Although many people will have finished House of Cards‘ second season days ago, many others will be tackling it at their own paces over the next few months. In a hugely competitive TV landscape last year, my experience was sitting down and enjoying the first couple episodes but putting off the rest until much later in the year – even after binging Orange is the New Black upon its release. There wasn’t enough in House of Cards to compel me to come back to it quickly despite liking it well enough. This year, even though House of Cards still has its issues here and there, the process of sitting down and watching the season is much more immersive and, at times, genuinely exciting.
Some of that excitement comes from how bold the series is in the moment. Having not seen the UK original, I can’t say how closely this series is in sticking with the same plot points, but moments like Zoe’s death in the first episode this season and Doug’s death in the finale feel very off the cuff, as if these things just happen naturally, forcing the writers to work with what they’ve written themselves into. What happens after – whether it’s examining these deaths through other people or filling in whatever void those characters leave – can work poorly just as easily as it can work effectively (I, for instance, don’t think this season has done a great job with the aftermath of Zoe’s murder; however, that seemed to be operating on the conscious level, because the writers dropped it almost entirely for the second half of the season). But when you’re watching these things in the moment, they provide respectable shock value that seems almost out of place in a series like this. Season one was lacking these more visceral scenes – even Russo’s murder was methodical and you knew what Frank was going to do before he actually did it. So, even though Doug has been a fairly large strength for House of Cards, there’s some basic enjoyment in the surprise of what happens to him (looking at it logically, Seth can pick up the slack as Chief of Staff, and other people now know that Rachel exists, so she won’t be out completely).
If House of Cards is more exciting this year, it’s also more predictable, which seems like a paradox. Frank becoming president is the natural point of conclusion for this season, even if I disagree with it on the narrative level. This seems too quick, that he could run wildly from Congress to the Oval Office in such a short span of time. Granted, he is superb at manipulation, but this seems more like a season three or four conclusion, marking the beginning of the decline to follow. Yet, it’s hard to complain beyond grounds of believability, because it’s still fun seeing Kevin Spacey go to town. With the presidency, Frank’s reach is even further, so even though he has no one at home in a competitive position of power, there are other countries he can exert his influence over. And the final scene of the finale almost makes you forget how implausible it is. It’s shot beautifully, Frank walking down the long corridor to his new office. He pauses behind the desk, pushes away the chair that Garrett has been used to sitting in, looks at the camera and does his signature double-knock on the wood, wearing the new ring that Claire had made for him. For any issues of writing that I’ve had with this series at any time, the technical work has been nothing short of fantastic, from the art direction to the cinematography to the top-notch directing (which included episodes helmed by Jodie Foster and Robin Wright this season).
The cast of House of Cards is still probably a little too big for its own good right now, but that at least leaves a lot of doors open for next season. Who is Gavin going to draw in now that Doug is dead? Do characters like Linda and Garrett and Patricia just go away now that Frank has stepped all over them? What is Rachel’s future as both a key to exposing Frank and as a murderer on the run? Will Jackie ally herself with the Underwoods or work against them? There are so many characters who aren’t Frank and Claire that have been given some interesting things to do along the way, but without Zoe and Russo, House of Cards didn’t really have a third main character this season. Garrett is probably the closest person to achieving that, but his stories this season have been mostly there to serve Frank, where Zoe and Peter got other things to do. So, it would be nice to see someone step into that role with confidence – ideally, someone who can pose some kind of challenge to one or both of the Underwoods.
Typically, good TV series take a step forward in their second seasons, building upon the groundwork of their first seasons. Mediocre TV series won’t take that step – they’ll remain consistently mediocre. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the first season of House of Cards mediocre, but in a year when Hannibal, Rectify, Orange is the New Black, The Returned, Banshee and Orphan Black premiered, it certainly wasn’t a stand-out freshman season. That created the (unfair) expectations that it wouldn’t come into its own this year. It’s good to be proven wrong. Again, everything about the second season of House of Cards has seen incremental improvement at the very least and rather substantial improvement in certain areas. It’s not the kind of prestige drama that separates Mad Men from the pack, yet it has at least separated itself from forgettability by figuring out how best to serve its vast narrative of scheming. And if the writers are able to come up with material at a pace this fast, it sets the bar high for a third season that doesn’t have a discernible goal. Where does Frank go once he’s reached the summit? Maybe only down.
[Photo via Netflix]