All things considered, there was only one possible destination for this second season of House Of Cards. (Hint: It’s pictured above.) The only real question was how we would get there. The season as a whole was a disjointed one, and some of the early subplots (notably Lucas Goodwin’s ill-fated attempt to fill Zoe’s shoes) almost feel like they happened in a different show entirely. Momentum stalled a number of times along the way. But give credit where credit is due: Beau Willimon and company managed to stick the landing in a (mostly) satisfying manner.
But before the big finale, there’s one more hour of moving the chess pieces around the board. Unable to work his charms on President Walker, Frank moves on to Catherine Durant, whom he convinces to offer Feng asylum in exchange for vague promises about the future. Feng confirms the money laundering scheme, Tusk is subpoenaed, and his entire staff of old white men assembles to advise him. (I hope this scene was intended as a visual joke, because I sure got a good laugh out of it.) Frank pretends to be shocked that Durant would offer asylum without consulting the president, and Walker decides to waive his confidentiality with the religious adviser/marriage counselor rather than be accused of obstruction.
Claire, who has proven to be even better than Frank at pretending to be someone’s friend even as she’s destroying that person’s life, convinces assault victim Megan to go on television and take shots at Jackie for dropping her support for the bill. After Jackie calls in to accuse Megan of being Claire’s puppet, Claire immediately caves and withdraws the bill, paving the way for Frank to enlist Jackie in whipping up votes for impeachment. This is House Of Cards in a nutshell: The Underwoods may fleetingly appear to actually care about one issue or another, but their core belief is always expediency. No particular cause is worth fighting for if it can instead be twisted into a strategic advantage.
The finale finds Frank on precarious footing as Walker decides to offer Tusk a pardon in exchange for pinning the money-laundering scheme on his vice president. Frank’s final face-t0-face with Tusk has an appropriately melodramatic setting—backstage at a performance of Madama Butterfly—especially given that this season has too often felt like a static series of sit-downs in the corridors of power. It’s a juicy confrontation as Tusk lets Frank know he’s basically out of options, and McRaney and Spacey both sink their teeth into the moment.
But of course, Frank Underwood is never out of options, and after a pep talk from Claire he pulls his old typewriter (an Underwood, of course) down from the shelf to write his confession. It’s a high-risk, high-reward move and a pretty ingenious bit of plotting, even if there’s not much doubt (from our point-of-view, at least) that President Milquetoast will fall for it. Walker asks Frank to prove his loyalty by rounding up votes of support, which Frank does in his own inimitable fashion, hinting that spots in his cabinet will be open to those who ignore his words and vote for impeachment. And in return, Walker revokes the promise of a pardon for Tusk, which backfires when Raymond sets aside his Fifth Amendment rights in order to throw Walker under the bus.
So it all works out even better than Frank could have dreamed. Walker resigns, Frank tosses his confession in the fire (while flashing us one last side-eye for the season) and takes his rightful place in the Oval Office with his traditional double-knock on the desk. He has everything he could ever want, with the notable exception of his trusty chief of staff.
The lonesome death of Doug Stamper is the most problematic part of the finale, if only because the character has become so opaque and wishy-washy in his handling of the Rachel situation. One minute he’s deleting her from his phone, the next he’s spying on her through her window, and then he’s playing Good Samaritan to Lisa in order to deliver a threat in person. Even in the end, sitting at the stoplight, it’s not entirely clear that Doug is prepared to take the final step in tying off this loose end. But Rachel is certainly justified in believing he is, so it’s hard to blame her for striking first. Doug was an emotionally confused guy battling his own inner demons, but he was also a political fixer who did Frank’s dirty work. So if the final image of him lying (presumably) dead in the woods elicits a pang of sympathy, it’s one that passes quickly.
The big question the season’s final image leaves us with is: Who is Frank Underwood now that he’s achieved everything he set out to accomplish? The character has been defined by his striving, his willingness to do anything it takes to keep moving up the ranks. But unless he’s planning a run for Galactic Emperor, there are no more ranks. It’s easy to imagine a third season centered on a primary challenge (preferably from a character with a personality), but the struggle to hang onto power will likely have a shorter dramatic shelf-life than the scheming to attain it. House Of Cards has the potential to become mired in the endless middle for seasons to come, but here’s hoping Frank Underwood’s downfall comes sooner than later.
- Assuming Doug is dead, it’s hard to see Rachel as a continuing presence on the show. Unless she became so entranced by Doug’s audiobook of A Tale Of Two Cities that she forgot to ditch his car.
- Morley Safer appeared as himself in the finale, joining Ashleigh Banfield, Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow and others from earlier in the season. It’s almost as if these leading lights of news media couldn’t wait to jump aboard and confirm the dim view of journalism the show has advanced all along.
- I’m not saying I wouldn’t watch a third season of House Of Cards in which Frank Underwood ran for Galactic Emperor.