Showrunner: Beau Willimon
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Molly Parker, Michael Kelly, Sakina Jeffrey, Kristen Connolly, Sebastian Arcelus, Constance Zimmer, Mahershala Ali, Michael Gill
Episode total: 13
"Welcome back." —F.U.
Netflix’s marketing has never done House of Cards any favors. The perfectly lit silhouettes that dominate the show’s advertising material attempt to evoke something classic, something that matters with a capital, cursive "M." All-star casting and world-class camera work further force the stamp of prestige on every square inch of this show. In season two, the series came to terms with what it is: a pulpy political soap opera that wears its melodrama on its finely tailored, cuff-linked sleeve. With ample scenery to chew and plotting machinations as tightly choreographed as a Beyoncé concert, the sophomore season of House of Cards settles into itself and revels in its excesses. The show and the audience are all the better for it.
In season two, the series came to terms with what it is: a pulpy political soap opera that wears its melodrama on its finely tailored, cuff-linked sleeve.
In season one, the series resisted the urge to get pulpy and dirty. It was as if some Netflix exec believed that Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright Penn together had to chisel out a chapter in Alan Sepinwall's next book, or they’d die trying. Season two comes out of the gate with a different approach. The series is no longer trying to land on the Mt. Rushmore of cable drama and is content to carve out its niche in the footnotes of quality television. Frank Underwood (Spacey) makes it almost the whole way through the premiere without acknowledging the camera, but then he turns to us with a wink, and lets us know that that this year, he's going to let his lack-of-hair down and have fun.
Frank’s winking swagger plays out in his actions. Frank and Claire (Penn) both execute on such calculated, spoilerific evil in the first episode that you’re left with your jaw dropped, shaking your head in your best “Oh no they didn’t” pose by the end. For the rest of the season, we are treated to cheesy one-liners, knowing smiles, and shoehorned sex and violence by a show that no longer pauses for breath before hitting you with a heavy-hand.
By most accounts, the high point of season one was Cory Stoll’s brilliant, conflicted turn as Peter Russo. His alcoholic congressman in way over his head was not only one of the best performances of last year, but it gave us someone to root for: a vulnerable anchor in a sea of unforgivable villainy. Stoll’s shoes were filled this season by Michael Gill (President Walker) and Gerald McRaney (Raymond Tusk). These men turn in wooden work that pale's next to Stoll’s. Normally, you would count this against the show, but these guys are there to be duped and beaten by the Underwoods, not win Emmy Awards.
No one wears the white hat in season 2. The show goes out of the way to make sure there is no one worth rooting for. The writers seemed to realize that moral complexity was getting in the way of backstabbing, backscratching, and backroom deals. The audience ais thankfully spared the moralizing monologues in favor of heated arguments ending in, "Get the fuck out of my office." Everyone is a son of a bitch in Washington, D.C., so let’s just sit back and watch them screw each other rather than fret about being on the right side of history. There’s a kindly congressman? You’d better believe he disowned his daughter. You like that sweet restaurateur? He’s killed several people. The only person without a closet full of skeletons is Donald Blythe (Reed Birney), who spends the season finally learning to stop being an idealist and start being an asshole.
It may surprise you to hear that shallow characterizations and an “everyone’s evil” approach buoyed this show following a first season that was often leaden. House of Cards isn’t an in-depth character study. Nor does it illuminate some grand themes about the human condition; when it tries it falls flat on its face. No, this show is a fun puzzle, a puzzle to which the Underwoods are always holding the missing piece in their back pocket.
House of Cards isn’t a first-ballot hall of fame show. The series has learned that in its second season, abandoned its pretensions (for the most part), and stuck to doing its job. There’s nothing wrong with doing your job, especially if your job involves Kevin Spacey winking into the camera as often as possible before eviscerating his opponents. When you sit down to binge-watch House of Cards, don't overthink things. Just sit back and watch Spacey wink.
Written by Brenden Gallagher (@muddycreekU)