Watching season two of House of Cards wasn’t just any normal TV experience. I wanted to head into the new season with my wife on board, and so together we watched the first 13 episodes, which she loved, and I appreciated more the second time through.
This delayed our watching of the actual second season from the first weekend to the following week, but now it’s finally over and done and I’m ready to discuss it. It’s always strange to talk about these shows that drop in giant episode chunks rather than week to week, and it’s an issue we’ve covered previously. At this point, I expect most big fans of the show have finished it by now, but if not, be forewarned that spoilers for the entire season follow.
I’m not going to go through the show episode by episode, but it is important to start with the “shocking” first installment that produced what would easily be the biggest spoiler of the season to those who hadn’t seen it.
In it, Kate Mara’s Zoe is hot on Frank’s trail, about to uncover the entire web of lies, manipulation and murder that allowed him to assume the Vice Presidency. So what does Frank do? He throws her into a train.
It’s a shocking death for a main character that rivals anything we’ve seen on Game of Thrones, though I will say as soon as she showed up in a subway station, I’d seen enough conspiracy thrillers to know that she was probably going to be thrown onto the tracks. Odds of that happening were 100%, though I put the chances of her actually dying were at 50/50. I lost that coin flip.
To me, this is where season two’s problems start. Yes, the moment is astonishing and if the show was something that aired week to week, you could have bet everyone would have been talking about Zoe’s death around the water cooler Monday morning.
But as jaw-dropping as that scene might have been, it really did a number of things to derail both Frank’s character and the season as a whole. It’s not that Frank wouldn’t kill someone to get ahead, but it just seemed so sloppy that he himself would literally toss her in front of a train like that. I still don’t know whether her death was calculated or the whole thing was improvised, and that makes a pretty big difference. From the set-up, the hat, the obscured view, the platform, it seemed like it was all pretty planned out, making it a far cry from the last minute decision to fake Peter Russo’s suicide. If it was planned, it seems pretty sloppy for Frank to put himself at such risk, even in this warped TV show reality.
More importantly however, it killed the only really interesting counter-plotline to Frank, the journalists trying to unravel what he’d done. It didn’t kill it right away, as Lucas, Jeanine and Tom all play parts during the season, but Zoe was the only one who was really ever a formidable foe for Frank. Without her, the other journalists scattered, or didn’t have enough to put the pieces together. The plot seems to be turning to Lucas to pick up the banner, but his plotline was far and away the most ridiculous and shortsighted of the season.
He turns to a “hacker” which I have to say in quotes because the guy is such a caricature I thought I was watching an episode of CSI (enhance!). Jimmi Simpson, best known as a McPoyle brother from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia plays Gavin Orsay, a hacker who plays screamo dubstep, communicates through a talking bird avatar and has a guinea pig named Cashew. It’s like something out a cartoon.
I get they were going for “eccentric hacktivist” but that character felt all wrong for the tone of House of Cards, even if the plotline could have gone somewhere. But it didn’t, at least not in this season. All the journalists ultimately fade away with Jeanine scared, Tom unconvinced and Lucas in jail for literally trying to hack the Vice President’s phone. Yes, they’ve set up Orsay as a possible foil for next season, but I think season two would have been much better served with Zoe leading the charge the whole time and nipping at Frank’s heels. He could have still killed her in the end, but in doing so in episode one, nothing else that happened the entire season seemed nearly as harrowing. It’s bad to peak after your first episode.
While I appreciate the premiere and the few episodes leading up to the finale, for the most part, I didn’t like what was in between. Season one’s Russo plotline was far more interesting than Frank’s cup game shuffle between Fang, Tusk and President Walker. I understand that all the madness with China and power plants and casinos and the bridge project all culminated in the downfall of Walker in the end, but god, was it ever a dull ride to get to that point.
My biggest problem with the season was that there were so many plotlines that ultimate went nowhere. The most problematic of these was the journalists, which I’ve already discussed, but there were many to be found. How did House of Cards simply erase a character as previously important as Christina? It seemed like they were setting up an affair between her and the president, but it didn’t come to pass. Not only that, but she was essentially written out of the show in one line after the President’s Chief of Staff resigns. We never see her again. Not to say she won’t return to the show, but she had close to no impact on anything that happened this season, and that’s a shame given how instrumental she could have been.
We see this in other ways as well. Adam Galloway returns for a weird arc that reveals his affair with Claire that ultimately has no impact on the Vice President. We never see Claire’s rapist again after the episode we learn about his misdeeds. Her sexual assault bill fails, and ultimately nothing interesting ever happens with new whip Jaclyn Sharp, who turns on Frank for reasons I still don’t fathom. Even poor Remy Danton is completely shoved aside in the finale, as he’s meant to testify about Tusk, but doesn’t need to because Tusk incriminates himself. Remy disappears completely from the finale moments of the show.
Another huge problem with this season wasn’t plot related, but character-based. Peter Russo was a fantastically written and acted character in season one, something I remembered as I rewatched some of his most painful moments. Here, his replacement is supposed to be the forever-manipulated fall guy President Walker, but as he was in season one, Walker is a terrible, terrible character, and poorly acted to boot. I understand Walker is meant to be something of a pushover, a walking handsome face and head full of good hair, but man, does he ever come across as one dimensional. He should have been transformed into a worthy adversary for Frank, but he was never even close. That role fell instead to Raymond Tusk, who, in a series of events I still don’t quite understand, turns against his longtime friend and incriminates both of them so his mortal enemy Frank can assume the presidency.
The best part of the season was how Frank managed to secure Walker’s job all the while pretending he was his friend. The way he manipulated Walker emotionally was far more interesting than what he did politically, and that was an expertly managed series of events in the final few episodes, China nonsense aside. I still think orchestrating an affair with Christina would have been icing on the cake, but that ship has sailed. Frank himself also is phenomenal, as Kevin Spacey acts circles around everyone else in the cast other than Robin Wright. It’s a very unique experience to root for not just an antihero (Walter White, Jax Teller, etc.), but an outright villain. He pushes a goddamn girl into a train, and you still end up wanting him to “win,” and get away with it all as he pursues power above all else. That is an impressive achievement.
Plot-wise, I’m a little skeptical with how much deep shit the President is in by the end of the season that Frank would assume a position of power that would at all be desirable. I would have to imagine public blowback would hit him hard as well, even if Tusk didn’t directly name him in the money laundering scheme, and that the Democrats would overwhelmingly lose the midterms if the Democractic president just resigned due to the fact that China had been directly funneling money to Democrats in Congress for years. I realize the show tries to counteract this but having Frank convince his party to disown the President but still, public opinion would murder the Democrats anyway. Perhaps season three will be about picking up the pieces.
There were plenty of other odd moments in the season that aren’t worth going into too deeply. Freddie’s BBQ drama was just sad, and that plotline felt a bit out of place. Outside of Zoe’s train-death, the Frank, Claire, Meechum three-way was the most unexpected thing to happen this season, but I won’t say that it wasn’t built up fairly well in retrospect. Frank’s sexuality and his marriage to Claire are interesting to say the least, and that’s something you seldom see from leads in shows like these.
I was sad to see a character I liked, Doug Stamper, turned into a stalker weirdo as he made it his mission to ensure Rachel was constantly as miserable as possible. Definitely how you want to treat an already unstable loose end, right? I thought the end of the season was a nice reversal, as the obvious thing to happen was Doug is forced to kill Rachel in the woods, rather the other way around. His character will be missed, though not the bizarre, obsessive, creepy season two version that quite honestly deserved such an ignominious end.
What’s next for season three? Well, with Frank in the most powerful seat in the land, I have to imagine that his next conquest might literally be the world. Like, I could see him turning into a sort of charismatic, modern American Hitler as he manipulates other countries into ceding even more power to the US, though I don’t know how big in scope the show plans on being. Elsewhere, I hope Orsay becomes less of a caricature and teams up with the scattered journalists to try and bring him down. And I hope we never see Walker or Tusk again, and Frank is forced to take on someone truly menacing.
House of Cards looks and sounds like a great show, but I think it’s only a good one. And season two didn’t live up to the already flawed season one. It’s certainly better than most stuff on TV, but it has too many glaring problems to ignore.