(ATTENTION: This review contains spoilers. You have been warned.)
Netflix series House of Cards has perhaps received as much publicity for the way it’s empowered its online publishing platform instead of going on TV as it has for its content.
Indeed very few series in recent years can come close to the dramatic quality and intensity of House of Cards‘ first season. Except, perhaps, House of Cards‘ second season.
The saga of Frank Underwood and his rise within the political landscape of Washington, DC, took off in spectacular fashion in the opener of the first season – directed by David Fincher, who also produced the series – and somehow only got better from there. With more than a little resemblance to the unfolding of a certain Shakespeare play, Frank is spurred on by his wife, Claire, to take no hostages on his way to power. As the Majority Whip – the strategic leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives – Frank makes backroom deals, backstabs people left and right, and even disposes of political enemies and potential threats to his mission in a most unsavoury manner. Kevin Spacey is pitch-perfect throughout the series, and so is Robin Wright as the calculating and seemingly cold Claire.
If the first season is Macbeth, Season 2 is Richard III. The first episode sees Spacey as a more ruthless, direct and just as wily, now that his character has become the Vice President. His ultimate target: the only man who occupies the seat of power above him. President Garrett Walker – the man who betrayed him when he expected to become Secretary of State – seems all but an easy prey. Yet Frank has morphed from the cunning political shadow operative he was in the first season into a more reckless and hard-edged towering figure in the second. It’s that shift in his character that keeps the series’ momentum going. He’s ready to get his hands dirty, and nowhere is that more evident than on one occasion when he literally shoves an enemy out of his way on his quest to the Oval Office.
This time, his adversaries now know he’s coming, but instead of the show becoming a serial spree, we see the real back and forth fight through what so many films and shows have failed to portray as exciting or engaging in any way: hard politics.
Once the loose threads from Season 1 are ostensibly tied up, the bulk of the series from episode four and onward take place on and around the Capitol, White House and related offices. The ever so topical issue at the spotlight this time is a prospective trade war with China, which one or more of the main characters may have a personal stake in. Meanwhile Claire’s past sneaks up on her and she must recruit the trust of the First Lady to turn the tables on her attackers. The show’s focus on the power of media also takes a new turn, as Frank and Claire now use it more directly to get things to go their way, appearing on interviews and feeding it in person with juicy distractions from their real goals.
Walker is played in a fittingly reserved manner by Michael Gill, who becomes more weathered as the season wears on, seemingly aging before our eyes, as we see with so many presidents in real life. He also becomes more hardened, soon becoming suspicious of Frank’s intentions, which makes for an excellent dynamic between the two actors.
The more powerful enemy, however, emerges in Raymond Tusk, who Gerald McRaney portrays with an unnerving ease. His becomes a mission of getting one over on Frank Underwood, even to the point of using his influences to undermine Walker’s administration and gradually coming out of the shadows as the fight for power over the president escalates.
It’s also through this deep involvement in the goings-on that we start to notice the falsehood of phrases like “political realities”, summarized beautifully in a late-series moment Claire is forced to share with a Person From The Real World, where she realizes how ridiculous her political rhetoric sounds to someone who isn’t a politician.
Subtleties of political maneuverings and even some bizarre Claire subplots aside, House of Cards undoubtedly remains The Kevin Spacey Show. By the start of Season 2, Spacey has long ago morphed into Underwood, embodying his every move, his every Southern-drawled syllable and his every tick with absolute authority. His Frank Underwood is an absolute bastard. He backstabs, betrays, lies, perjures and even kills without blinking an eye.
And we root for him every step of the way. That’s not talent. That’s freaking magical powers.
The writing by Beau Willimon and co. is usually spot-on, and every episode director maintains the flow of the show while leaving their own mark on the overall series. Most notable are James Foley, who takes the reins when the stakes are highest (Chapters 20-21 and the finale, 25-26, for example), and Jodie Foster and Robin Wright herself, who direct two of the most dramatically weighted episodes (22 and 23, respectively) of the entire series with style.
There is a side plot or two that feel a bit tacked on, Jackie Sharp’s relationship with Remy Danton is especially superfluous and seemingly there to “make up the numbers” and little more, as well as a Jimmi Simpson-played hacker with dirt on the Underwoods, although there is a strong sense that this will be developed further in Season 3.
So, bring on Season 3, then.
The bad (motherf***er): Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood giving President Walker a punching bag after Walker berates him for the first time.
The badder (motherf***er): Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood killing a certain Season 1 star. With a train. In the first freakin’ episode!
The baddest (motherf***er): Kevin Motherf***ing Spacey in the final, lingering shot of the last episode.