House of Cards, the story of the power hungry Francis Underwood and his wife Claire, opened our eyes last year to what a Netflix original series could do: have great writing and a great story wrapped around intriguing characters and a stellar cast. HoC also reintroduced us to the talents of one Mr. Kevin Spacey; his slow southern drawl belayed the devious nature of his character, the aforementioned Frank Underwood, while giving him an underlying charm that was hard to resist. Being slighted for the position of Secretary of State in the new White House regime unleashed a fury upon Washington, DC that culminated in Frank’s rise to the Vice Presidential nomination at the end of the first season. Could season two possibly live up to such a high standard set by it’s predecessor? If you are not hooked by the end of episode one, then go back to watching mediocre television…the rest of this season is not for you.
Before I begin, I will give you this warning: This is one of my all time favorite seasons of television. If I appear to be gushing…I am. There’s not enough praise that I can lavish on the second season of House of Cards; It’s just so damn good! Okay, now that that’s over with on with the actual review.
Francis Underwood is a bad man. He has not ascended to the position of power of House Majority Whip without getting his hands more than a little dirty. Frank knows how to play both sides of a conflict, get people to distrust each other and still wind up on top. The show being entitled “House of Cards” is as true a title as there has ever been on TV; one false move by either Frank or his wife Claire (portrayed excellently by the lovely Robin Wright) and they both go down in flames. After being spurned by President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill) and his Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey), Frank vows (looking directly into the camera; a fourth wall breaking technique that Spacey masters immediately) that this administration will tumble with him as the lone survivor. He began his promise by masterminding a plot to get into the position of Vice Presidential nominee at the end of season one. Oh, but that was just the beginning!
Season two begins with Frank dodging the inquiries of the lovely, yet tenacious, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara, who had a big debut in season one). Frank handles Zoe in dramatic fashion (no “spoiler” tag here…you HAVE to watch it) but is still followed by a ragtag group of reporters looking into the truth of the mysterious death of Congressman Peter Russo. Frank will have to deal with these gnats in his own way during the course of the majority of the season, but he never lets it get him flustered. Frank’s major nemesis in this season is the very wealthy industrialist, Raymond Tusk; Tusk was introduced late in season one as a confidant to President Walker.
Frank goes through many trials during the course of the season, but all revolve around Raymond Tusk. Tusk has been getting too close to the President for Frank’s tastes so Frank does what any red-blooded American would do: sabotage, lie, cheat and bribe to discredit your opponent. Frank even goes so far as to have the Secretary of State Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson) purposefully sabotage her own trade talks with China because it would hurt Tusk’s business there. Classic Frank.
Now I will say this: Raymond Tusk is the only person on this show (outside of Claire Underwood herself) to put Frank on the defensive. There were several times when it appears as if Frank’s house of cards (see what I did there?) will surely topple with Tusk the victor. Frank never lets a few missteps get him down, to his credit and eventually puts Tusk to work for him. Gerald McRaney (he was Major Dad, for the uninformed) plays the part of the ever pompous Tusk to perfection. His over confidence, which is his ultimate undoing, is dripping from every conversation he has with Frank. Conversely, whenever he is snubbed by President Walker, he whimpers into the corner like a bewildered dog. It really is quite something to see.
Claire Underwood, Frank’s wife, takes on a much more prominent role in this season and I loved it! Robin Wright, besides being dead sexy, can really act and deserves every nod that she will assuredly get come award season. Claire is absolutely brutal this year, stopping at nothing to get what her and her husband want. During a scheduled interview, Claire actually drops not one, but two huge bombs: 1) She has had more than one abortion and 2) She was raped by a newly comissioned general when she was in college. She then goes on to tell the reporter that the last abortion she had was due to the sexual assault from the general. Even though the rape was true, the last abortion she had was five years after the assault; she lied in this fashion to get revenge for Frank having to pin a medal on this jerk. This is just one of the many devious schemes of Claire and even though it is a bit off putting (she was Princess Buttercup for goodness sake!), but Wright delivers it so well that you just have to chuckle and nod your head in appreciation.
Even the “bit” players are standouts in House of Cards. Remy Danton (played ever so coolly by Mahershala Ali) returns to cause problems for both Frank and Claire; he changes his tune in short order after realizing he’ll be fighting an uphill battle for a long while. His love affair with Frank’s replacement as Whip, Jackie Sharpe (Molly Parker), places both in a constant state of flux; they must decide on whether to continue their love affair or defend the causes that they’ve chosen…the tension in their conversations is intense. Doug Stamper (once again an excellent performance by Michael Kelly), Frank’s longtime personal Chief of Staff, has a hard go of it after he obliterates the pesky media that hounds Frank in the beginning of the season. He slices up the nosy reporters like a skilled surgeon only to stumble whenever Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), the prostitute who happened to be Peter Russo’s downfall, gets involved. His story ends in a surprising, yet strangely satisfying way. The person I felt the worst for was Freddy Hayes (played by the very talented Reg E. Cathey), owner of Freddy’s BBQ Joint. I love it whenever Frank goes to Freddy for some great BBQ and gets some free advise on the side. Freddy hits the big time and gets a commercial sauce deal and an offer to sell to a retail chain. Before the deal goes through, however, his ex-con thug of a son brandishes a firearm in front of a reporter; this not only puts a quash on the deals but also sees the end of Freddy’s BBQ Joint. A damn shame.
The real standout performance here though is, of course, from Kevin Spacey. His portrayal of the conniving, ultra-ambitious Francis Underwood is one for the ages. The fourth wall breaking manner in which he walks the audience through some of the rigors of life on Capital Hill is not only enthralling but engaging. Spacey’s southern drawl makes him seem so cool and collected even under the most treacherous of situations, yet there is always that touch of Satan underneath. The tender moments he shares with his wife are some of the more memorable parts of the show. Granted, they don’t sit at the window and smoke as much this season (which I love to no end; two stellar actors feeding off of each other is just a marvel to behold), but the ones they do share are that much more impactful. Frank singing “Pretty Polly” to Claire after a rough stretch is one of the highlights from this season and will bring a smile to the faces of even the most hardened of hearts. However, whenever it’s time to turn on the fire (finding out he has to pin a medal on the person who raped his wife comes to mind), Spacey delivers en masse and makes us well aware that it is not okay to fuel the ire of one Francis Underwood! Frank can go from an awe struck man at a Civil War battle field to a ruthless, threatening aggressor in the blink of an eye. If you enjoy watching a master of his craft, you owe it to yourself to watch Spacey’s performance; it truly is remarkable.
No show is without it’s faults, however…oh who am I kidding? I loved every moment of this epic season! From the moment Frank and Claire jog into frame until the last double knock of his class ring, I was hooked. You can choose any number of moments during the course of the season: from the infamous subway scene, to the interview with Claire or the dinner with Tusk and ever-so-smug casino owner Daniel Lanagin (Gil Birmingham) all the way up to the final moments of the show and they are all great. Spacey and Wright have made it so easy to cheer for the bad guys, that it’s almost imperceptible. And that’s just what they are. Villains. And there is no person on Earth who wants either of these characters to receive their comeuppance; Spacey and Wright are just so good at their profession of acting that they get you to want them to win, no matter the cost.
Great storytelling happens whenever writers, producers, directors and actors are not afraid to cross the lines of convention and House of Cards has never shied away from pushing the boundaries. Season two has surpassed what seemed to be an insurmountable hurdle by being better than season one in every way. Kudos to Netflix for signing this show to a long term deal; it helps the audience become that much more invested in the show. The bar is extraordinarily high for season three…can Frank and his band of miscreants achieve such a lofty accomplishment? I would never, ever bet against Francis Underwood. It’s going to be a looooong year until House of Cards can set it’s new bar and I’ll be waiting with great anticipation to marathon season three. Hail to the Chief!