House of Cards: Season 2 flawed, but an improvement over season 1

House of Cards season 2 promo image

House of Cards season 2 promo image

House of Cards, Season 2
Written by Beau Willimon, Bill Cain, Laura Eason, Kenneth Lin, John Mankiewicz, David Mason, and Bill Kennedy
Directed by Carl Franklin, James Foley, John Coles, Jodie Foster, and Robin Wright
Premiered Friday, Feb. 14th on Netflix

House of Cards premiered last year to tremendous buzz, the highly-anticipated, prestige-soaked first original program from Netflix. Viewers embraced the series and no one was surprised to see it rack up nomination after nomination, both for the Golden Globes and Emmys. After the initial furor died down however, many critics were left cold by the show’s self-satisfaction and paint-by-numbers approach, the strong individual performances let down by predictable plotting and under-developed characterization. Fortunately season two of House of Cards, while still flawed, greatly improves on many of the first season’s biggest problem areas and this self-awareness bodes well for the already-commissioned season three.

The single biggest problem of House of Cards season one remains- Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is too successful. There is never any sense that he is in danger, either politically or physically, and the opponents set up for him are all-too-quickly seduced to the Dark Side or dismissed. We know he’s the main character of an incredibly successful series (that doesn’t look to be switching to an Oz-inspired aesthetic any time soon), so he’s not going anywhere; we also know he’s capable of anything (as he proved last season, in a frustrating and poorly-handled fashion), so there’s little he can do to shock us. Viewers will realize it at varying points throughout the season, but this is a show that loves its main character and is unwilling to allow him to be vulnerable in any significant way; his success is a foregone conclusion, and an uninteresting one at that.

House of Cards season 2 promo imageIt’s not surprising that by far the most engaging moments in the season are those that see Frank and Claire (Robin Wright) at their most human. A newly-revealed specter from Claire’s past casts a long shadow and Frank’s powerlessness in the face of it is more captivating than any of his West Wing scheming. Kevin Spacey is compelling in these moments, but Robin Wright steals the show as Claire is forced to confront parts of her life she thought she’d tidily packed away. With Corey Stoll’s Peter Russo out of the picture, House of Cards needed a new emotional heart and for much of the season, Claire fills that role, while manipulating those around her and generally being terrible; it’s a tricky balance, but Wright and the writers mostly make it work.

Another contender is the new-for-season-two Congresswoman Jackie Sharp, played by the fantastic Molly Parker. Parker is a welcome addition to the cast and it’s wonderful to see her dig her teeth into the contradictions of the role; Sharp is also the closest season two comes to a regular (rather than guest appearing) well-intentioned political character. Unfortunately, some late-season maneuvering undermines her potential as a worthy opponent to Underwood. Most of the season gives that job to Gerald McRaney’s Raymond Tusk, who beguiled in his brief season one appearances. His increased presence this year is a good move, but one that the season becomes over-reliant upon, returning to the same narrative well again and again to fill time until the finale. Innocents get hurt along the way, but none of the leads seem to care for very long, so it’s hard to become overly invested in the Underwood/Tusk conflict.

Filling the season one McRaney position of intriguing minor guest character played by an underappreciated-by-the-general-viewership actor is Jimmi Simpson as hacker Gavin Orsay. Simpson, best known for his comedic work, particularly as the hilariously creepy Liam McPoyle on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, is fantastic in the small role. There are problems with the show’s use of the character (his storyline frequently feels disjointed and only loosely connected to the rest of the narrative), but the creative casting and season three potential for the character go a long way towards making up for them. Hopefully casting directors will take notice and this performance will lead to more work for the always-engaging Simpson.

House of Cards season 2 promo imageDespite the problems discussed above, season two makes great strides over season one of House of Cards mostly due to its handling of several of season one’s most problematic elements. While Underwood’s asides to the camera remain, they are greatly reduced, with most episodes featuring just one breach of the fourth wall. The character remains annoyingly self-satisfied and smug, but the overall tone of the season is far more palatable, perhaps due to the sheer volume of characters aware of Underwood’s games. Season one saw Remy Danton and Underwood’s fixer, Doug Stamper, in on Frank and Claire’s motives and capabilities. Season two greatly increases that circle, both friends and foes.

Season two also streamlines the narrative. Claire’s role as the Second Lady allows her to be far more involved in Frank’s world, and vice versa, giving the show greater focus and providing more opportunities for the two to work in tandem. There are still a handful of disappointingly gratuitous sex scenes, but this element is greatly diminished when compared with season one, and the biggest problem character from season one is addressed almost immediately.

[SPOILERS FOR THE END OF EPISODE ONE BELOW]

House of Cards season 2 promo image

Zoe Barnes, intrepid reporter/headline hunter with daddy issues, was a problem throughout much of season one. Her relationship with Underwood was effectively creepy, but their power dynamic was so unbalanced that she never felt like a credible threat to him, even after she teamed up with Janine and Lucas. Add in the awkward sex scenes and Zoe’s less than nuanced dialogue and behavior and you have a character poised to weigh down the series for a healthy stretch of season two, even if the writers started working to fix these problems immediately. Instead, they threw her in front of a train. It’s effective, it’s dramatic, and it doubles down on the Frank who’s willing to kill Peter at the end of season one. It also gives sufficient motivation for Janine to skip town (it’s incredibly refreshing to see a journalist actually take that route- political thrillers would have you believe they never do) and Lucas to go over the edge, making him substantially more interesting, and it removes Slugline entirely from the picture- few shows do a good job with blogging and internet-based journalism and House of Cards was not one of them.

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Identifying this weak point of season one and resolving it so quickly in season two is a very encouraging sign from Beau Willimon and the rest of the creative team, as are the quick resolution to the Gillian Cole storyline, the beefing up of Tusk’s role, the reduction of asides, and the season’s slight tonal shift. Hopefully the PtB will be just as clear-eyed about season two’s flaws and season three will bring a few legitimate threats to Underwood and his schemes, as well as some characters we can actually like. House of Cards may still have some issues, but it’s moving in the right direction and fans of season one, or of this cast, will undoubtedly be pleased.

What did you think of House of Cards season 2? Who were you pleased to see more or less of? How are you watching the series, all at once or meted out? What are you hoping for in season three? Post your thoughts in the comments below!  Please provide spoiler warnings as necessary in your comments.

Kate Kulzick

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