While some people will have already plowed through the entire thirteen episodes of House of Cards, my wife and I will be taking it at a slightly more leisurely pace – which involved watching just three episodes on Valentine’s Day night, starting from the moment our daughter fell asleep. Because of our more judicious pace to watching the show – which I loved the first season of here and placed fourth in my top 10 of 2013 here – I thought I would cover a few episodes at a time in a review. So if you have not yet watched any of the second season of House of Cards and do not wish to be spoiled, look away now, otherwise you can step a little closer to those train tracks.
The second season opens exactly where the first had ended, with Congressman Francis Underwood and his wife, Claire, jogging through Washington on the night he has been told he will be nominated to be the new Vice President of the United States. The problem is, we know that there are several loose ends to wrap up from the first year of the show, most notably the triad of journalists – Zoe Barnes, her new boyfriend Lucas, plus her old rival Janine – who are getting close to uncovering the truth about Underwood’s involvement in Peter Russo’s falling from the wagon, then subsequent apparent suicide. One of their primary leads was Rachel, the woman who had helped take Russo down that path by assisting in the end of his sobriety, but she is quickly shipped off to suburban Maryland by Underwood’s Chief of Staff and principal action man, but not before she revolts, claiming she will not be intimidated, before being semi-strangled by Doug Stamped and packing her bags to head slightly north.
With Rachel’s disappearance, Zoe Barnes is left as the triumvirate of journalistic investigation’s last hope of uncovering the truth about Russo, given her past and apparent ongoing mutually beneficial relationship with Underwood. He offers her a clean slate, which would allow Zoe a powerful contact, almost impossible to resist; an aphrodisiac clearly more appealing to her than Lucas, who she tells to “just finish” during a…session…since she has more important things with which to get on. However, her desire for more power through the form of an ongoing relationship with the soon-to-be Vice President turns out to be her undoing, since her willingness to believe in Francis’ lack of involvement in the death of Peter Russo makes her an easy target to be the next apparent suicide – or tragic tripping accident – as she is pushed into an oncoming metro train, but not before Underwood had convinced her than she needed to delete all of her text history with him, as well as his very existence as a contact from her iPhone. Some of the critics who were not so enamored with season 1 (most notably Alan Sepinwall at HitFix.com) suggested that Underwood’s murder of Russo turned him from being a nuanced anti-hero into a comic-villain style bad guy, but for the whole series we have watched him willingly throw people under a metaphorical bus, the fact that he has the viciousness to throw Zoe – a woman with whom he has had a physical relationship – under a literal train is perhaps not too much of a surprise.
Claire shows herself to have just as much of a ruthless streak as her husband, as she resolves the potential lawsuit she was facing from her former employee, Gillian Cole, by canceling her health insurance, thus putting her pregnancy at risk, forcing Cole to accept the – admittedly fantastic – offer of taking over the Clean Water Initiative , in return for dropping the case. Since she is going to be the Vice President’s wife, being the head of such an organization is no longer the only way that Claire can obtain prestige and power, so what she gives up is not as much as what she gains, namely the avoidance of an embarrassing lawsuit that could cost Francis dearly. The first chapter of this season also saw the introduction of another strong female character in the form of Congresswoman Jackie Sharp, played by Molly Parker – AKA the widow entitled to the Garrett claim from Deadwood – who is Underwood’s choice to replace him as the Democratic House Whip, but not before he has pitched the two most senior contenders for the role against each other.
My other favorite parts of this opening installment of the new year of House of Cards were: the return of Underwood to Freddy’s rib house, though the description of the restaurant owner of how the butcher from whom he had acquired his meat had taken the lives of the animals was particularly disturbing; the initialed “F.U.” cufflinks that were given to Francis as a birthday gift from Meechum, yet the amount of prevalence that was given to the present suggested that perhaps the Capitol Police Officer may have installed a tracking device in them and that will come back later in the run; and my favorite moment of the episode was right towards the end, when Kevin Spacey looked into the camera for the first time (via a mirror) and in a most Shakespearean manner said to the audience “Did you think I’d forgotten about you?” – sheer brilliance.
One thing I noticed from the start of this new season is that the opening credits appear to be lighter than they were last year, when they definitely appeared to have a darker, more David Fincher tone. Is this actually a real thing, or is it just that we have a different television to the one we had last year and are now watching Netflix through a Smart TV app rather than the relatively old-school method of streaming via a Wii? Anyway part of the focus of the second episode was on the new role that Claire was playing as now being the Vice President’s wife, rather than the head of her own organization as she was last year. The shift immediately brings difficulties to Mrs. Underwood, since she is backed into a corner into attending a ceremony to honor a General who just happened to be a guy who raped her in college. Despite her attempts to stifle her justifiable anger and resentment towards him, when he arrogantly and obnoxiously comes over to their table and proclaims to have dated her “but only for five minutes” and kisses Claire on the cheek, she can no longer hold her feelings at bay and Francis discovers that the man he is to pin a medal on was also the person who had attacked his wife (an incident she had clearly told him about before, without telling him who was involved). While this provides the audience the chance to see Underwood unmasked and his pure anger and hatred for a person shine through, he is also placated by Claire to go on with the ceremony and to do his duty as the newly sworn-in Vice President (a ceremony that took place in his own house during extensive Secret Service required renovations). When Francis does go through with pinning on the medal to a man who had raped his wife, he does so in a manner that not only displayed his sheer contempt to General Dalton McGinnis, but also suggested that his ascendancy in the military will be short-lived, if the Vice President can find a way to achieve his downfall.
Also in this episode, Francis has his first opportunity to help out Raymond Tusk, the confident of the President who had been influential in securing the nomination for the Congressman, in exchange for a deal where the new VP agreed only to help out the businessman from St. Louis in instances where he agreed with him. Nevertheless, Underwood has the amazing quality of getting everyone to think that he agrees with them and is on their side, so when there are trade talks with China, he manages to side with the Secretary of State in suggesting they should be criticized over cyber-warfare, while also making Tusk think he is pushing his agenda of not aggravating the country that holds the key to his nuclear energy prosperity. Ultimately, the President is manipulated by Francis into taking a stand against China – something that gets him a bump in approval ratings, which was what Governor Mitt Romney tried to do in his 2012 election campaign when he repeatedly stated that on his first day in office he would label China a currency manipulator – but Underwood also makes Tusk believe that he was fighting his corner, but Walker took no notice. It was also interesting to note that Tusk shows no reverence and calls the President by his first name (Garrett) – which Spacey points out in one of his conversations with us, the audience – but later refers to Francis as “Mr. Vice President” in the exact same point of a phone call.
In the race to become Underwood’s replacement as Whip in the House, Jackie initially appears to be able to step into his shoes in terms of manipulation, but not in her viciousness, since she would help one of her opponents get the Chairmanship of the Ways and Means committee, a position that is currently held by her backer – Ted Havemeyer – but she did not want to expose his secret daughter in order to convince him to resign. However, by the end of the episode her own ambition has got usurped her inhibitions and Sharp is set to become the new Majority whip in the House, while her chief benefactor will have his secret revealed via the press.
Elsewhere in the episode, Francis is forced to confront his new lack of privacy as Vice President – if he cannot even play God of War on his Playstation 3, how on earth will he find space and time to slip off to kill someone and make it look like suicide; Underwood also gives valuable advice to the Secretary of State, “If you do not like how the table is set, turn over the table”; and Lucas, who is probably regretting not “just finishing” the last time he was with Zoe, continues his pursuit of the truth about her death and in doing so, discovers the secrets of the “Deep Web”, something he could have learned about from a Stuff you Should Know podcast.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was a master at working Congress, something that Vice President Underwood has shown himself adept at, but could either of them do the unthinkable and actually outmaneuver the Tea Party delegation? While LBJ was out of office long before we found out that answer, his fictional counterpart – which could prove to be foreboding, since in this episode alone France described himself as both “a heartbeat” and “three feet” away from the Presidency – was given the opportunity to pit his wits against the most right-wing strain of the Republican party in this episode. In the issue at stake, there was an element of both the real world, where there was a potential government shutdown crisis looming, and The West Wing, since both sides of the political spectrum could suddenly consider making significant changes to the sacred cow of Social Security. For the resolution of the issue, there was something of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington about Underwood’s play, since he relied upon some arcane Senate rules in order to force the Republicans hands – getting the Capitol Police to arrest members who would not return to session in order to form a quorum (with six sacrificial lambs coming back to the floor in handcuffs) before Tea Party favorite Sen. Curtis Haas discovers he has been outplayed since the passing of the Amendment, which he now cannot stop, constitutes passage of the entire bill. Perhaps the method by which Francis got the legislation through the Senate and allowed the President to declare a bipartisan deal in the State of the Union was Machiavellian, but as he notes to the audience “the higher up the mountain, the more treacherous the path”.
Meanwhile, Rachel has gone from prostitute luring Congressman back to drinking, to waitress in a Georgetown restaurant (though if you are going to eat in that neighborhood, I would recommend 1789) to cold-caller for the National Firearm Education Center in Jessup, Maryland. Luckily for Rachel, she finds someone more enticing than Doug Stamper and his Indian food to hang out with (but I do love that cuisine and it made me want to visit that part of Maryland just to find out whether they have good lamb Rogan Josh) as she is handed a flyer for a church group by a stranger on a bus. With House of Cards, or any good drama, where plot points do not just fizzle away (hey Lost guys, who was shooting at the outrigger that Sawyer and Juliet were on?) you know that this will not just simply be the former escorts discovery of faith and re-birth into a happy and fulfilling life – so you are forced to wonder if the flyer girl (whose name I did not catch) is actually working for somebody else.
Finally, Lucas continues to appear to be a crazy person as he investigates the truth surrounding his (semi-) girlfriend’s death, while in fact he is exactly on the right page. His search gets him to visit the Washington Herald’s resident techie – who was the perfect cross between Stephen Merchant and his IT colleague in Hello Ladies – in order to help out his new contact from the Deep Web, who appears likely able to help him in his pursuit. One person that is unwilling to help is the other member of the former formidable threesome of journalistic truth, Janine, who is now teaching Itacha students about how a lack of context can help form a more powerful narrative, something that many news organizations displayed this week when they quoted President Obama as saying “I can do anything I want”, when he was not talking about Executive Orders, but intact telling President Hollande of France that he can show him the view from the private section of President Jefferson’s Monticello estate. If there is one thing that every character in House of Cards is aware of, it is that headlines, not context, is the most important thing to control.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the first three episodes of the new season of House of Carda and I am excited to watch more – the frequency and number of episodes that I review in the next week or two will depend solely on the sleep pattern of my daughter.
For other House of Cards posts – reviews are up for Episodes 4-6 here, 7-8 here; 9-10 here, 11-13 here and Season 1 here. If you enjoyed this post, please like Political Footballs on Facebook by clicking here and follow on Twitter @politicalftball