Midway through the season-two finale of House Of Cards, Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood confronts one of the many people incredibly pissed off at him backstage at the opera. (It has to be the opera, for House Of Cards does not do subtlety.) The conversation is interrupted by a patron who exits the auditorium, presumably looking for a bathroom. They look over at her as she walks through—both seemingly miffed that she even exists. It’s a scene that summarizes House Of Cards’ relationship to the average American citizen: Everybody in this country is grist for the mill for politicians like Frank, who serve only themselves and carry out their real deal-making far behind the scenes of what’s available to the press and C-SPAN. And don’t you think you have the right to know about it. At best, you’re an irritating inconvenience. At worst, you’re dead.
In almost every way, season two of House Of Cards is an improvement on season one. It both figures out a much better use for Robin Wright as Frank’s wife, Claire, and better indicates that Frank is making most of his Machiavellian schemes up as he goes along. (Frank is still simply too good at knowing exactly how everyone around him will react to everything to be strictly believable, but House Of Cards isn’t particularly interested in strict realism.) Sure, the show’s “politics” feel ripped from a Politico comment section, and yes, the show’s plot doesn’t really go anywhere until the final handful of episodes. But the season also tosses an incredible number of balls in the air and manages to keep juggling them, which is impressive in and of itself.
However, the series still struggles with the foremost issue that bedeviled season one: It’s not about a goddamn thing, other than getting you to keep watching the episodes by keeping the plotting as obvious and easy to understand as possible. What the series has to say about American politics is brain-numbingly basic and devoid of nuance, largely boiling down to the easiest kind of cynicism but then refusing to grow beyond that. (If all politicians in the series’ world need to be more like Frank to get ahead, as it seems to suggest, then it’s a wonder a man as milquetoast as Michel Gill’s President Garrett Walker got as far as local dog catcher.) House Of Cards is a series intent on congratulating the viewer for being suspicious of politicians, but it’s not particularly interested in examining root causes for political corruption—or even the motivations of its protagonist Frank, and why he so covets power. It’s the ultimate binge-watching experience, in that it rewards even the laziness of thought.
That’s fine, of course. Not all shows need be probing indictments of the American condition. When House Of Cards wants to unleash a plot twist or two, it can be a heck of a lot of fun, but its writers, actors, and directors are working at cross-purposes. The writers seem to be trying to come up with a self-serious epic of a modern Machiavelli, one where he can get away with anything and isn’t even stopped by something as basic as his adversaries comparing notes. The actors—particularly Spacey and Wright—seem to embrace the dark camp at the series’ heart. And the directors—led this season by James Foley—seem more invested in creating a kind of stylish, hyper-real Washington diorama. The three approaches mesh into a darkly campy, super-stylish wannabe romp that takes itself far too seriously and becomes far too ponderous to ever really achieve liftoff.
The series also suffers from a serious problem of having no characters who can attain the gravitational weight of Frank. Season one at least had Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), whose patsy status grew more and more tragic as the season wore on. In this season, a shocking incident means Frank can largely coast unscathed from the premiere on. (That shocking incident is also House Of Cards in a nutshell: gasp-worthy in the moment, but eminently predictable and hackneyed if you stop to think about it for even a second.) There are feints toward making Gerald McRaney’s billionaire Raymond Tusk someone who might bring Frank down, but he never convincingly presents a figure who might give Frank a real run for his money, even when he’s supposed to have Frank on the ropes. The series has simply stacked its deck far too much in favor of its protagonist, and it doesn’t seem to know how to regard him without hoping the audience is imagining awesome guitar solos to accompany his every entrance. Breaking Bad and The Sopranos interrogated their antiheroes thoroughly; House Of Cards never misses an opportunity to adulate Frank.
This also means that the storytelling is positively full of threads and pieces that have far less weight than anything Frank is up to (a problem that also cropped up in season one). Though it’s better about finding a place for everything in its endgame, it’s hard to get too invested in, say, the travails of the president’s marriage or Frank’s loyal right-hand man Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) falling in love with exactly the wrong person. The series keeps coming back to extremely tangential figures, like a weirdo genius hacker played by Jimmi Simpson, in ways that suggest it has trouble letting anything go and/or is lining up for some sort of genius series endgame, whenever that moment might come. Still, in the moment, even in the middle of a binge-watch, it’s hard to get too interested in these many stray threads.
Yet House Of Cards is also weirdly perfect when it comes to what it’s meant to do, which is keep viewers plowing through episodes, regardless of time spent doing so. There are just enough flourishes around the edges—like the way that Frank only looks directly into the camera when regarding his wife or the audience, or how Kelly deepens Stamper into a character worth caring for, or a magnificent final shot—that it’s possible to feel like House Of Cards has something deeper on its mind, even when it’s all but clear it doesn’t. This is sleight of hand that works much better in the middle of the binge, rather than a few hours later, when contemplating whether the plot made any sense. The series also gains a bit of strength from Molly Parker as the new House majority whip, even if her character’s place in the story is only occasionally clear.
If nothing else, season two announces Claire as the unexpected soul of the show and Wright’s performance as worthy of all the attention it received for season one (which frequently squandered her). She’s a woman caught between many impulses, and in the season’s final two episodes, when she gets a look at just how the Underwood brand of politics might look to an innocent citizen swept into its gaping maw, she’s riveting. There’s a moment when she lets emotion creep through the façade she and her husband wear at all times, and it feels like a watershed for the show, the moment when everything changes and nothing can be reversed. But then she crams it all back inside, and all systems are go. It’s a remarkable bit of acting from Wright, but it’s also a dulling sign that on House Of Cards the only thing worth considering, as always, is how fucking awesome it would be to always get what you want.
Developed by: Beau Willimon, from the books by Michael Dobbs and the miniseries by Andrew Davies
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Molly Parker
Streaming on: Netflix
Format: Hour-long political drama
Entire second season watched for review
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details not talked about in this review, visit House Of Cards' spoiler space.