other’s desires and collaborate on conniving schemes. But on her own, Claire starts to intimidate and intrigue far more than Frank’s smarmy smile and fourth-wall-breaking self-serving monologues.”
I’ve said it 29,913 times before, I know, but this is the role of Robin Wright’s life. For all the “Breaking Bad” apologists out there, who claim the brilliance of that series came due to its exceptional way of portraying subliminal suspense, “House of Cards” accomplishes that very thing — and then some — during Claire’s CNN interview and there isn’t a chance in hell they pull it off with any other actress in that chair. If that sequence doesn’t get her another Golden Globe (or, for God’s sake, an Emmy), the HOC cast and crew might as well never show up to another trophy show again. Masterful would be the correct word only if you were looking for an understatement.
Plus, we see things we haven’t seen before. She cracks after getting off the phone with the (now former) first lady. Her and Frank actually, totally, really, honestly kiss (on the lips, no less, which, for my money, is as much a talking point as anything else that happened all year). She appears to indeed actually have some compassion behind those glass eyes, as she continues to apologize to Megan for not being able to get her bill passed as is. The character evolved in season two, and for an already fascinatingly layered personality, that only meant great things for an already addicting television presence.
Other strong points?
- The final scene between Freddy and Frank in the former’s apartment, after he lost everything, is unflinching. You can’t look away. It’s two top-shelf actors having the ability to kick up some sand at the playground, working off one another, bringing an already poignant moment to the type of boil almost always reserved for bigger plot points. It’s fantastic.
- Xander Feng was scary. When Stamper went to visit him that second time, I actually thought Doug wasn’t making it back alive. And the way he was introduced in the first place … whoa, there.
- Seth Grayson. I like him. I didn’t initially like him. But, especially with Doug gone now, he’s going to have to step his game up. Plus, in an odd way, he reminds me of Jason Bateman, which makes me smile. And anyone who kicks Greg From Mad Men off a show … I’ve got no problem with.
- They had to wrap the Lucas story up, and they did. For one reason or another, it actually felt as though it was an angle they thought they’d try and then, about halfway through the season, finally came to the realization that “Nope. This isn’t working.” Does it leave things open for future seasons? Of course. But for now, his presence was simply annoying. And it’s weird, because for a guy who’s somehow made a career out of whatever passes as journalism these days, the journalists portrayed in “House of Cards” are ones I simply could never warm up to. Between him and Zoe, it would be too soon if I ever saw The Washington Herald offices again.
- When Frank goes all “You don’t know anything about our marriage” on Adam you almost want to leap into the television screen and hug him. But that would be bad. Because A) your TV would be broken and B) if you made it, he would probably eventually kill you anyway.
- The Civil War. So, when video games are taken away, we turn to the only logical next way to kill our time: Re-creating Civil War battles with action figures. This, I enjoyed. There’s something very pragmatic and very patient about seeing him work on that stuff. It fit perfectly. Plus, the conversation he had with his great-great-great grandfather was both eerie and interesting.
- The ending. You got to love the way he pounds the desk. Got to.
“Despite its magisterial pomp, ‘House of Cards’ isn’t an especially smart show. Frank’s plots depend less on his own genius than on a fresh supply of credulous patsies; HBO’s satiric Veep is far more radical because it dares to suggest our politics is awash in sarcasm and ennui, not the Machiavellian froth Frank Underwood drinks like wine. Rather, House of Cards is clever. It gives Spacey and Wright the room to play soap like it’s Shakespeare (they’re basically Richard III shacking up with Lady Macbeth), while allowing talented performers like Michael Kelly (as Doug Stamper, Frank’s ruthless aide-de-camp) and Mahershala Ali (as Remy Danton, a lobbyist and Frank’s occasional adversary) the chance to splash around in the residual suds. Director Carl Franklin, picking up the slack left by an absent Fincher, has the good sense to shoot his episodes like horror films, lingering on the doomy lighting and immediately recognizable ghost whistle of the D.C. Metro. And Willimon has a knack for juxtaposing political theater with the surprising splatter of real bile and blood. Claire Underwood’s personal history is mined for riveting, unsettling drama. There’s a moment so totally shocking in the season premiere that there’s barely enough time to process it. (Once you do, you might realize that, in the long term, it diminished both Frank as a character and the potential drama of the season to come.)”
That’s the best thing I’ve read about “House of Cards” to date. It comes from Andy Greenwald over at Grantland. He’s right. Despite a consistent insistence (at least from me) to label the thing as brain-heavy, “House of Cards” is really nothing more than a particularly dreary and somewhat addicting soap opera. It’s as though a group of Senate staffers got together and wrote their version of “Ugly Betty.” You always know that something is coming. You always know that anything is possible. And more often than not, you can actually take those two idioms and make a pretty good guess as to what it is that’s coming that you have already considered is possible in the first place. Better yet, your guess is oftentimes right.
That doesn’t made the show bad. Shoot, it doesn’t even make it medium. It just establishes what it is and what it is not. This second season, if nothing else, outlined those parameters with both specificity and expectation. Now, we know what we’re playing with. Now, we know which road we chose.
What’s interesting (and what will subsequently make us all come back) is exactly where the Underwoods may go now. Because the only place left, of course, is down. Jail. Death. The season two finale felt just a little too series-finale-ish for comfort. Nobody’s to blame — we all know that the initial contract promised two seasons and if that’s all they ended up getting, at least it would have had resolution — but it sure wipes the slate clean for February 2015.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely, you know. Though if you’re already corrupted, how absolute is your fate? It’s a question the new President of the United States of America might have to face if Netflix wants to keep its flagship series above water.