It took me about 10 days to watch the second season of House of Cards, but more than a month to sit down and write about it.
It was less exciting, less scandalous, and more slow-moving and into itself. About midway through, after I’d devoured eight episodes in the three days following its Valentine’s Day première, I needed a break. Finishing the season felt like a chore or, worse, a workout: you put in the time and got a small reward every few, torturous sessions.
I liked the first season of House of Cards but do remember a lull in the middle episodes. Some have written that on closer inspection, even the first season of the show isn’t strong. It has elements of a great show, but it isn’t one. I disagree. I was under no obligation to watch it but did – and quicker than I care to admit – and thought it was exciting, compelling and novel enough for me to even be giddy about the season-two première. I stopped watching Derek, the Ricky Gervais Netflix series, two episodes in, so the notions that people will binge-watch a show just because they can or because it’s available are not true.
Season two of House of Cards picks up where the first left off, with Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) just days from the office of the vice presidency he so cunningly chased in season one. Again, Spacey is marvellous as the sociopathic, psychopathic, cold and calculating Underwood. The whole cast, really, does tremendous work, especially Robin Wright as Claire Underwood and Michael Kelly as Underwood’s chief of staff Doug Stamper. Now that Francis is VPOTUS, there’s only one office – and one man – separating him from ultimate power. It makes sense that a character portraying the VPOTUS seeks the office of POTUS on paper, but in theory and in House of Cards, Underwood undermines everyone he’s around, regardless of whether they are above his pay grade. He already seems more powerful than the president.
The first episode of the second season is very strong, but it tricks you into believing something major like what happens here will happen in every episode. It doesn’t. Admittedly, it doesn’t have to, but with a start this strong, the following episodes never quite achieve the same level of shock and surprise. Underwood has a lot of enemies, but none seem to be performing at the same level and they’re unable to bring him down a peg, maybe just slow him down temporarily. House of Cards has a problem with the characters who pose a threat to Frank’s power. Why are they are inept? They’re cheaters who aren’t as deceptive or cunning as Frank is. Most egregious is the way the show treats the journalists who start sniffing around Underwood’s very smelly affairs. To keep this post as free of spoilers as possible, I’ll just say that the journalists on House of Cards either are too scared to pursue their hunches, or follow their guts too stupidly, one even committing a crime to try to nail Frank – instead of being the kind of journalists who do journalistic work to uncover lies.
Francis Underwood isn’t a genius mastermind, he’s just written that way. House of Cards is only interested in reinforcing his prowess by surrounding him with puny challengers. Am I the only one who wanted Wile E. Coyote to catch Roadrunner just once?
Frank and Claire make a strong team. Their icy marriage seems like a business partnership arising from the realization that the other is their match. They scheme and plan together and their scenes – I thought there were far more Frank and Claire scenes this season than last – are among the best of the show. Spacey and Wright feed off each other very well and you’re not sure what they’re up to or what sort of tension they’re planting within the first family, but you know it won’t end well for POTUS and FLOTUS.
The quality of the production continues to impress. House of Cards is beautifully shot and, it bears repeating, very well acted. Carl Franklin and James Foley do the bulk of the directing of the 13 episodes. They’re no David Fincher, who produces season two and directed the first two episodes of the series, but the series is consistently dark in its mood and occasional humour even though there were far fewer memorable moments this time around.
Episode 4 stands out as a particularly strong hour in House of Cards‘s second season. It felt like it took cues from another Washington, D.C.-set show, Scandal: during a live, primetime interview, Claire Underwood drops a bombshell about an abortion she had in college after she was raped by a man who’s now a military official receiving a medal of honour. It’s when House of Cards imitates Scandal that the Netflix series is most bearable – exciting and fun to watch, even – but those moments are far and few between. It happens with an unexpected murder in episode 1, the aforementioned interview in episode 4, in which suspected anthrax in Underwood’s mail also shuts down the Capitol, and, in a later episode, when three characters take part in a threesome. Scandal knows it’s over the top and toys with its audience. House of Cards thinks it’s above that and demands to be taken seriously.
The first two seasons of House of Cards are available to stream on Netflix.