REVIEW: House of Cards Season Two

Tuesday, 18 March, 2014

Somebody once described House of Cards to me as The West Wing, but from the Senator’s point of view. That alone was enough to persuade me to watch it. Yet I quickly discovered that House of Cards was so much more; it’s something entirely different to Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece.

On 14 February, Netflix released the second season in its entirety. The series resumes precisely where it left off, with our anti-hero and poster boy of “ruthless pragmatism” Frank Underwood tapped as the replacement Vice President. Anybody who has seen the first episode knows that it starts off with a bang—so explosive and game changing that it took an extraordinary amount of willpower to withhold myself from exhausting the rest of the series before sunrise.

The show follows Frank (Kevin Spacey) and his implacable ascent to ever-higher places in Washington. Its themes, plotlines and breaking down of the fourth wall are crafted like a modern day Shakespearean drama. Such is his deceitfulness and insatiable lust for power that Underwood is eerily reminiscent of famed anti-heroes and antagonists such as Macbeth, Richard III, and Iago.

Overall, season two is an improvement on the first. It is darker, faster paced and littered with episode endings that will have you so far over the edge of your seat that you’re crouching on thin air. But it is not without its faults. Notwithstanding all its well-earned praises, the show has developed the nasty habit of prematurely killing carefully cultivated sub-plots. Similarly there’s a tendency to purge the more compelling characters far too suddenly, a la Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) in the first season.

The season’s shining light is the enhanced role of Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), who is given noticeably more screen time. We start to see more of that steely persona that can be just as ruthless as her husband. More importantly, we see beneath it; unlike Frank, Clare might actually resemble a human being after all.

Just as the show has its strong characters, is also has its weak players. The feckless President Garrett Walker in particular is largely obtuse. At times his performance as a borderline dimwitted POTUS suspends a little too much disbelief. Flashes of brilliance aside, his poor character makes manipulation at the hands of the Underwoods all too convenient. Moreover, the rationale behind Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney)’s decisions are dubious at the best of times, and inconceivable at the worst.

It’s often hard to gauge what House of Cards is trying to be. It tends to swing between an intelligent political thriller and a political drama on performance enhancing drugs. Whatever it is, it’s eminently watchable. Yet the show’s premise cannot last forever. As the title suggests, Frank’s demise is preordained. Everything that he has elaborately amassed will come crashing down like the collapse of an empire from within.

Already renewed for a third season, it’s only a matter of how and when. But until then, enjoy trying to predict which one of Frank’s army of adversaries will be his eventual undoing.