Spoilers. Spoilers. Spoilers. Spoilers.
Did I mention there are spoilers below? I did? Good, because there are. There’s also tons more that happens that I’m not mentioning below. Go watch it. Now.
One of the handicaps that House of Cards has to overcome is that, by about the second episode of the first season, the audience has been handed the stepping stones of the plot –especially when the Season 1 ends with Frank Underwood’s acceptance of the Vice Presidency. The audience can see that Frank is going to work his way closer to the oval office with each passing episode. And yet the writers have to find a way to make the journey from Point A to Point B interesting enough to watch.
Thanks to Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, it is.
Season 2 operates a lot like Season 1. And the enjoyment of Season 2 is a lot like Season 1: It’s all about the Underwoods. Characters come and go, along with the interest in them, but you just don’t get tired of Spacey or Wright, no matter how much either of them are onscreen. When Homer Simpson is brought on to play Poochie the Dog in Itchy & Scratchy, after a disastrous premiere, one of his suggestions to “improve” the show is “whenever Poochie’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking, ‘Where’s Poochie?’” Despite some exceptional side characters (RE: Freddy, Raymond Tusk, etc.), I found myself asking the same question about Frank and Claire Underwood whenever they weren’t on screen. But that’s not an issue isolated in Season 2; it’s been that way since the very first episode of the series.
Thanks to Netflix’s style of vomiting out entire seasons at once, I binged on Season 2 and watched it most of Friday. And the game changes early on. Fatigue had set in towards the end of the first season. I got bored with the Journalist Avenger trifecta (Zoe, Janine, Lucas) as they slowly went through the motions of uncovering Frank’s back-alley doings, only to come to 612 random, but spot-on conclusions about everything in the season finale. Lucky for me, then, that Frank pushes Zoe in front of an oncoming train in the first episode.
As a Game of Thrones fanatic and a big Walking Dead fan, I’m no stranger to watching shocking plot twists, but I have to say, this was one of the best ever. Not only was it totally unexpected, it happened in a setting –the Frank Underwood-Zoe Barnes secret society meeting– that we as viewers had become entirely comfortable with from Season 1. And the meeting goes exactly like all the other ones, except the end where Frank hurls her off the subway landing. Additionally, her death completely changes the landscape of the season. No disrespect to Kate Mara, but I wasn’t really looking forward to the journalists nipping at Frank’s heels the entire season anyway.
House of Cards pulls a good plot stunt here, too. Normally, a death like Zoe’s would empower Lucas and Janine to go after the big bad wolf and bring justice. But after some early digging, Janine panics and runs for home, while Lucas (the more determined of the two since, you know, he and Zoe were sleeping together), gets arrested for trying to hack into phone records and, despite wanting to fight, takes a plea deal for a reduced sentence, which is still a long time. There’s always a chance they come back into the plot, but they’re entirely absent from the back half of the season.
We get replacements, though. There is only one reporter, but we get a new Majority Whip in Jackie Sharp (with a dreadfully boring romantic subplot with Remy Danton), much-expanded roles for Raymond Tusk and President Garrett Walker, along with Rachel Posner (the former prostitute currently in the Doug Stamper Halfway House). There’s a Chinese business mogul, Tricia Walker (the first lady), and a few others. The overall conglomerate of characters rates about the same as Season 1 in terms of interest, but make absolutely no mistake, this is Frank and Claire Underwood’s story. Characters benefit from interactions with them and routinely suffer from interactions without them. Except Freddy; he remains fully engaging. The scenes he and Frank are onscreen together are routinely some of the best of the entire series. I almost cried when he sells the rib joint.
Most of the season’s conflict comes from billionaire Raymond Tusk (played brilliantly by Gerald McRaney), his interests in China, and how they butt heads with Frank’s plans. Overall, it’s engaging, but like President Walker says to Frank, sometimes it doesn’t feel like Frank is doing anything, just running around putting out fire after fire. So long as we’re with Frank while he tries to figure things out, the show remains in top form. When it shifts to wheelings and dealings of minor characters, we’re back to the “Where’s Poochie?” syndrome.
I’ve only watched this season once, so I’m sure I’ll piece together more on the second run through, but things get hazier than they do in Season 1. I’m not going to list everything that I can remember, but we have the overarching plot of Frank clearly gunning for the presidency, subplots of being Vice President, and tons of intertwining subplots that only work some of the time. The Jackie Sharp-Remy Danton romance is as disengaging as the Claire Underwood-Adam Galloway one from the first season.
There’s an interesting scene where Edward Meechum (Frank’s secret service agent) is invited to have a drink with Claire (remember what happened the last time Claire invited Meechum for a drink?). He’s off the clock this time so there’s no danger, but Frank comes home soon after. There are a few alcohol-lubricated moments that make you think something might be going on between them, but then suddenly both Meechum and Frank begin kissing Claire, followed by a fade-out clip of Frank beginning to kiss Meechum. There has been plenty of speculation about Frank’s sexuality and this scene will keep that speculation at the forefront.
As previously stated, things get super hazy as the season moves into its later stages –complete with judiciary committee hearings, charges of presidential impeachment, and trouble for Frank at every turn. As the noose tightens on President Walker’s administration, impeachment becomes imminent. While Frank is busy “whipping” up votes to push the impeachment through, he’s outwardly expressing full-fledged support to Walker. And just like in the early part of Season 1 with the parents in Gaffney, Frank offers his own head to the president as a scapegoat. Of course, we know that’s not going to happen. Unlike Game of Thrones, House of Cards can’t possibly survive the loss of its main character. President Walker reads the writing on the wall, pulls a Richard Nixon, and resigns the presidency, leaving Francis Underwood as president of the United States.
The season closes with Claire giving Frank a newly-made class ring (he buries his original earlier on) and he walks into the oval office alone. With a blazing choir playing behind the scene, he basks in the sunlit glow of the presidential office. The end was almost perfect, but they went just a tad too dramatic and ended it a second later than they should have. After Frank walks in front of the windows and turns to the desk, he, per usual, glances our way. That’s the moment to end the episode, but they choose to have him dramatically do his patented ring double-tap on the desk. It’s cool and all, but it was a little too contrived. That’s just a little personal preference on my part.
The conclusion is probably what 95% of the audience guessed after the first season –he’s moving up one position per season– but I kind of wish they wouldn’t have had Walker resign. I understand we have actually had a president resign to avoid removal, but it’s only happened once and would be considered the most extreme way for a president to leave office. And it’s rarely convincing when film chooses the most extreme avenue for anything. It requires less stretching on the part of the authors (and audience) if they can keep it within the realms of “normalcy” –choosing to have Walker decide to not seek reelection would be the easiest alternate example. It might sound like nitpicking, but in House of Cards, how we get from A to B is important. Since we pretty much know where we’re going, the journey through has to be worth the effort.
So long as Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are leading the way, it will be.