At the tail end of the Season Two premiere of House of Cards, the pitch-black series about power and politics that returned to Netflix at 3 a.m. Friday morning, we see wily House Majority Whip and soon-to-be-Vice-President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) gazing into his bedroom mirror as he fiddles with a new pair of cufflinks—a birthday gift from his loyal body man, Meechum. Suddenly, he turns to the camera.
“Did you think I’d forgotten you?” he asks, the slightest smile materializing at the corners of his mouth. “Perhaps you hoped I had.” He’s talking directly to us. Underwood has just committed a crime so heinous and surprising—from both a moral and a dramatic standpoint—that even now, 15 minutes later, we’re still reeling.
Underwood, however, is unruffled. “Don’t waste a breath” on the victim, he says. ”For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.”
The politician pauses for a few seconds. His smile curls upward another millimeter or two. He seems pleased with himself.
“Welcome back,” he purrs.
Welcome back, indeed. The first season of House of Cards was good. The second season has the potential to be great. (This review is based on the first four episodes.) When House of Cards premiered last February, it benefitted, in many ways, from low expectations. Back then, Netflix was a DVD delivery and streaming-video service—the site you visited if you wanted to, say, mainline the first season of Cheers during a snowy weekend. The company had never assembled an original series from scratch before. And yet here was a big-league production—David Fincher in the director’s chair; Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and Kate Mara on screen; a reported $100 million budget—that was also a lot of fun to watch. Never mind that “the only thing really distinguishing [House of Cards] from the other prestige dramas on television was the distribution model,” as Alan Sepinwall put it at the time. Critics and viewers lapped it up. Netflix? the thinking went. Who knew?
But Season One’s flaws were real. A pervasive cynicism about politics—everyone is completely consumed by ambition and self-interest at all times—that often left too little room for human complexity, threatening to flatten many of the main characters into entertaining sociopaths as opposed to living, breathing people. The fact that the most three-dimensional human life form on the show—well-meaning but messed up Pennsylvania politician Peter Russo (the impeccable Corey Stoll)—was merely a pawn in Underwood’s master plan, destined for execution at the end of Chapter 11. And then, of course, there was the master plan itself: a long con so improbable—get Russo clean; prop up his candidacy for governor of Pennsylvania; trigger his downfall; and encourage the vice president to step in at the last minute, clearing the way for Underwood himself to ascend to the second highest office in the land—that once it finally clicked you felt a little cheated, like the show had somehow broken its own rules.
I am pleased to report, however, that the first four episodes of Season Two go a long way toward solving these problems. The old Washington adage applies: it’s not the crime, it’s the cover up. In the aftermath of Underwood’s season-ending misdeeds—killing Russo to keep his machinations a secret; silencing the prostitute, Rachel, who knows at least part of the truth—the stakes and conflicts are clearer. Simpler. More linear. And that, I think, makes for a more riveting drama.
Throughout Season One, Underwood repeatedly outsmarted and outmaneuvered the lesser beings in his orbit; he lacked a worthy adversary. By the eighth episode or so, that narrative—Underwood always wins in the end—became somewhat redundant. But now that our antihero is firmly ensconced the White House, he has to fight for the president’s ear with Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), the Warren Buffet-like billionaire and back-room boss who vetted him for veep at the end of last season. It’s a thrill to finally see Underwood do battle with someone on, or at least near, his level.
On a similar note, the journalism storyline last year was interesting, to a point, following careerist reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) as she swapped favors and slept her way to the top. But it was such a reductive depiction of the trade—all blackmail and seduction; no real investigative oomph—that it came, over time, to feel sour. I won’t reveal how creator and showrunner Beau Willimon resolves this issue, except to say that by the start of Season Two’s second episode we’re smack dab in the middle of a classic All the President’s Men goose chase. One reporter is onto Underwood—and he or she will “stop at nothing,” as they say, to uncover the truth. Our protagonist is both hunter and hunted.
The show’s core strengths haven’t diminished one bit. In Chapters One and Two, director David Fincher applied the jaundiced, menacing palette of The Social Network to our nation’s capital, creating a silverly 21st-century noir where primary colors had previously reigned supreme—and his successors have continued to follow his lead. The performances, meanwhile, are as brilliant as ever. I’m not a fan of everything Spacey does; he never stops Acting, with a capital A, and it can distract. But on House of Cards, Spacey plays a character who himself never stops acting—persuading, intimidating, threatening, deceiving—so his hammy style is a perfect fit. And Robin Wright is immaculate as Underwood’s wife and political partner, Claire: steely, sphinxlike, and scarily believable, with just enough vulnerability to make her the show’s most complex character.
And yet my favorite elements of Season Two are the new ones. Chief among them is Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), the Afghanistan vet and two-term California congresswoman whom Underwood handpicks to succeed him as House Majority Whip. Sharp is as driven as Underwood, but she’s greener, too, and less vicious; watching her grapple with the compromises and betrayals of congressional politics is a portrait of the power player as a young woman. She could prove formidable; she could flounder. As played by the crystalline Parker—Deadwood’s Alma Garret—she is never less than fascinating. Finally, while House of Cards has always explored both the personal and political sides of life in Washington, D.C., my early sense is that, in Season Two, it’s gotten better at both. A subplot in the third episode about the parliamentary trickery that both sides engage in during a contentious debate over entitlement reform is infinitely more pleasurable than its description might suggest; in fact, it’s a blast. And a nuclear interview that Claire gives in Episode Four—somehow she manages to lie and tell the truth about the most private issues imaginable, all at the same time—perfectly encapsulates her struggle to be both woman and wife. It’s my favorite moment of the series so far.
House of Cards still doesn’t have all that much to say about the inner workings of Washington, D.C.; it’s a show about power that happens to be set on Capitol Hill as opposed to a show about politics. But power is one of most inexhaustible subjects there is. In Season One, the series seemed to be running out of steam. In Season Two, it’s clear that it was just getting up to speed. That, of course, was always the plan—Netflix ordered two seasons from the outset, and Willimon parceled out his story accordingly. Now his patience is paying off. Let the bingeing begin.