Although it took us slightly longer than some who binged on the entire second season of House of Cards in the first weekend it was available, my wife and I still got through all 13 installments within five days of its release – not bad with a toddler who still dislikes sleeping. The reason we got through it so fast is because of how compelling this show remains in its second year, combined with the fact that knowing that the next episode is readily available is a good motivating factor to watch another installment each night. Coming up are spoilers for the last three chapters (previous reviews: 1-3; 4-6; 7&8; 9&10) of the season, so look away now if you are not yet up to date, otherwise mind your hands as you help me pick up a broken wine glass…
Both The Sopranos and The Wire had a tendency to save their best and most action-packed installments of each season to the penultimate episode, but in its second year it was the third from last chapter of House of Cards that was the peak of the run. At the opening of this hour, Francis Underwood is forced on the defensive as, during his testimony to the Special Prosecutor investigating foreign funds being channeled into a super PAC, Heather Dunbar reveals that they have proof that the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, Doug Stamper, had made a trip to both Kansas City and Beijing on the very day that the Democratic leadership had been discussing the GOP attack ad. When questioned about Raymond Tusk and Xander Feng, Underwood pleads ignorance and claims that he has only heard about that latter through newspaper stories, thus he is as familiar with the Chinese businessman as he is Kim Kardashian. As he negotiates the group of reporters waiting to quiz him as he leaves the hearing, Frank speaks to the audience and tells us that he has gone from the lion’s den to a pack of wolves, now he will need to throw them some fresh meat to survive. That meat will come in the form of the President of the United States.
Like a wild animal, Underwood is at his most dangerous when he is backed into a corner and this proves to be the case once again, as he uses the revelation that Stamper had been looking into the super PAC money to his own advantage. With the claim that it will help prove their innocence, the Vice President turns over his official travel records (his sojourn to Cathedral Heights metro station to meet Zoe Barnes is presumably absent from that data) since the time he had become Whip and encourages the President to do the same, telling him that he should not be worried about the counseling sessions – before informing us that is exactly the thing about which Walker should be concerned.
Underwood also confesses to the viewer that he feels isolated and exposed and one of the main reasons for this is the slipping in performance of Doug, who had previously been such a reliable and formidable ally in executing the Vice President’s dirty work. Stamper is attending AA meetings more frequently than before, not because he is drinking again, but rather his obsession with Rachel makes him feel the same way as alcohol does. A showdown with his boss jolts Doug back to reality and he is grateful when the Vice President gives him a third chance (the second came when he got sober 14 years earlier), vowing that things will be different going forward. In order to achieve this, Stamper attempts to control his addiction to Rachel by deleting her from his phone, before destroying his Blackberry (something he should have done in about 2008 – though his replacement is the exact same phone model), which also stops Gavin the hacker from being able to track him. It does seem like Doug is back on his game – he embraces assistance from Seth Grayson, while in his testimony to the special prosecutor, he dismisses his trip to the casino as just an investigation during which he found nothing, since he did not have the same resources as the Department of Justice. However, at the very end of the episode we see Stamper return to Joppa to check in on Rachel, witnessing her and Lisa in the throes of passion when he peeks in through the window. Underwood’s Chief of Staff might be formidable, but like Achilles – whom Frank references a couple of times – he has a serious weakness that could be his undoing.
Remy Danton also has a shortcoming related to his fondness of one particular woman, but Tusk’s lobbyist attempts to overcome that when he goes to California to try to find out what Jackie Sharp threatened Ted Havemeyer with in order to become the Whip. With this information, Remy tries to strong-arm Sharp into setting up a meeting with Underwood, then falsely claiming he had quizzed her on what she told Heather Dunbar, but Jackie is unwilling to be threatened, even if it means she will lose her seat in the mid-term elections. Still, Danton cannot bring himself to give Raymond Tusk anything about a woman he wants to still be in a relationship with, claiming that Havemeyer had nothing on her. Remy also meets with the Vice President – having returned the watch with the quote from Churchill “To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often” – and agrees to be neutral in the Underwood/Tusk battle going forwards, which represents a huge win for Francis.
Meanwhile, Claire is advised by Seth not to do the interview the New York Times magazine about the sexual assault bill, so instead Mrs. Underwood ropes in Private Megan to do it for her. During the discussion with the journalist, Megan slams Jackie Sharp and describes her as traitor to her country for not supporting the legislation Afterwards, the Private is almost manic with excitement and tells Mrs. Underwood she wants to speak to the media even more, though her fragile state is revealed when she spills dozens of pills over the kitchen floor of the Vice President’s residence. After Megan has left, Claire pours herself some wine, but then breaks the glass, just as Edward Meechum was about to leave for the day. The Secret Service agent assists with the clean up, but cuts his hand in the process and then agrees to both medical attention and some wine from the Vice President’s wife. After a few drinks, Frank returns to the scene that Claire had so clearly prepared for him and after a changing of the bandage, the three of them start to kiss, revealing the reason that Underwood had insisted on keeping Meechum on his detail and transferring him over from the Capitol police. I am interested to know if this will end up costing the Vice President, since he is placing a lot of trust in someone he does not know that well and I am still suspicious of the cufflinks Meechum gave him for his birthday. Given that they are in the midst of a master plan with the projected target being the Oval Office, it seems like a potentially strange lapse of judgement from Francis – then again, the following morning he seems completely relaxed and even Claire says to him “You needed that”.
The problem with being a vicious, ruthless manipulator is that sooner or later, people will realize that you are not to be trusted and will fight back, which is the level that the President has finally reached with Francis Underwood. At the beginning of this episode, Walker tells his Vice President that he thinks that it was him pulling the strings to weaken the administrations that he can mount a challenge in 2016. Despite protestations of innocence from Frank, the President tells him that he does not wish to hear his voice from now on and he would ask for his resignation if he did not think that would just make things worse for him. At this point, Underwood
realizes he is in an impossible position and just tries to work on regaining the support of his boss doubles down and reaches out to the Secretary of State, trying to get on board to help with his plan to take the Presidency by granting Xander Feng – who is in Dubai avoiding prosecution by the Chinese government – asylum in exchange for testimony. When Walker’s lawyer asks Francis if that had been his suggestion, he denies it vehemently and expresses regret that he and the President can no longer communicate except through an attorney.
With House Republicans considering the commencement of impeachment proceedings against Walker – which they have been talking about with President Obama since the moment he took office, but in the world of House of Cards it is not quite so common place – the Underwoods need to get Jackie Sharp on their side in order to utilize her ability to whip votes to get the President convicted by Congress. However, the interview that Megan had given to the New York Times Magazine is published and Sharp goes on the offensive against Claire, calling into an interview with MSNBC that the Private is giving and calls the Vice President’s wife a coward for having somebody else speak for her. While it seems that Jackie will never switch to being on their side, the Underwoods share more than just Meechum, as they both have the ability to manipulate people and Claire takes the wind out of the Democratic Whip’s sails by visiting her and telling her that not only is she withdrawing her bill, she also wants to support Sharp’s own legislation and follow the path she had suggested originally.
Mrs. Underwood also goes to see the First Lady and lets her know that she has taken the sexual assault bill out of the equation, since it would only make things worth for her and the President and of course, as a dear friend she would never want that. With both of them taking medication – which could become public knowledge through the hearings – plus the President seeing his approval ratings plummet and the possibility of impeachment on the horizon, the First Couple debate whether they should waive their right to confidentiality with the Minister they saw. Tricia believes that they should keep things private – especially for their kids – while Garrett thinks the only chance he has of surviving this crisis is proving he has nothing to hide. Ultimately, they hold a joint press conference where they talk about the counseling, but the First Lady reiterates her love and trust in her husband, who himself says that he places his faith in “My wife, my maker, my country,
my Xanax“. In an interview with Ayla Sayyad, the Vice President gives his unflinching support to the President, but he then meets with Sharp and asks her to whip votes to ensure impeachment (though he would still have a lot of work to do in the Senate, since a 2/3rds majority is needed). Jackie tells the Underwoods that what they are suggesting is just shy of treason and – in what is perhaps the most defining quote of this season, Francis replies “Just shy. Which is what makes it politics”.
Elsewhere in this episode, in a bid to tie up any potential loose ends, Doug – who has discovered audiobooks so will no longer need to creepily ask the object of his affection to read to him – stops Lisa’s car from working, then gives her a lift back to the apartment in Joppa, where he tells Rachel she needs to get rid of her roommate. Remy discovers that Seth Grayson has told Raymond Tusk all about the lobbyist’s meeting with the Vice President, which sees Danton not only lose the St. Louis businessman as a client, but also create a new enemy who has
$42 billion $39 billion in resources. And Gavin the hacker still has not gone away, as he reveals to FBI agents who come to arrest him that he has access to the AT&T date centers and demands a meeting with his handler.
Sometimes the smallest facts about a show can end up acting as an unintentional spoiler, which is the case with my prior knowledge that House of Cards had been renewed for a third season before I watched the second one. Knowing that it was coming back for another year meant that watching the finale was without any sense of anticipation about what was going to happen – unless there was going to be a crossover with Orange is the Black involving a men’s prison as well, there was no way that Francis was going to end the season as anything other than President of the United States.
Even without the surprise element, the way the show got to that point was relatively well done, with Underwood managing to convince the President that he was willing to fall on the sword, thus regaining Walker’s trust and making him believe that his Vice President had not been working to oust him all the time. Francis tells his boss that he will work to whip votes in the Senate to ensure any impeachment proceedings do not end in conviction, when in fact he is doing the exact opposite. Underwood also enlists Jackie Sharp to get Remy Danton onto his side and the leaked story that the lobbyist will voluntarily talk to the special prosecutor – alongside the removal of a promise for a pardon in exchange for burying the Vice President – is enough to convince Tusk to implicate Walker – not Francis – in testimony to the Judiciary Committee. Ultimately, it is this that buries the President and, with the writing on the wall and approval ratings in the single digits, Walker opts to resign rather than wait for impeachment. In the blur between the fictional and real world, Garrett would be just the second President to resign (after Nixon) and, having served less than two years, would rank fourth in the list of shortest stints in the Oval Office (behind William Henry Harrison, James Garfield and Zachary Taylor, all of whom died early on in the terms).
Not everything goes Underwood’s way – though he does not yet know it – as Gavin the hacker attempts to make a deal with Doug Stamper, telling him that he has proof about the connection with Rachel Posner and has tracked her to the apartment in Joppa, Maryland. Trying to clear up the mess, Stamper insists that Rachel goes with him immediately to find a new place to live, but as she is aware of his ruthlessness, Posner fears for her life and flees from the car into the woods. When Doug follows her, she ambushes him and hits Frank’s Chief of Staff over the head with a rock, killing him. With Stamper’s absence unexplained, the Underwoods take a walk through their staff en route to the Oval Office, with the third member of the couple – Meechum – waiting for them at the door. The season ends with Francis alone behind the Resolute desk, looking into the camera and giving a double tap of the replacement class ring Claire had given to him as an early birthday gift (as he had buried the original in Spotsylvania).
When Raymond and Francis met in the corridors beneath the stage during Madame Butterfly, it was an apt place given the operatic feeling to the finale of season two of House of Cards – but where does the show go from here? Underwood now has the Oval Office, but he will have to restore a lot of credibility to the Democrats over the next two years if he is to become anything other than a new Gerald Ford – an unelected President who only serves out the term of his predecessor following a resignation. There are still threats to Francis in the form of Gavin the hacker – whose deal with Doug is now not going to be kept – and those who know how he has obtained the position of Leader of the Free World, most notably Tusk and Linda. With the title being House of Cards, we have seen the construction of the Underwood Presidency that lacks any foundation, surely the next step is for that to collapse underneath him.
The one big problem with the Netflix model of releasing all the episodes at once? There is now virtually a year of wait time until the next season becomes available.