Editor’s Note: This review encompasses the entire second season of House of Cards. If you had the personal strength to avoid the temptation of watching the entire season in one go over the weekend, then you should exercise some of that restraint by not reading the following review. There are spoilers everywhere, and I don’t want to be held responsible for ruining your life.
Washingtonians were practically giddy on Feb. 14 to have a date in front of their television sets with their one true love, Frank Underwood. The second season of House of Cards was full of unexpected plot twists, delighting fans with the same joy of watching Frank angle his way up the ladder of power. In season one Frank made his way from House Whip to Vice President through carefully crafted political maneuvering. Season two sees Frank ascend to the presidency, mostly through bullish fumbling. While the charming facade of Frank’s character is diminished in the new season, watching him jockey for position is just as fun as ever.
Season two strives to keep viewers guessing and is largely successful on that front. I think I heard a collective gasp throughout Washington when Frank murdered Zoe by pushing her in front on an incoming Metro train. That put a relatively sudden end to the entire plot line about the journalists chasing down Frank, since the scene instantly removed Zoe as trump card. Then Janine flees to her parents’ house in New York, while Lucas is thrown in federal prison on cyber terrorism charges.
While I was at first shocked and disappointed that by the fourth episode the journalists were shut out from the plot, it really was a brilliant creative decision, giving the writers far more room to grow. As Lucas is abandoned in jail, with even his coworkers agreeing that he sounds like a crazy person, viewers realize just how far Frank’s power goes. In Washington good intentions will only get you so far. It also provided a sense of hopelessness throughout the season, as viewers had to find relish new loose ends, offering hope of seeing Frank taken down.
The second season does offer some exciting side plots to replace Zoe’s story. A story line involving Doug Stamper’s increasingly obsessive relationship with Rachel Posner is far more psychologically riveting than anything we’ve seen from House of Cards previously. As we watch Stamper rocking back and forth like a child to Rachel reading passages from the Bible to him, we realize that Team Frank really isn’t as carefully put together as Underwood would have us believe. Stamper’s death in the season two finale causes the biggest hole in Frank’s carefully crafted life, which I can’t wait to see explored more in season three.
The next installment of House of Cards also promises more from a new character, the anarchist hacker and former FBI informant Gavin Orsay. Orsay is brought into the fray to be the cause of Lucas’s demise. While his screen time in slight throughout the season, he is the only point of continuity with the first season. After Lucas, Orsay is the only one who know’s something shady is going on, causing him to begin tracking Stamper and Posner. Whereas the journalists however, wanted to expose Frank based on ethical beliefs in the goodness of truth, Gavin’s motives are of the more realistic, “f— the man” variety, which is much more fun to watch than moral posturing.
And I suppose that brings us to Frank’s plot line. This is where most of my issues with the second season fell, which was a shame considering Frank’s angling take up most of the season. To start with, Frank’s murder of Zoe in the first episode of season two really stunts his growth as a character. Throughout House of Cards the fascination with Frank’s character is wondering just how far he would go to seize power. Now that he’s killed twice, that mystery is entirely gone. He’s an evil murderer at this point, and it makes all of his stress over internal West Wing politics seem silly. If Frank really wanted the presidency, wouldn’t he have just slipped President Walker some cyanide and call it a day?
Instead, viewers are subjected to a very convoluted war between Frank and billionaire Raymond Tusk, involving Chinese money laundering. Again, what made Frank Underwood such a fascinating character before, his easy and gleeful abuse of the power of his office, is entirely missing this season. As vice president, Frank finds himself entirely at the mercy of the power of the President, plus he lacks the capitalist power embodied by Raymond Musk. Much of the joy from season one came from Frank’s calculated moves, and it’s somewhat disappointing to now just watch him grasping at straws.
Lastly, let me note some of the silliest things you will see in House of Cards season two, particularly if you live in D.C.. For starters, inaccurate depictions of Washington are rampant. Yes, fans know that House of Cards is filmed in Baltimore, but it often falls short of passing for the District. For instance, there’s a scene where Frank is sitting in at the Senate, and we see a room that looks more like some local town hall than the iconic, real-life U.S. Senate. In another scene, Zoe dies in the Cathedral Heights metro station, which obviously doesn’t exist; if it did, however, it would look at little more like a D.C. metro station that this place did.
The view from lobbyist Remy Danton’s penthouse is literally a fantasy, showing a picture that could only be seen in Washington if you were sitting 20 stories on top of the Lincoln Memorial. Even simple city scenes took on an absurdist tone. At one point an image of the Capitol Building flanked by a lake directly to the right flashes on the screen, begging the question: Why mess with such recognizable D.C. scenery?
Tweaking the sets is a forgivable sin, however, compared to the sex scene inserted smack in the middle of the season for no explainable reason whatsoever. Why, oh why was it necessary for Frank and Claire to have a three way with their loyal bodyguard? After the first season of House of Cards there was plenty of chatter about the homoerotic hints made between Frank and his college friend during a trip to his alma mater. And I guess the producers decided to expand this tiny bit of character development by having Frank engage in the most unlikely threesome ever. But at the end of the day the scene felt cheap and offered little more than shock value. Here, I wish House of Cards writers had a little more respect for the intelligence of their viewers.
For die-hard House of Cards fans, season two is a delight. It is just as addictive as the first season, and it dangles plenty of questions to get you excited for the third installment. But season two doesn’t offer much for new converts. The series that began as a clever and nuanced romp about power in Washington has become a bombastic and brash melodrama that ventures into farce. That said, House of Cards has never been more fun than it is when it stops taking itself so seriously.