3 a.m., February 14: House of Cards' second season has hit Netflix. I'm less tired than I am nervous. Watching the show's first 13 episodes over the course of a week a year ago was a complicated experience: There were eye rolls at the silly political scenarios and Kevin Spacey's overwritten lines, grins at the awesome amorality of the main players, and a little bit of heartbreak at the death of the the guy who'd been the most fun to watch. I remember hating the first few installments, and devouring the final few in enraptured glee.
Then came a lot of arguments with friends in the ensuing months about whether Netflix's splashy, Emmy-nominated series was a really just a trashy and conventional soap, or whether it was a high-camp, self-aware riff on what really drives politics. The answer, of course, is that it's both. But here's hoping the second season is more of the latter.
I'll be trying to power through these 13 episodes (chapters 14-26, according to the show's naming system) over the long weekend, and will keep this post updated with thoughts after each installment.
Spoilers ahead, in chronological order—don't read further than you've watched.
Episode 1 (Chapter 14)
Nervousness gone: That was a lot more fun than expected. Despite the recent commentary suggesting that David Fincher's been bested at his own game by True Detective, this episode feels like a reminder in how gothic ominous moodiness should really be done: excess-free, clinical, with forceful strokes. The characters and performances seem more real than I remembered as well, save for the flashes of spectacular sociopathy from the Underwoods. (Claire's threat to Gillian: oof.) Of course, the final twist (no, not the big, amazing, evil OMG twist—we'll get to that), revealed when Frank finally addressed "you" in the mirror, was that most of this episode really was a better show than it had been before.
When House of Cards really worked last season, it wasn't because of the hokey asides from Francis, but from plot action—action that centered around people going to great lengths to make other people do things. And for most of this episode, that's what we got to watch. It was proof that we actually don't need Frank's explications to understand and be entertained by the show when it's letting its actors, writers, and production team focus on the drama of persuasion.
Persuasion, of course, comes in many forms, and some are more effective than others. Frank wants the Secret Service to let him stay at his town home—and he can get them to, just by asking, because of who he is. Lucas wants his law-enforcement source to keep feeding him info—but his attempt to appeal to the guy's conscience fails, as appeals to conscience usually do on this show. Doug needs to Rachel to disappear into a new life—but she resists until he physically and verbally makes it clear she has not choice. Claire needs to shake that vindictive do-gooder Gillian—so she makes her choose between a huge reward for compliance or a sickening consequence for defiance. And, finally, Frank needs Zoe to stop asking questions—but his offers of access to the second-highest office in the land isn't enough. So he plays the trump card: murder. Makes sense.
Rest in peace, Zoe. Till the end, she was steely and magnetic, but also treated roughly—ok, problematically—by the show. Reintroduced for Season Two with a gratuitous sex scene to remind of her frigidity and her physique, then thrown under the train for the sake of awesome TV. F.U. indeed.
Episode 2 (Chapter 15)
Oh, right, politics. Maybe it's inevitable that TV treatments of current events are oversimplified and ridiculous, but really: The debate over Chinese diplomacy amounts to a war of platitudes ("sometimes standing your ground is better than giving in"), sans actual evidence or analysis, as the Commander in Chief listens carefully. "He's easily manipulated," Tusk later says of Walker, which isn't so much of an excuse on the show's part as a mea culpa. When it comes to how decision-makers make decisions basically unrelated to their own ambitions, House of Cards has nothing to say—and it knows it.
When ambition is involved, though, the show remains consistent in its assertion that "ruthless pragmatism," as Underwood calls it, always wins. Whether it's the trauma of rape or a grudge over a primary election, sentiment is sentiment—useless, and to be suppressed. Promisingly relatable newbie character Jackie is the latest convert to that dogma. Whereas last season, Peter Russo's first betrayal of his own integrity felt wrenching—that's when he, per Frank's orders, gave up the very cause that got him elected—this season, Underwood's young protege sells out so swiftly and for such purely political reasons that the viewer barely even considers the idea it might go any other way. Jackie's plotline this episode was an efficient reminder of the show's core ethos—in fact, it almost felt redundant. But it might be laying groundwork for Underwood's eventual downfall: She's betrayed one older, male mentor in the name of power; maybe she will again.
Episode 3 (Chapter 16)
Now here's some politicking whose ridiculousness feels, entertainingly, all too real. An actual obstacle for Frank; the fusion of the nail-biting parliamentary jujitsu surrounding the '09 passage of the Affordable Care Act with the depressing budgetary standoffs of the last few years; congresspeople in cuffs; the line "Curtis has me by the teabags"—so much fun, and over entitlements of all things.
Outside of the main plot, we're seeing characters and story arcs develop in Fincher-esque, creepy-cool ways. Jackie's gender ruffles House leadership and then she puts on a punk-rock disguise to visit an ink shop: shades of Lisbeth Salander. Rachel rots in suburbia, and now she might find God—an interesting development, given that the only earnest embrace of religion we've seen on this show was when Frank prayed to the devil last season. And Lucas buddies up with an Anonymous-type hacker, in an plot line that I'm both intrigued by and sighing at. The ominous descent into the techno-underworld feels like something out of a late-'90s thriller, but the show's writers do update it in important ways: politically righteous hackers, "two-step verification," etc. The image of a reporter having a clandestine diner meet-up with an iPad seems like something you'd come up with while playing 2014-zeitgeist MadLibs. Which means, basically, that House of Cards is doing its job.
Episode 4 (Chapter 17)
Here’s a twist: Sentiment, despite what House of Cards seemed to be saying two episodes back, isn’t always useless. This hour was all about people acting on emotions, sometimes in surprising ways—most shockingly with Claire’s interview. Not long ago she was talking about the need to suppress the pain of her rape; now, she’s outing her assailant on national TV, leading other women to come forward with tales of abuse from a decorated general.
Claire making an impulse decision like this goes against what we know of her calm, controlled character. Then again, it’s clear the trauma of her assault created anger in her unlike anything else. It’s also clear that accusing her rapist was an in-the-moment political move, designed to keep scrutiny off the revelation of her abortion. But, journalistic quibble: No way would a news organization broadcast the accusations of other the woman who called in without first vetting her claims. That said, it was nice to see one of the Underwoods making a decision from the heart, with the outcome seeming to be a net positive for the world.
Elsewhere, we see Jackie making an emotional appeal to congress members, campaigning on the fact that her style’s the exact opposite of the old whip’s. Resentments sown by Frank’s Machiavellian past turn out to have additional consequences when he tries to woo his old frenemy Donald Blythe, who doesn’t take Francis’s sympathy as genuine. Lost trust, ill will: Problems that will likely only get bigger for the VP as the season goes on.
Lucas-land continues to feel ported in from some other show. His wacky, semi-unhinged, animal-loving tech friend turns out to be an FBI informant. But the hacker won’t sell out his buds and feels bad about duping Lucas, who definitely seems dumber than any other major character thus far. The amount of time spent throwing around tech terms with the agent in the car suggests that the cybercrime plot line is only going to get more important. Let’s hope it gets more watchable.
Episode 5 (Chapter 18)
Did you catch it? The super-subtle and original use of war as a metaphor for the larger storyline? Yes, yes, this literary device was easy to miss. But consider the evidence: Much of the episode took place at a battle reenactment. And Frank, uh, only spoke in war metaphors.
I probably sound more cynical than I really feel at the moment. Five episodes in is about when mid-season malaise sets in for shows far better and far worse than this one. House of Cards is at least trying to spice up what'd otherwise be a slog with images of sexual asphyxiation, a death threat against a small animal (
I confess, and maybe this is lack of sleep or lack of a childhood, but I'm a little unclear on what lil Cashew is ... update: guinea pig!), and yes, Civil War stuff. (Best line: "Never raise your flag for an asinine cause, like slavery.")
The existential threats to the Underwoods that kicked off the season have been silenced, and right now, we're just seeing set-up for new ones. The intrigue around Claire's abortion lie is intersecting with her anti-sexual-assault crusade. Lucas has been caught, taking him out of commission until (I predict) goodhearted hacker Gavin comes to the rescue. The Tusk/Underwood standoff reaches a head with the president casting a pox on both advisers. There seem to be the makings of a Bond villain in Feng, with his risky sexual proclivities and his taste for uber-expensive liquor and his intimidation of Stamper, the most intimidating dude on the show. I certainly didn't expect conflict with the Chinese to be a major theme this season, but we might have a real war on screen before long.
Episode 6 (Chapter 19)
The substance of the battle between Frank and Tusk is basically gibberish, right? Subsidies, FERC, rare earth: I don't think you need to keep track of it all. The overarching narrative of the power of the private sector vs. the power of the government, and the optics—lights out for the first pitch of the baseball season, the two powerful pragmatists screaming at each other in townhomes and BBQ shops—are plenty engrossing on their own.
The baseball subplot in particular was great. Here I thought we were getting another cheesy metaphor like the war reenactment of last episode, albeit with better comedy and pathos (the moments before Frank's pitch—will he or won't he massively embarrass himself?—may have been the first time this season I unabashedly rooted for the guy). But then the power cuts out. Turns out this is a real civics lesson: America's pastime is connected to America's industries is connected to America's government is connected to the world economy.
The journalism tribulations just feel like stalling. Of course reporters aren't going to get to the bottom of Underwood's duplicity, not when he's willing to abuse the powers of his office—and to kill. The better way to really circumvent government secrecy, we've found in the Wikileaks era, is through technology. In other words, I think we'll see the return of Cashew, and her less charming owner, sooner or later.
Episode 7 (Chapter 20)
What to make of President Walker? All series he's been a weak character, mostly a non-entity except for the times when someone manipulates him in cartoonishly easy ways. But actor Michael Gill does a nice job making the character seem real. When he's frustrated, he demonstrates it in clipped, confident bursts of criticisms that I certainly wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of. He knows something's amiss in his White House, but due to Frank's sneakiness, he can't quite figure out what. In scenes like the one that opened the episode—the emergency meeting about attack ads, where he chews out Underwood—you feel for the guy.
Until, of course, he's swayed back to naivety by some transparent ploy—like Frank buying him a punching bag. Any other boss would go ballistic at a peace offering that says, in essence, you were immature and wrong to blame me. But here, it ignites a bromance between POTUS and VEEP. Then again, maybe we should assume more of Walker. Perhaps he has actually figured out that Frank is, as Tusk says, trying to destroy Walker's presidency. (He is, right?) Perhaps all the bonding we just witnessed over miniature battlefields and JFK-era paintings were really just an attempt by the leader of the free world to know his enemy.
After all, this episode hammered home just how much Cards' relationships are usually not what they seem. The Underwoods' new communications director is a plant for Remy, and then he's a plant for the Underwoods against Remy. Remy's affair with Jackie surely will have implications in congress; congress, it turns out, is secretly in the pocket of Remy's boss Tusk. Tusk, it increasingly seems, has as much a stake in China's success as in America's. And Claire befriends the first lady and Christina to poison the president's marriage. Some friendly advice for all the characters: Don't trust any other character's friendly advice.
Episode 8 (Chapter 21)
The energy is flagging. The season started with so many high-stakes conflicts and an excellent twist, and the show's writers since then have been adept at coming up with new ways to portray the same few ideas about power, betrayal, and persuasion. But the driving motivations feel too remote right now. Frank racked up a few wins this hour—the bridge project, Linda's resignation—but for what? Rachel made out with her best friend, but who cares? Claire faced a setback in her campaign to get her sex-abuse bill passed, but does it matter?
The show remains remarkably stylish; the poolside steak-chucking scene, for example, was more memorable and suspenseful than the plot required it to be. I appreciate that the writers are being more strategic in displaying Frank's inner malevolence than they were last season. Every time he addresses viewers now—as when he called Linda a "backstabbing, vomit-inducing bitch" without missing a beat in conversation with Walker—it's clarifying and hilarious. And the revelation about Claire's infidelity will no doubt liven things up. You'd think Tusk & Co. could come up with a juicier scandal topic, though: The Underwoods have so much more hidden. But that's for later in the season, I imagine.
Episode 9 (Chapter 22)
Ah, there are the stakes: real people. Adam's and Freddy's livelihoods have been torched through no fault of their own. Even more devastating: The very relationships that seemed to prove Frank and Claire were human after all have been destroyed. Frank seems to feel some remorse for what happens to Freddy, but Claire, we're reminded again, is the steelier of the Underwoods. Informed that her former lover now hates her, she can only offer weary sympathy: "A terrible feeling, isn't it?" Chilling stuff. Give Robin Wright her Emmy.
All of this made for arguably the most compelling episode since the season premiere. I might quibble with the plot turns a bit—it just doesn't seem likely that Claire would make a miscalculation and alienate Adam by entrapping him publicly in a lie, or that revelations of a long-ago criminality would scrap Freddie's career, or that Tusk would encourage a reporter's suspicions by openly trying to intimidate her. But the writing and performances have never been sharper. When Freddy says it's not pride that motivates him, the show is deft enough to let viewers figure what does: survival, the very concern that drove the Frank to sacrifice him.
Episode 10 (Chapter 23)
How frustrating. The thing this entire season has been building to, delivered in a way that denies viewers satisfaction. I'm talking, of course, about the tape of Frank and Claire's first TV interview in 1986. The two watch it on her MacBook in bed, and we get to hear Claire's adorable Texas accent, but we don't get to see how House of Cards producers would have made those two up to look 27 years younger. Probably a wise choice, but a little disappointing nonetheless.
As for the publication of suspicions surrounding the money-laundering scheme? Eh. If the public's interested in and understands the details, that's more than can be said of me for much of this season. Really, this episode was more about the moments of intimacy, building affections that will soon collide with business and politics. Remy and Jackie's sex-and-sharing session, Stamper and Rachel's Dickens recitation in the car—both a distinctly Cards-ian blend of sweet and screwed-up. Tusk and Gavin (told you he'd return!) are going to test those two relationships, as well as the one between the Underwoods. But it's hard to imagine what could force that particular pairing apart at this point. Set aside all they've been through: The husband's comfortable telling the wife about watching porn and the wife is OK talking with him about how much she enjoyed her last affair. That's love.
Episode 11 (Chapter 24)
Another thing to give House of Cards credit for: meticulousness. Like Frank Underwood pulling off a complex scheme whose end game only he knows, Cards this season has kept tight control over the various stories in play, and right now we're seeing some of them finally intersect. The Walkers' marital problems, Stamper's obsession with Rachel, the weird omnipresence of Agent Meacham—we're now starting understand why these things have been in the script. So I trust that some other story elements that seem like time-killing distractions at the moment—the Megan character comes to mind—will soon make their significance known.
This episode moved the plot along while maintaining a thematic throughline: altered states. Whether it's because of drugs or booze or fear or obsession, characters weren't quite themselves. The most fascinating example is, of course, Frank, who's fidgety and scared in a way that we and the characters around him have never seen before. Still, he maintains his penchant for scoffing at others' sentimentality. The formerly indomitable Remy softens, in part out of worries for his future and in part out of affection for Jackie, and Frank just sneers: "a heart can choke the mind when all its blood flows back into itself."
Thats's advice Frank himself seemed to ignore when he came home to see his wife getting drunk with his hunky secret-service agent. Then again, after the Underwoods' bedroom chat last episode, it's clear that in this marriage matters of sex are also matters of calculation. Claire has obviously been feeling lonely due to recent circumstances (the Adam scandal, and the increased security after the death threats against her). Way back last season, we learned Frank's somewhere higher on the Kinsey scale than he lets on. The only person for whom a threesome with Meacham doesn't make obvious sense is Meacham, but of course, it's his job to serve.
Episode 12 (Chapter 25)
We're in familiar antihero TV-drama territory now: the period during which everyone around the lead has wised up to his bullshit. President Walker says that he now sees Frank's punching-bag gift for what it really symbolizes—manipulation. Jackie immediately questions Claire's overtures on the sexual-assault bill, asking what Frank's really up to. Special prosecutor Dunbar brings the no-nonsense skepticism that's been missing from the rest of the cast all season.
But by the end of the episode, Frank's started to work his way back from alienation with an old, trusty play: offering power in exchange for complicity. When he uses an elaborate waltzing metaphor to ask Catherine Durant to join him in his quest to undermine the president, actress Jayne Atkinson summons a fabulously bemused, incredulous grimace—exactly the same look anyone would give if confronted with someone as ridiculous yet compelling as Frank Underwood. Then she basically says she'll join him. Jackie goes through a similar arc. "What you're asking is just shy of treason," she says. Frank's perfect reply: "Just shy, which is politics."
Heading into the season finale, I'm feeling as impressed by ever by the show's writing, acting, and look, but a bit underwhelmed by the plot. This bulk of this season's conflict really has just been a war between Tusk and Frank, waged through the less-than-thrilling proxy of Super PAC money. But I expect the finale to be fun. Some of the most interesting secondary characters have finally become Frank's willing coconspirators. And it's now clear that the Tusk fight has just been a prelude to taking down the president—who, by freezing out Frank and holding a smart press conference about the therapy revelation, seems like a more formidable adversary than ever.
Episode 13 (Chapter 26)
The season ends in the most predictable way possible: with Underwood as president. How we got here, though, is a little mind-blowing, right? Early on, Season Two ostentatiously chucked away some of the biggest continuing plot lines from Season One—the lawsuit against Claire's firm, the fallout from the death of Peter Russo, and, obviously, everything about Zoe Barnes. For what? To stage a wonky power struggle involving Chinese diplomacy, Indian casinos, money laundering, retirement benefits, cyber terrorism, and energy subsidies.
The premiere was sublime—the best thing the show's ever done. The rest of the season was better-executed and more consistent than the first, but ultimately less memorable. The lows—a few doldrums episodes—weren't as low as Season One's (I remember almost giving up on the series over the dumbness of the Peachoid installment). But the highs weren't as high; nothing here, for example, was as finely wrought and wrenching as Russo's arc.
For this final hour, we got to see Frank surmount a seemingly insurmountable obstacle one more time with one more carefully crafted lie. The letter-writing ploy really was pretty smart—even if Walker didn't completely buy its sincerity, the missive reopened the communication channels and therefore allowed Frank to begin manipulating him again. Other turns of event were harder to take, though. I have a hard time buying, for example, that Tusk would sell out the president because of spite. Pleading the 5th really would have been the smarter move, as it'd leave open the possibility of a pardon from Walker without creating more ill will from Frank.
Head-scratching moments like that, though, are what make the show run. Cards' driving idea remains that there's nothing as powerful as the lust for power: Frank's ambition is purer than anyone else's, so he always wins. But in order to make that point, the show often has to resort to a kind of misdirection. The entangled business, political, and personal plots give the impression that there's a complex system of cause and effect here, but often things go Frank's way just because that's what the show needs to happen.
It's probably a good thing for humanity, though, that Frank's success doesn't feel completely convincing. Standing over the presidential desk, he has no final monologue to give, and that's significant: We've always known he wanted to be most influential man on Earth, but we've also suspected that there was no real substance to that desire. He's become the commander in chief, but really to what end? Frank probably doesn't even know. The only cause we'll be sure he'll pursue is survival, and the loose ends this season—the Rachel/Gavin plot line (so long, Stamper)—suggest that'll be tough. We've seen Frank rise for long enough; for the third season, the most interesting thing would be to see him fall.