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House of Cards – Season 2 Review: The Bloody Battle Between Money And Power
As an American, I prefer to think the best of our politicians. Despite oft and repeated evidence to the contrary, I prefer to believe that most of them are genuinely trying to work toward the betterment of the population for which they work. Frank Underwood would undoubtedly call me a fool, or more likely something a bit more colorful, like sheep or minnow. But that, of course, is the brilliance of Frank Underwood, and House of Cards in general. That such disdain, which could never be expressed by any elected official in the real world, is presented to us verbatim and with no remorse through the vessel of Underwood. While he’s fictional, he represents our greatest fear of what one of our politicians could be: ruthless, merciless, clever, deceitful, and dangerously ambitious. And as season 2 of House of Cards proves, that’s a combination that can get you places.
Season 2 starts mere minutes after the end of season 1, and doesn’t spend any time ramping up or catching us up; it starts at full speed and doesn’t slow down (you can read our full review of the first episode here). In fact, the whole of the first episode left me spinning a bit. Names were thrown about without reference, situations were revisited that I only vaguely remembered. As the episode progressed, though, I quickly got back into the rhythm of the events unfolding.
Frank, having recently murdered a Senator in order to secure himself the Vice Presidency, is now in cleanup mode, trying to take care of any and all loose ends that might link him to the murder. The primary focus of this is Zoe Barnes, the journalist he manipulated all through last season, who (in probably one of the most shocking moments of a show’s first episode of a season) becomes the second homicide under Frank’s belt. After that bit of business is tied off, he and his wife turn to what would become the focus of season 2; wielding the power of the vice presidency to destroy any political opponents in their way and, of course, manipulating their way into yet more power.
The targets of their manipulations this time around? The President of the United States himself, his wife, and his closest friends. They attempt to alienate and undermine the president at every turn, while of course always convincing him that they’re doing everything in his best interest. You see, unfortunately for the president, his integrity and honor are only outmatched by his gullibility and capriciousness, which makes him a prime target and doubly susceptible to the Underwood’s games. And the results of these games leave a lot of victims, including many innocent bystanders, the president’s friendships, and even his marriage. But one of these victims, presidential mentor and billionaire industrialist Raymond Tusk, isn’t so easily taken out.
The Best Parts
Money Vs. Power – It is with Tusk as an enemy that the major theme of this season is revealed: when money fights power, who wins? This conflict consumes most of the players on the show, and watching it all go down was the highlight of the season. Frank, with all his governmental power, wields influence with a silver tongue, wooing and cajoling lesser players into doing his bidding. Meanwhile, Tusk wields his monetary might like a sledgehammer; he shuts down power plants, buys foreign officials, wildly alters campaign contributions, and puts scandals on the front page of every news outlet. While I can’t really call either of the men in this battle the good guy (they’re both pretty bad dudes), it’s still a ton of fun watching this conflict play out.
The Manipulators – Kevin Spacey, as Frank Underwood, returns with all the charm, guile, and menace we remember from last season, though it seems he has turned up the guile this season. From day one of his vice presidency, he is lying to everyone about everyone else, going to the deepest moves in his emotional manipulation playbook, pitting them all against each other. The use of his exaggerated brand of Southern charm to disarm and assuage is still pure brilliance, especially during the few scenes that we get to see it fail and his far more real, more dangerous personality peeks out. Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood is also back in all her ice queen glory. She is, in her own right, every bit Frank’s equal in the manipulation game, even if she goes about in a very different, much colder fashion.
Power Couple – Probably the most powerful scenes of the season are also the lowest key ones, when we get to see Frank and Claire collaborate, plotting their next move, picking the next victim for their hit list. They are both stellar actors giving amazing performances, but they have a chemistry when together that is greater than the sum of their parts. Their marriage is fascinating in and of itself; almost purely platonic (and the few moments it’s not, it’s pretty damn weird), they seem more like partners and confidantes than husband and wife. It’s certainly not a stretch for a political marriage to be one of convenience, but it is the synergy of their combined competence that makes this one so great.
The Worst Parts
Ancillary Activities – Of course, not everyone can be as competent or as compelling as the Underwoods, and it’s no coincidence that the moments where the show loses focus are the same as the ones where Frank and Claire are not on screen. There’s a lot going in this season, some of it important, some of it not, and the show often can’t seem to tell the difference. The reporters, for example, are a footnote. There was little danger or tension in the follow up on Zoe’s murder by her ex-beau, and his ultimate demise felt inevitable and drawn out. The show also wasted precious time on a subplot involving dueling press secretaries that led nowhere. The worst offender, though, is the ongoing saga of Rachel Posner. A holdover and loose end from the Russo murder, her attempts to establish a new life, and Doug Stamper’s obsession with her, ground the show to a halt any time they were on screen, which was often. While the end result of that story may bear narrative fruit next season, the meat of it had almost nothing to do with anything else in the story and ate up a bit too much screen time.
So, where are we left to go from here? At the end of this thrilling season, Frank seems to have no more ladder to climb, having reached the top of it. There are still threats out there, of course. Rachel Posner is still running around, now untethered, with secrets that could destroy him. The uber-hacker now seems to have the upper hand over the FBI and his own trove of dangerous information. Tusk could still be a threat, even from jail, since his vendetta against Frank has not likely subsided. And of course their is the cold, dead body of Stamper, Frank’s own chief of staff, that will likely need some explaining. However these threats play out in season 3, watching our new President Underwood wield the ultimate power he has worked so hard to claim will surely be thrilling. And we’re sure to see more bloody battles to come; as Frank himself has told us, “Hunt or be hunted,” and there’s no greater opportunity for both than from the the oval office.