It was abundantly obvious that, from the opening scenes of that first episode in which Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood snapped a poor dog’s neck, David Fincher’s adaptation of the BBC hit House of Cards was not going to be just another political drama. Whereas The West Wing is filled with the most optimistic people trying to do the best for the people with what they have, House of Cards is a political climate full of back-stabbing, cutthroat politicians that would make Longinus and Brutus give a standing ovation.
The first season saw the ambitious Francis Underwood, the House Majority Whip who played a big part in the election of Democratic President Garrett Walker, being passed over for Secretary of State despite the promise Walker had made during the election. Furious at this, Underwood begins his campaign of revenge, moving pieces into place from behind the scenes to undermine anyone standing in his way and climbing the ladder of power. First he takes down Senator Michael Kern, who became Walker’s new pick for State, undermining Walker’s power in the cabinet by placing a new Senator allied with Underwood in the cabinet. He starts an affair with an up-and-coming journalist, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), in order to leak stories that would damage the reputation of his rivals. Then Underwood sets his sights on the office of the Vice President, using a promising Congressman, and perhaps the only honest politician in America by the looks of things, Peter Russo, to well and truly botch up the special election to replace the VP as Governor of Pennsylvania, causing the VP to leave his position to retake his seat as Governor. Through 13 episodes, Francis Underwood moves his chess pieces with skill and ease, dispatching of enemies as swiftly as he did that dog in the opening moments, rising up the ladder to the position of Vice President while kicking everyone else from the rungs with a forceful heel to the face; they weren’t getting back up.
But Season 2 sees Francis’ plan for revenge becoming less about strategy and more about pure out-and-out butchery, sometimes to his benefit and sometimes causing a lot of problems. In one scene, Freddy, the owner of Francis’ favourite BBQ joint, discusses how the new meat he’s using for his ribs is butchered using the illegal “slow-bleed” technique which, as opposed to giving the animal a quick blow to the back of the head, involves the butcher letting them bleed out. It seems that Francis takes this to heart as much of his plan this season is more focused around butchery than a swift blow to the head. He wants to see people suffer and squirm, even if it does often put himself in a bad position, over a prolonged period of time.
It becomes clear that this is a more brutal House of Cards in the first episode which sees Zoe Barnes, who has been pulling at the loose threads of the conspiracy surrounding Peter Russo’s suicide (actually his murder formulated and dispatched by the ruthless Underwood) since the end of the first season so much that things were starting to unravel, being pushed in front a train. While viewers of the UK series, which sees Mattie Storin thrown from the roof of the House of Commons, knew that it had to happen for Francis to tie up the loose ends, it happened so early and so suddenly, rather than neatly wrapping up the first season as in the UK version. But Frank is not here to be a pushover. As he sketches a picture of a bull in a cabinet meeting during which President Walker is ruffling his feathers, he turns to the camera and says, “There are two types of Vice President: doormats and matadors. Which do you think I intend to be?”
If you didn’t think Francis and Claire could get any more Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, you’re sorely mistaken. The scenes involving Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are just utterly captivating (beyond one scene involving their main bodyguard Meechum which is just a little bit creepy and out of the blue) as they further plot their revenge while also being the only real times you see these two sociopaths show any hint of humanity. Robin Wright dominates the season with some of the best scenes of the show so far, including the captivating solo live interview Claire gives in the fourth episode. Throwing Raymond Tusk into the fray, who is also seeking to create a puppet of the President just as the Underwoods are, brings a new exciting foil to Francis; a villain that well and truly paints Francis as more of an anti-hero.
This is a season that lets us know that Francis Underwood isn’t this perfect political game-player, especially when stacked up against Tusk who is probably the closest to a real rival Underwood has ever had. We see Francis’ plans, more often than not, blowing up in his face, whether this is having to cut ties with someone he cares about deeply (in as much as Francis Underwood can care about someone) or even getting pulled into the problem himself, having to squirm out of it within an inch of his life. It’s as exciting as it ever was to watch Francis plot away and move those pieces into place to cause his enemies to jump, rather than be pushed (except in the case of Zoe obviously). This is a much slower climb for Francis and Claire but it’s one that plays off in such a thrilling way; the last scene of the final episode probably overtakes The Wolf of Wall Street for the “Best Use of Rhythmic Beating of an Object/Chest) as Kevin Spacey stares directly into the camera, his ultimate goal finally accomplished.
Sometimes, in its swift move from the politics of Congress to those of the White House, storylines are wrapped up, old characters such as Zoe dispatched with, and new ones brought on board in a kind of haphazard manner. While the new characters, such as pseudo-Frank Jackie Sharp (played by Deadwood’s Molly Parker) make a real impact, keeping the fun of the whipping of votes about, and old characters such as Gerald McRaney’s Raymond Tusk become much more important, it often feels like storylines and characters are just thrown away with little explanation. The investigation into Frank’s “activities” is just tossed aside with a bit of a whimper, despite it gaining some exciting traction (although it could be something that could re-emerge in the next season). Even Zoe’s death seems to just fade out of memory pretty quickly, with no-one really questioning why this reporter who was breaking huge stories and making a real name for herself would suddenly throw herself in front of a bridge. It often gets slightly frustrating but, when the focus shifts back to Francis’ Machiavellian ways, it’s hard to stay mad at it.
Like Season 1, though, Season 2 is one that spreads its plot too thinly. The trip back to his old college, while giving us a nice insight into the previous life of Francis, put a swift halt to the momentum that was quickly building up in Season 2. A trip to a Civil War re-enactment in Season 2 does the same; as does a pretty pointless romantic sub-plot involving Jackie Sharp and all the gubbins involving Rachel Posner which definitely feels like filler. It feels like the writers, once again, found themselves struggling to write for 13 episodes. Given a run of ten, this season could be a lot tighter. The middle part of the season enters a real lull before the final few episodes really kick things into overdrive and never let you of the ride until that final “thump-thump”. A lot of that extra fat does feel like it could lead to something exciting in the next season which, if you have any knowledge of Macbeth, could lead to a very exciting third act, but when it’s so clear that this is a show about Francis and Claire, you just want to get back to them doing whatever it is they do best (though they do give a lot more focus to Freddy outside of his interactions with Frank and that I’m more than OK with because Reg E Cathey, like in The Wire, steals every scene he’s in).
House of Cards’ second season is as messy as its first but, like its first, has a lot to really get stuck in to. There’s a lot that could be trimmed down, a lot that could be handled much better, but just watching these characters trying to deal with the shit hitting the fan, shit that Underwood put there on purpose, is as exciting, and as wonderfully bingeable, as it ever was. As the first episode comes to a close, an episode completely devoid of the fourth wall breaking that made both the UK series so unique, Underwood looks towards the camera, finally acknowledging the audience with “You thought I’d forgotten about you?”. He continues in his Southern drawl, the vocal equivalent of molasses rolling off the tongue, “There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted. Welcome back”. Welcome back, indeed.