Returning from a year-long hiatus, in Netflix’s own drag-out-and-drop fashion, the second season of the Emmy-winning political drama House of Cards was finally released to the eagerly-awaiting public on February 14 in its entirety of 13 episodes. The story follows Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the cold and calculating congressman who began his rise to power in the first season, as he continues his ascension through the ranks of the U.S. government alongside his ruthless and cunning wife, Claire (Robin Wright). Picking up right where the first season left off, the couple faces threats old and new, and a returning cast of characters (as well as some fresh meat) enters the fray for the “butchery.”
Season Two stays quite true to the formula that made it such a breakout success, but still manages to keep things tense and murky. Frank is still as power-hungry as ever, and no decision seems to be made without political calculation. Granted, this is a show about politicians, but above all it’s about ambition, and when the players aren’t trying to get to the top, they’re just trying to get out from under whatever thumb they happen to be under. It’s as disgustingly entertaining as ever, dripping in political commentary and cynicism and, though less consistent than Season One, still finds the right moments to turn up the intensity and keep things interesting. It’s also as quotable as ever; Frank has no shortage of useful career advice in his audience asides that have become a hallmark of the show.
Season Two also treats us to a bit more raw emotion than was evident in Season One. Frank and Claire are as focused as ever, but power comes in many forms, and Frank’s opponents prove just as adept at wielding it as the Underwoods. The armor so carefully constructed in Season One gets more than a few chinks in it as they continue the climb upward, and adding some new dimensions to their struggle keeps the show fresh and lively.
Hate continues to fester in Season Two, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get a bit more of the opposite: love. Let’s be clear, though: love is the Higgs Boson of House of Cards, and our glimpses of its existence are fleeting and difficult to interpret. Doug and Rachel pick up a bit of speed in this department, but not enough to really make their storyline compelling. The best examples continue to be Frank and Claire, each of whom (often under the guise of ambition) show rare and intimate moments of genuine affection throughout the season.
Still, make careful note of the different between love and romance, as Peter Russo’s assistant-turned-lover Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly) spends part of the season on the periphery but still very much in focus. Her ascension to a new position in the White House sets off a tantalizing and haunting subplot that I can only imagine was written by John Patrick Shanley, and its implications reverberate within the corridors of the West Wing for the rest of the season.
House of Cards is often at its best when it milks its shock value. The sheer audacity and brutality of the characters can often be jarring and upsetting, but the spectacle of it all is hard to ignore. The problem is that most often it comes from characters who stand in for our representatives in government, and I don’t deny those detractors of the show who criticize if for breeding cynicism and contempt for Washington. This is clearly meant to be a show for realists (in the political sense of the term): power is the ultimate goal, and leverage and bribery the tools of the trade.
Yet Season Two, with a host of new characters and a changing landscape for the old standbys, may just be taking us in a new direction. One possibility for the occasional stagnancy of the show may be that many of the new additions to the show, whether it is Frank’s pragmatic successor as House Majority Whip, Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), or the distressed hacktivist, Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson), just don’t seem as dastardly as their counterparts. Perhaps they are less wiling to do what Frank or Claire would to get their way, but especially in Sharp we see a stark contrast to Frank’s brand of politics. In her own words, Jackie is “not Frank Underwood,” and she proves this quite effectively (most notably in a devastating verbal barrage regarding wine and a waste treatment facility).
With Season Three on the way (and it has been since before the release of Season 2) the question to those who have already binged is obvious: Where do we go from here? Frank and Claire have worked long and hard to build their own house of cards: grand, magnificent, but not without its weaknesses. It’s been devilishly fun to watch them build, but perhaps the real catharsis, and so too the cleansing retribution to be visited on these moguls of Washington, will be to watch it all come crashing down. Time will tell if we’ll get to see it topple.