Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Warfare That Is Politics: House Of Cards Season Two!

The Good: Good performances, Very important social issues, Good character development, Generally good plot progression.
The Bad: One or two threads carried out a bit long/Demands viewing the first season to be truly understood and appreciated.
The Basics: The second season of House Of Cards finds Frank Underwood’s political machinations moving him closer to usurping the presidency.

There is very little in the way of television that I watch religiously these days. Given how unimpressed I was with the first season of House Of Cards (reviewed here!), it truly says something to the strength of Kevin Spacey’s performance abilities that I returned to House Of Cards for a marathon on the day its second season episodes made their debut. In fact, when the first season of House Of Cards was nominated for so many Emmys, I actually went back and rewatched the first season of the show and I almost felt I had been too harsh on the debut season. Either way, I found myself excited enough when Netflix released the second season of House Of Cards. The 13 episode season picks up immediately where the first season left off. As such, it is impossible to discuss the dark (realistic) political soap drama without some references to events from late in the show’s first season.

And the second season of House Of Cards is gripping, but insular. The challenge House Of Cards had going into the second season was finding a compelling balance between the political and journalist plotlines. Given the fallout between the main characters, Congressman Frank Underwood and reporter Zoe Barnes, how the show would continue without them having a working relationship had the chance to shift the dynamic of the show considerably. It is unsurprising, then, that the first episode works hard to re-establish Frank Underwood’s dominance in the House Of Cards world and tie up loose ends. Just when it seems that the show is going to simply reform the dynamic of the first season, it takes a powerful right turn that forces the show to redefine itself and it does that exceptionally well.

House Of Cards is an intense political drama with a few soap operatic elements to it and the second season continues the tone of the first season, while generally forming new arcs. While the first episode of the second season works hard to include all of the requisite information to make the second season stand on its own, the significance of many of the alluded-to events – especially the way the team of journalists is searching for clues to the death of Congressman Russo – is only truly evident by the extreme length Frank Underwood goes to cover them up. In other words, to truly get the most out of the second season of House Of Cards, one must watch the first season.

Opening with Frank Underwood and his wife running on a night when many loose ends in Underwood’s life are coming unraveled, Frank and Doug Stamper work to get Rachel Posner relocated. With Frank clearing up loose ends on his birthday, he reaches out to reporter Zoe Barnes to make a fresh start. While Claire eliminates the lawsuit her former employee is threatening her with (by informing the wife of the doctor Cole had an affair with overseas and then cutting off her health insurance), she explores the practical possibilities of having a child with Frank. Lucas, Janine, and Zoe continue to put the pieces together surrounding Russo’s death, though when Rachel disappears they find themselves without any proof of foul play. Frank sets Jackie Sharp up to be his replacement as Majority Whip in Congress before eliminating the nagging loose end that could be a legitimate threat to his ascension.

Having ascended to the post of Vice President Of The United States Of America, former Congressman Francis Underwood manipulates the Whip’s race to get Jackie in place. He works to diminish the power of Raymond Tusk, a billionaire who has the President’s ear. As Claire leaves the Clean Water Initiative behind, she begins taking more of an active role in being a part of Frank’s life and his scheduling. With Frank and the Secretary Of State working to pick political fights with China in order to undermine Tusk, Frank and Claire find themselves working together to fight their mutual enemies. Frank uses his newfound influence to push for entitlement reform.

As Frank is forced to reach out to the Congressman he sank on the Education Bill, the Capitol is locked down due to an anthrax mail scare. That puts Claire on a media offensive working for him outside the lockdown. When Claire outs the General who raped her twenty-five years prior, she pushes her military reform agenda with the aid of the First Lady. With Frank launching an offensive on a trade negotiation with China, the wedge between Tusk and the President begins to grow. When Frank, Doug, and the Vice President’s new aide, Josh, manage to uncover links between Raymond Tusk, American Indian casinos, and vast political donations, Frank sets his sights on cleaving Tusk from Walker and leaving the President entirely dependent upon him.

It’s hard to say what robs the second season of House Of Cards of perfection (though that is a status a series has to earn in my rating system, rather than one that is given and then whittled away from), but certainly an aspect of it is how certain plotlines or character arcs are drawn out longer than they need to (though the big right turn in the first episode completely caught me by surprise and I am thrilled not to spoil it in this review!). Rachel Posner is featured in almost every episode and while her character finds god and has to basically live underground for the season (unwittingly a target of a mole working for both the government and his own interests), the way her little asides tie back to the main plot is a long arc, but one that is ultimately unsatisfying within the second season.

That said, elements of the second season of House Of Cards are not as predictable as all that. While the Posner thread is maintained just so it can keep fresh in the viewer’s mind events from the first season, the appearances of Christina Gallagher seem pointless and Claire’s machinations against her seem like an unnecessary divergence. But the idea that Freddy could benefit from his rib joint being associated with the Vice President is a good one and the series does not do the predictable thing with his character (the genre fan in me was betting that the lone episode that began with Freddy would inevitably end with his death by gun violence in the ghetto and that did not occur). Similarly, while the season takes a long approach to Edward Meechum working the Underwood’s security and starts early on insinuating his attraction to Claire, when that is finally realized within the narrative, it is in an unpredictable and surprisingly satisfying way.

The other truly troubling aspect of the second season of House Of Cards is how few of the seasoned politicians in the House Of Cards world are playing on the level of Frank Underwood. Raymond Tusk is undermined as a character because he does not exhibit the gamesmanship of a successful businessman. In other words, the tools Frank uses against Tusk are largely the same that an executive like Tusk would be forced to use in the business world, so that he is behind the curve as Underwood separates him from Walker is disappointing. Moreover, President Walker himself is seldom believably presidential.

With that in mind, House Of Cards has moments of truly exceptional television making. The dynamic of the show shifts as the two principle characters become more intertwined in the first season: Frank and Claire are much more directly a team than in Season One. They are working together toward common purpose and that Frank does not throw Claire’s interests out the window when her Anti-assault Bill is jeopardized is good character growth for the politician.

In the second season, the essential characters in House Of Cards are:

Francis Underwood – Forced to quit smoking by Claire, he gets an e-cig and he has a tough time adapting to his townhouse being made over into a fortress by the Secret Service. He takes his post as President Of The Senate in order to push through his first major legislative move by threatening to arrest absent Senators. While trying to wrangle his political enemies, he has to witness Claire outing some of her most personal issues. After attending a Civil War reenactment wherein he learns his great grandfather fought and died for the Confederacy, he trades in his video games for making tiny figurines that recreate the battle. He keeps Doug on the offensive and lets Doug and Josh fight for his attention more. He champions Claire’s issues and continues to drive a wedge between Walker and Tusk. He stands by Freddy, Claire, and Doug when they are each threatened by media issues that threaten them. He and Claire work much more like a team,

Claire Underwood – She admits to Frank that the man who raped her in college is a General now, who Frank has to promote. She begins using the media to advance the goals she and Frank share. She has to deal with the question of why she and Frank did not have children and is accused of having a relationship that is more political than romantic. She deflects the attack by revealing the details of the rape and working to crusade for women’s rights and military reform afterward. She has to wrangle with Jackie and the Generals in order to advance a Bill that brings civilian prosecution to military personnel accused of sexual assault. She has to end her past relationships once and for all,

Zoe Barnes – When all of the evidence she has against Frank is objectively viewed, she realizes how circumstantial it is. Separating herself from Janine and Lucas, she approaches Frank on her own. When she does, she decides to grant his wish of deleting all of her records of him and that sets them up for a clean slate. Resolute to a fault, though, she pushes Frank for answers about what happened to Russo at an inopportune time,

Jackie Sharp – Frank’s hand-picked successor, she destroys her best ally in Congress in order to become Majority Whip. She finds balancing her personal issues with selling out her longtime allies with the power she gains to be more of an issue than she anticipated. She works to quickly differentiate herself from Frank. In the process, she finds herself in a romantic relationship with Remy Danton and that puts her as a wildcard in the war between Frank and Tusk,

Doug Stamper – Francis’s right hand man, he executes Francis’s will, dealing with Lucas and Rachel. His emissary works to get Lucas to commit cybercrimes to take him out of the picture. After relocating Rachel, he finds himself obsessed with her and unclear on what his relationship with her actually is. He has her read to him to calm him and works as the footsoldier against Tusk’s business interests,

Josh – In the wake of Claire’s public revelation of her abortion, he is hired by Remy to get dirt on the Underwoods. He uses that position to acquire the only evidence of one of Claire’s abortions, which he turns over to her. After muscling her new press secretary out, she joins Frank’s staff and turns on Remy and Tusk. He often clashes with Doug,

Linda Vasquez – The President’s Chief Of Staff, she owes her job to Francis. She finds herself in growing conflict with Frank over meetings between the Vice President and Chinese emissaries, so she becomes one of Frank’s targets and collateral damage as Frank solidifies his power,

Christina Gallagher – Now working as a deputy under Vasquez, she helps feed Doug and Frank information. Claire realizes she and President Walker might have a connection that can be manipulated. Undermined by Claire, she (like Linda) is mostly a nonentity until she is eliminated,

Lucas Goodwin – Undermined at every turn by his friends, who think he is just traumatized, he finds himself unable to gain traction against Frank. In his loss, he turns to the deep web for answers, trying to find records that connect Zoe to Underwood. He becomes the target of Stamper’s allies in the intelligence community who work to discredit him. Used by a government mole, he infiltrates the FBI and launches a cyberattack on them. He turns to an unlikely person to try to get him off the hook,

Raymond Tusk – A billionaire who is the President’s former mentor, he represents Frank’s greatest adversary. When Frank menaces his business interest’s relationship with China, he responds in kind, usually using Remy. Walker hangs up on him for the first time in their decades of friendship and he quickly realizes he is on the losing side of the conflict with Frank,

and Remy Danton – The protégé of Francis, he is now working as the liaison between Sancorp/Tusk and Congress. He comes to the aid of Frank and Jackie during the Entitlement Bill. He and Jackie find themselves hooking up. When that happens, he finds his loyalties divided and when Tusk has him start burning down the Democratic leadership, he turns to the least likely person to help him find a way out.

On the acting front, House Of Cards is suitably impressive. The talk for season two is going to be Robin Wright. In the least pandering way possible, she completely buys nominations and awards for her performance in the second season of House Of Cards with her fearless portrayal of Claire Underwood as a sexual assault survivor. The second season of House Of Cards makes an open, adult dialogue about the lifelong issues associated with sexual assault and Robin Wright is at the forefront of the character arc and the performance and she is incredible taking it on. Wright will get nominated and win awards for her role of Claire Underwood and every one of them will be justified; she embodies a survivor perfectly and steals every scene dealing with that arc.

While Kevin Spacey is great as Francis Underwood, Michael Gill seldom plays Walker as truly presidential. The real winners in the supporting cast are Michael Kelly and Molly Parker. Kelly plays Stamper and in the second season, he is more than just a lackey, an executor of Frank’s will. Instead, as Stamper is given demons to wrestle with in regard to his feelings for Rachel Posner, Stamper plays the internal conflict expertly, especially with his body language. In scenes without any lines, Kelly portrays the confusion of whether Rachel is his protectee, daughter, lover or drug and that is masterful acting. Parker joins the fairly tight main cast as Sharp and she is a credible former military Congresswoman. She is able to play cutthroat and cold deliciously, while still making it believable that her character would frequent a tattoo parlor for the pain.

It was only in the final episode of the first season that House Of Cards that Claire Underwood asks the key question of the characters: what is the point of all the power grabs from Frank Underwood if they are not having children? What is the point of ruling the world if you have no stake in the future? Obviously, Frank Underwood’s machinations are designed to make him the President of the United States and in the second season, the long arc is all about undermining President Walker. The plot is executed well, but the fundamental character issue with Frank Underwood remains: why does Frank Underwood want to be President Of The United States? Not everyone wants to rule the world and the nagging issue of what Underwood actually wants and what he believes in remains unresolved. Whether or not the series, not just the second season, becomes more than just a political soap opera will be determined by how that question is ultimately answered. Until then, though, the second season builds delightfully on the first and leaves us pining for more.

For other television shows that focus on politics and the media, please visit my reviews of:
The Newsroom - Season 2
Boston Legal
The West Wing


For other television reviews, please be sure to check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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