House of Cards Season 2 Review: Welcome (Back) to the Jungle

Photo Credit: http://photos.vanityfair.com/2014/02/13/1392315152353_hoc_ps2_002_h.jpg

Netflix’s riveting Capital Hill drama is back with another season of political chess. With raised stakes and a ferocious intensity, these are 13 episodes you don’t want to miss. (Warning: Major spoilers ahead)

House of Cards often relies on shock value as a narrative device. This concept is employed by almost all of buzziest dramas of the past few years; it keeps the audience on their toes, and keeps them coming back week after week. Unfortunately, many shows end up leaning too heavily on this method of storytelling, allowing the twists to take center stage while plot and character fall by the wayside. One of my biggest problems the most recent season of Homeland was that it was so desperate to pull the wool over our eyes, it ended up becoming a caricature of itself. I mean, how many OMG moments can you really have in one season anyway? (If you’re Shonda Rhimes, the limit does not exist!)

The thing about House of Cards, however, is that it’s smarter than a lot of its competition. Perhaps because it doesn’t have the urgency of getting week-to-week viewers—all 13 episodes were made available as soon as the season was released on Netflix—it doesn’t feel the pressure to constantly push the big red button. Don’t get me wrong, there are twists and turns aplenty in the series’ second outing. But they creep up slowly and are executed quickly, with hardly any flash involved. Furthermore, the buildup to these events is always so well-detailed that, looking back, every shock makes perfect sense. That’s the real way to keep people’s attention, and the way to tell a damn good story.

Ah yes, the story. This season picks up right where we left off with Frank assuming the role of Vice President. The premiere does a lot of work tying up loose ends from last season, but in ways you’d never expect. It worked as a solid entry point for two reasons: One, it allowed for the characters to pull off their signature back-and-forth of moves and counter-moves, which is endlessly entertaining. Two, it drew us back in with some powerful moments.

There’s one in particular that I’m sure will have everyone talking for weeks on end, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Even before the episode’s astonishing conclusion, the writers have already given us a lot of meat to chew on. Claire’s dealings with Gillian were excellently maneuvered, proving that she can play just as dirty as Frank. She really is Lady MacBeth to his Richard III. Her final confrontation with her former employee—where she looks her right in the eye and tells her that she’d let her baby “wither and die” inside her if she had to—was nothing short of chilling. If you needed a reminder that these are not very nice characters, this was it.

Then, if you needed another reminder, there was Zoe’s death. This scene came so out-of-nowhere that I had to re-watch it three times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. There was something so disturbing about how quick and easy it was. Zoe was so integral to last season’s storlyine that I never would have guessed she’d be offed so quickly. Yet, that’s part of the show’s genius. Looking back, it’s totally believable that Frank would push her in front of a moving train. After all, he’s already murdered once. He even did it in such a way that ensured he’d never be caught. When he finally addresses the audience after an hour-long emotional roller coaster, it weirdly feels like a welcome home. If you thought this season was going to go easy on you, think again.

Episodic is the last word I would ever use to describe a show like House of Cards, and that proved true of this season as well. Going forward, many of the episodes blurred together into one elongated, Shakespearian tale. As with the education bill and the teacher’s union crisis merely being a backdrop for Frank’s revenge in season 1, this season offers a trade conflict with China as the main political task at hand. Really though, it’s all fodder for Frank’s plot to get rid of Raymond Tusk and inch himself closer and closer to the presidency. There are a few new characters who come in such as Molly Parker’s Jackie Sharp who takes over for Frank as the new House Majority Whip, and Derek Cecil as the Underwoods’ new press secretary Seth Grayson.

While Frank continues to manipulate his way to the top, Claire is given her own storyline after admitting to being raped on national television. I was conflicted about this plotline at first. Why does such a powerful woman have to have been assaulted by a man before becoming the person she is today? Ultimately, though, I think it really worked. We saw a more vulnerable side of the usually stoic Claire, and it gave the show a chance to address sexual assault in the military, which is something very topical in our country today.

Performance-wise, everyone was once again at the top of their game. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright knocked it out of the park, especially since their characters presented a much more united front this season than last. Those two have such great chemistry when they’re working toward a common goal. President Walker took on a much larger role this season, and Michael Gill did a fine job at making him a believable leader-in-peril. Even smaller characters such as Reg E. Cathey’s rib cook Freddy and Nathan Darrow’s security agent Meechum—or should I say, Threechum—got their moment in the sun.

Of course, this season was not without its faults. The whole hacktivist subplot felt very unnecessary and more than a little farfetched to me. Then again, I know nothing about cyberterrorism so I’m not really the best person to comment on its realism. Additionally, Rachel, the former prostitute who slept with Peter Russo, makes several appearances that do nothing except make me feel bad for how terrible her life is. She does have a redeeming moment in the end, but I wonder if that same conclusion could have been reached without her. Still, these are minor grievances in an overall outstanding season.

The final episode takes place about a year after the premiere, and Frank has finally wormed his way into the presidency. This is clearly the logical next step on his road to domination, and the news that the show had been picked up for a third season made it all the more exciting. Who doesn’t want to see what the Underwoods do now they’ve reached the top of the food chain?

A lot of critics will probably talk in great length about the final scene of Frank in the Oval Office, as well they should. It’s wonderfully shot, and it speaks volumes about how far his character has come. The most important scene to me, though, occurs slightly earlier when Frank throws the letter he gave to President Walker into the fire. The camera lingers on the envelope that reads “Mr. President” as it is engulfed in flames. Whether you think of him as an antihero or a full-on villain, it’s clear that Frank’s success will eventually come to an end. Like Walter White and Tony Soprano before him, he too will eventually watch his empire go up in flames. If it’s as compelling as watching his rise to power, then I can hardly wait. Grade: A-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

One Response to House of Cards Season 2 Review: Welcome (Back) to the Jungle

  1. Brent says:

    Wow! Talk about a posting knkocing my socks off!

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