Marissa Tandon ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Season one of House of Cards is, arguably, one of the reasons why Netflix has become a huge name in television. The show was nominated for three big Emmy awards in 2013 and took home one in Best Directing for David Fincher. They even received a nod in the open with Kevin Spacey talking directly to the audience as he does in the high-stakes political drama. It was an unprecedented amount of recognition for a show that is, essentially, a web series. House of Cards’ critical acclaim opened the floodgates for Netflix’s original programming, as well as other online networks (such as Amazon Instant and Hulu Plus) to follow in their footsteps. With all of this success, viewers were left to wonder: would the second season be able to hold a candle to all of the waves the first made?
Short answer: absolutely.
Season two of House of Cards opens with that same constant high-stakes situation that got so many viewers addicted in season one. House of Cards made its name on harsh political maneuvers, and doesn’t back down with this season’s opener. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) has secured his position as vice president and is strategically backing Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) for his replacement as Whip. Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) is still chasing evidence to expose Frank’s criminal actions. Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) continues to deal with the repercussions of her business arrangement last season.
In perhaps the most shocking twist of the series yet, Zoe’s choice to chase after Frank results in her murder. With one last meeting, Frank is able to make sure that all records of their communication are deleted and pushes her in front of an oncoming train. With Zoe’s cold-blooded murder occurring only a half an hour into the new season, the twist is certainly one that will shock viewers.
But should reporter Zoe Barnes’s death be mourned? Her actions have never particularly erred on the side of ethical. She perpetuated an affair with Frank last season to keep a constant source of information open, and this season opens with her lying about a suicide attempt in order to illegally acquire Rachel Posner’s (Rachel Brosnahan) address from her employer to break a story.
Zoe has been just as calculated, cold, and ruthless as Frank throughout the series. She was simply less successful at her attempts at rising through the ranks. Frank’s last words on his ex-lover’s murder are, “Don’t waste a breath mourning Miss Barnes. Every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless at first, small, quiet, lapping up their saucers of milk. But once their claws get long enough, they draw blood, often from the hand that feeds them. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.”
Those closing lines of episode one masterfully demonstrate some of the series’ greatest strengths. It’s the first time Frank breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, something that was such a stylistic marker for the show from the very beginning. The viewer gets inside Frank’s head and is reminded that he is ever logical, calm, and calculated. However, his actions themselves are the things that humanize Frank. Throughout his small closing speech, Frank is undressing, removing his new cuff links, a birthday gift from his personal secret-service agent Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow). Throughout the episode it is made clear that Frank neither values nor accepts gifts from anyone—earlier in the episode we watch his secretary throw away all of the birthday cards he has received—and yet as he delivers this calculated speech about the murder he has just committed, he is shown not only keeping a birthday gift, but using it.
Meechum is one of the few people Frank has shown a continual soft spot for, making sure the young agent moves up through the ranks at Frank’s side. These small connections are what allow Frank to be just human enough for the viewer to remain interested; Frank is flawed and certainly makes some dubious moral choices, but as long as he maintains a few pure connections with people that are not necessarily beneficial to his political career, viewers can’t write the character off as a one-dimensional evil character. The moral debate that Frank’s choices create in the viewer is arguably one of the greatest appeals of the show.
The cuff links, emblazoned with Frank’s initials (F. U.), have the added benefit of a closing shot that encompasses Frank’s way of living.
The real question is, what will Zoe’s death do to the players still left in motion? In episode two, Zoe’s boyfriend, Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), and her colleague, Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) were in the loop on the mission to expose Frank before her death. The pair’s reactions to Zoe’s death are polarized: Janine runs, and Lucas pursues the story even harder, becoming somewhat manic in the process. Lucas’ desire to find the truth adds a satisfying amount of tension to the plot instead of sweeping the possibility of Frank’s exposure under the rug with one murder, as Frank may have preferred. Lucas begins a downward spiral as he becomes obsessed with Zoe’s murder, convinced that her death was by Frank’s hand as his claims continue to fall on deaf ears.
With Frank’s first public appearance as vice president, his wife Claire is forced to confront an old demon. It is revealed that one of the generals Frank is expected to pin stars on sexually assaulted Claire when they were dating in college. The encounter shakes Claire visibly, and when Frank rushes to her aide, there is an uncontrolled bout of rage from Frank, something that is not typically shown. The relationship between Claire and Frank is one of the pair’s only redeeming characteristics, as both of them are most frequently portrayed as cold, calculating, and vicious. In the reveal we see Claire as fearful and vulnerable, yet her biggest concern is for hers and Frank’s public image.
Later, in the privacy of their home, Claire delivers a chilling speech about the assault. The speech gives viewers a look into just how Claire became as strong as she is today: “Every time I think of her, pinned down like that, I strangle her, Francis. So she doesn’t strangle me. I have to. We have to. The alternative is…it’s unlivable.” Whether viewers agree or disagree with Claire’s outlook on the subject, it gives us a direct understanding of how Claire operates. While her husband thirsts for direct revenge, Claire focuses on succeeding on her own in spite of the adversities that may lie in her way. In some ways, that may make her climb to the top even stronger than Frank’s ascent.
Trade negotiations with China are shaping up to become treacherous, and Frank uses other politicians as pawns for his own endgame as he is wont to do. These actions may sour the already tremulous relationship between Frank and the president’s closest advisor, Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), and Lucas Goodwin discovers the “deep web” (a portion of the internet devoted solely to illegal activity) and puts out a request to hack the vice president’s phone records. The tension builds.
Some of that tension comes to a head in episode three. A government shutdown is imminent if Frank cannot convince the Senate to pass a bill concerning retirement ages. The fight continues to illustrate factors of our own government that the majority of U.S. citizens are tired of. Throughout the talks on the bill, Republicans continue to say “We need a win.” There is very little talk as to what the bill will do concerning the citizens they represent.
When the deals struck by Frank and his cohort fall through, Frank makes the decision to issue warrants for the arrest of all senators who are not present, strategically holding the vote after enough senators are carted into the building for a vote to be cast. His bill passes, and the shutdown is narrowly avoided. Frank picks up a victory and a few new enemies, though he can’t seem to get enough of the latter.
Lucas makes contact with a notorious hacker who claims to be able to help with his request to take down the vice president. Yet, there are hints dropped in the hacker’s smoke-and-mirrors act that suggest he may be working for Frank, and that Lucas’ demise is oncoming.
Season two of House of Cards opens strongly, setting the story up for a fast-paced ride. The third episode closes on Frank at the president’s right hand, something that is not lost on our protagonist. Frank makes sure to point out just how far he has risen. As Raymond Tusk watches the speech from home, Frank speaks directly to us: “As for me, I used to be on the edge of the frame. Now, I’m only three feet away.”
The point leaves us to question what, exactly, is Frank’s next move. The only possible step up is the presidency. As Frank points out in the opening of the third episode: “There are two types of vice presidents: door mats and matadors. Which do you think I intend to be?” Frank has made it clear that he intends to be the latter, but we have to wonder. Will Frank’s carefully constructed House of Cards hold steady, or will a strong gust of wind surprise our protagonist and cast him down before he can reach the top?