Sunday, February 16, 2014

House of Cards, Season 2

*SPOILER ALERT. This review contains heavy plot details for the second season of House of Cards, as well as details about the end of the first season. Read on if you dare.*

There's nothing that quite says "Happy Valentine's Day" like political corruption and moral degradation, right? Netflix understands this, as the company released all 13 episodes of their original series House of Cards' second season this past Friday. For the uninitiated, the show centers on Francis "Frank" Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a high-ranking politician in the United States government who's no stranger to dirty tricks in his efforts to continue rising through the ranks. I briefly wrote about the show's first season for my Emmy coverage last year, which you can find here.

Click below for more. Spoilers ensue.
Season two picks up almost immediately where season one left off: Frank is now Vice President of the United States, his chief-of-staff Doug Stamper (Richard Kelly) is hiding Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), the call girl used in Frank's ploy to murder congressman/gubernatorial candidate Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), and journalists Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), and Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) are trying to find evidence of Frank's crimes in an effort to bring him down. And right away, the show gets down to business of cleaning out loose narrative threads before introducing new ones. Right in the first episode, Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) - who vetted Frank before he was sworn in as VP - is positioned as Frank's antagonist, as both men go head-to-head in being President Walker's (Michael Gill) right-hand man and most trusted advisor. Frank's wife, Claire (Robin Wright), uses her new stature and exit from the Clean Water Initiative to take a more active role in the Capitol. And, in the season's most shocking moment, Frank takes care of the Zoe problem by throwing her in front of a moving subway train. Of course, things twist and turn from their, eventually leading Frank to the highest possible position of power.

The truth about this show is that Netflix's strategy of release the entire season all at once is integral to how the show works. Which is to say, House of Cards is a show that's meant to be binge-watched. Individual episodes are fine - this season's fourth episode, in which Claire opens up about a prior sexual assault in a live TV interview, is by far the best - but they're not meant to be analyzed as individual works. This much is made clear by the "Chapter ##" format of each episode title, indicating that these are simply parts of a much-larger story. And when you watch the season in a handful of sittings with multiple episodes, the show works better because small inconsistencies and minor flaws don't seem to matter as much in the grand scheme of things. If Frank's various schemes seem to work a little too well and rely too much on coincidence (and they do), it can be swept away by how entertaining and enthralling watching those plots unfold. Or, in the case of Lucas' journey into Deep Web and meeting with an Internet hacker (who's actually an FBI informant), if a narrative thread doesn't seem to be particularly going anywhere, it can meet a temporary stop with the understanding that it will come into play much later in the larger scheme of things.

That's not to say that this show is doing a lot of things wrong. Despite the fact that this is a heightened version of Washington, creator/showrunner Beau Willimon and his writing staff ground the show in real-world issues. A major conflict in this season is escalating tension between the United States and China in regards to trade, with the two countries inching closer to the brink of actual war because of Frank and Raymond's war of pride and influence. Similarly, cybersecurity is a running theme, initially presented in the background but with the implication that it could be key to this story's final act. Claire's revelations about her assault and subsequent efforts to push forward reform legislation to address the military's rape epidemic feels like the show tackling a very real issue, and it does a terrific job at ensuring that the victims - namely a young woman who was assaulted by the same man who attacked Claire - are sympathetic in the eyes of the audience, even though they're being used as political capital.

Claire's plot is actually one of the most important to this show, especially this season, because it illustrates a much finer line of morality. There's no denying that Frank is a monster; he's long sold his soul to the devil, and there's no real hope for redemption for him. So far, he's killed two people with his own hands, and have cost many, many more their lives and/or careers. And as the bodies continue to pile up around him, he simply straightens his tie and continues his push for power. Claire, however, is different. She's ruthless, make no mistake, possibly even more ruthless than Frank; Frank himself even remarks that he's not sure whether to admire her or be terrified of her. But what separates Claire from her husband is that despite the things she does, she recognizes the consequences on the lives involved. This much is made clear this season, as a series of media scandals surrounding her interview find her exposing her humanity to the audience, if not to other characters. It's clear that she still feels some internal conflict about her actions, as if there are moments where she pauses to consider if this is really worth the casualties. It's a much more complex take on her 21st-century Lady Macbeth, and it centers her as the show's most interesting character, and Wright is without a doubt the show's MVP in terms of performances.

If there's any key flaw with this season, it's that the show doesn't seem to be certain whether it wants the audience to root for or against Frank. This problem was present in the first season as well, but here it becomes more pronounced, especially with the addition of Raymond as the season's "villain." By pitting Frank against another, equally immoral competitor, and by virtue of Frank's position as the lead character of the show, it would appear that, by default, the show wants the audience to want Frank to "win." But at the same time, it backs away in several episodes, putting distance between us and him to allow us to be disgusted by his actions. As a point of comparison: Breaking Bad - a clear influence on House of Cards - positioned the audience to be disgusted by Walter White's actions very early, so that we're rooting for his downfall, not his triumph (not that that prevented people from doing the latter). House of Cards, on the other hand, doesn't seem to know what it wants us to think of Frank, though it has been teetering more toward rooting for him. Of course, this could resolve itself in the third season, since at this moment it feels like we only have the first two acts of a three-act narrative. But it does, for now, take away from some of the show's power as an (a)morality play.

When I first wrote about this show, I noted how it plays like a modern Shakespearean tragedy, and that season one felt like the first three acts of the play and season two would be the final two, in which Frank would meet his comeuppance and fall quickly through the ranks. However, season two - and the renewal for season three - have proven that the inevitable fall is coming, but not before Frank ascends his metaphorical throne. So perhaps the show is more like a three-act play: we've seen Frank rise, his pride further inflated by his hunger for power, and now he's primed to take the biggest fall he can. Frank would be wise to heed the words of King Lear's Cordelia: "time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides." Here's hoping Frank's tragedy will be worthy of the Bard's legacy.

Season grade: A-

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