House of Cards Season 2 Premiere Review: Happy Birthday Mr. (Vice) President

By Cory Barker

Feb 14, 2014

House of Cards S02E01: "Chapter 14"


It's been an interesting year for House of Cards. Before its debut around this same time last year, some people (including this moron) wondered how—if at all—the show would help usher in a new era in television production, distribution, and consumption. But while Netflix claimed that House of Cards' first season brought in an acceptable number of viewers (though we'll probably never know exactly how many) and some critics and awards-giving organizations were high on the first 13 episodes (resulting in three Emmys, a Golden Globe, and a WGA award), the series sort of ended up being an afterthought in the larger "Netflix is changing TV" conversation by the time the new season of Arrested Development and the big surprise, Orange Is the New Black, hit in the second half of 2013. In fact, of those three series, House of Cards was the least-viewed. Heck, even Hemlock Grove supposedly did better on its proverbial opening weekend than this David Fincher-Kevin Spacey joint. 

Point is, House of Cards' first season, though pretty good in spots, didn't light the world on fire. To call it underwhelming is probably too harsh, but moderately underwhelming isn't. So it was munderwhelming, or something. Yet, despite my issues with the show—I think it tends to deliver the performance of a GREAT show without doing a whole lot to earn it—I found the first season to be very watchable, and if we're brightsiding it, killing off Corey Stoll's Peter Russo was the kind of ballsy move that told me writer and showrunner Beau Willimon wasn't screwing around. Thus, I came into this second season with tempered enthusiasm, and slightly lowered expectations. And I think that helped my response to the season premiere, which didn't waste any time getting right to what Spacey's Frank Underwood seems to do best: straight-up murdering people.

Though Peter Russo's death served as the gut-punch of House of Cards' first season, it wasn't an entirely unexpected turn of events. Frank's manipulation of Russo's poor life could have gone further, but it also made sense to put a button—a very, very sad button—on that stealth Underwood operation and move on. But Frank luring Zoe into a false sense of security just to push her in front of a moving subway train, thus ending the pressing threat that his role in Russo's death could be revealed? Damn. That's nasty. I actually looked away to jot down a note during that scene and heard the SQUISH and just assumed he tossed her phone in front of the train, or something. Those two sounds aren't remotely the same, but that's truly because I never thought Frank, as evil as he is, would take Zoe out, let alone do it in a public space. 


There are two ways to look at this development. On one hand, offing Zoe further reinforces that the show is not screwing around, that anyone is susceptible to bite it, that Frank Underwood don't play, and that the show's writing staff isn't willing to drag along another season of Zoe trying to get the "truth" of Frank even though deep down, she knows what's up. That's all fine by me, and the shock value of the moment was mostly worthwhile for me. However, on the other hand, killing Zoe removes yet another interesting character from the show's world when there aren't too many to begin with—and reflects one of my biggest problems with the whole enterprise: Frank always wins. As the first season illustrated, he either outsmarts you with a nearly unbelievably orchestrated plan, or he kills you. If he's going to resort to the latter as regularly as we've seen him do in recent episodes (dating back to last year), it's going to be more difficult for the show to create legitimate tension moving forward. Don't get me wrong, there's definitely some appeal in watching Frank maneuver his way to the White House, but he's already the Vice President. There are only so many more places to go, so unless House of Cards Season 3 is about him trying to use conspiratorial and murderous tactics to take down alien administrations and run the universe, the formula could wear thin sooner rather than later. It's a concern.

But it's a concern I'll keep an eye on as we move through this second season. As a season premiere, "Chapter 14" did the smart thing and hit the ground running... literally, with Frank and Claire continuing their run from the end of last season. Starting right where we left off was a fine call, but I also liked how that opening scene brought us back to this world with both Frank and Claire. The opening scene of the Season 1 premiere was much more focused on Frank and Frank alone, and this one signaled that House of Cards is more of a two-hander than originally advertised. It's a little thing, but a purposeful one—and a good one, because while I do enjoy watching Kevin Spacey devour scenery as much as the next dude, Robin Wright is fantastic in this role. Her Claire deserves some more time in the spotlight. And as Frank was off pushing his former bed buddy to her gruesome death, "Chapter 14" made sure to give Claire that time. The story between her and Gillian was a bit of a snoozer by the end of Season 1, but it came out hot here with Claire forging some documents, stopping Gillian's insurance coverage, and digging up the identity of her baby daddy, just so she could tell the man's wife about the pregnancy. Claire ethered Gillian. 


Similarly, dropping back in on the final events from Season 1 meant that the show had no choice to clean up messes and tie up loose ends. And on House of Cards, that means a whole lotta screentime for Michael Kelly's Doug. With Peter and Zoe both gone now, Doug should suddenly have more to do, and if this premiere was any indication, the show is ready to make that happen. Most of his scenes here were of the procedural variety—convincing prostitute Rachel that she needs to leave town, putting threatening photos in Janine's mailbox (presumably)—but Kelly did good work nonetheless. I hope Doug becomes more of a force, especially considering the latest void in the show's universe. 

For a show that took its sweet time, narratively, in Season 1, House of Cards' Season 2 premiere was a welcome sight. It moved pretty quickly, made a big move, and cleared the table for a new round of political scheming, secret investigations, and, well, murder. Let's hope this pace continues as the show moves forward.



HOUSE OF NOTES

– Frank doesn't like birthdays. Hot on murder, cold on birthdays.

– I like how the episode waited until the very last scene to have Spacey's Frank address the audience; that showed restraint. But I almost immediately hated it once he opened his mouth. Don't tell me "welcome back," weirdo. Step too far.

– OHHH. The cufflinks spelled out 'FU'. Get it?! Sometimes this show can't resist hammering us right on the nose.

– With Zoe dead, Lucas is likely to take on the Underwood investigation in the coming episodes. I'll be interested to see how the show handles that story, both because of my fear about the ultimate outcome (R.I.P. Lucas) and because Lucas doesn't have the same kind of relationship with Frank (well, yet), so the story is inherently less interesting.

– I need more Christina in my House of Cards life. 

– Hopefully the show gives President Walker a bit more personality and spine this season. If Frank wants his seat, I'd love for there to be some real tension there, and for that to happen, the character has to be better. 


What'd you think of the Season 2 premiere? How will you be watching this season?



HOUSE OF CARDS SEASON 2 REVIEWS ON TV.COM

Note: Due to waning reader interest in our episodic coverage, after Episode 7, we skipped ahead in our reviews to the finale. However, the discussion pages for Episodes 8 through 12 will remain active for anyone looking to chat about those installments individually.

S02E01: House of Cards "Chapter 14" Review: Happy Birthday Mr. (Vice) President

S02E02: House of Cards "Chapter 15" Review: Welcome to the White House

S03E03: House of Cards "Chapter 16" Review: We Have a Quorum

S02E04: House of Cards "Chapter 17" Review: Quarantine My Heart

S02E05: House of Cards "Chapter 18" Review: Beating on that Backchannel

S02E06: House of Cards "Chapter 19" Review: Power Play

S02E07: House of Cards "Chapter 20" Review: A Tale of Two Families 

S02E08: House of Cards "Chapter 21" Discussion

S02E09: House of Cards "Chapter 22" Discussion

S02E10: House of Cards "Chapter 23" Discussion

S02E11: House of Cards "Chapter 24" Discussion

S02E12: House of Cards "Chapter 25" Discussion

S02E13: House of Cards Season 2 Finale Review: New Desk, Same Frank


  • Comments (88)
Add a Comment
In reply to :
  • ben45tpy Feb 22, 2014

    Okay I've begun the marathon. Fingers crossed I'll be finished in less than 24 hours. I wasn't sure coming exactly how much I liked this show but I do like it a lot. It's not a contender for the greatest show of all time and there's a certain monotony in character and tone but it's still damn entertaining. Plus it's filmed so specifically that I get lured in. It's amazing how much easier it is for me to love a show when it's filmed as well as this. So obviously it was a pretty eventful premiere. I was liking the absence of the 4th wall breaking and agree with Cory that they didn't reintroduce it well. We had some good plots set in motion, particularly with Mrs Bullock. Other events DID seem to close plot avenues instead of open them (e.g. the pregnancy) which were odd decisions to make but overall it was a thoroughly gripping episode like I've come to expect from this show.

    As for the elephant in the room, of course I'm disappointed because I still have a huge crush on Kate Mara (although maybe now she'll be free for a role on AHS 4? I can hope). I was surprised she acted the way she did in this episode, it was practically suicidal. How did she imagine it would turn out? Anyway I new she was in trouble but I still was completely shocked when she died. It's the kind of thing you think about afterwards and say obviously it had to go that way, but it still felt unexpected at the time. It mostly feels right for her to be gone, she's kind of completed an arc. As Cory said the bigger concern is how the show will handle losing her character. It's a big ask.

  • nuwonda Feb 18, 2014

    "the show is not screwing around, that anyone is susceptible to bite it" ... including F.U. those cufflinks end scene were a "sublime" message to the viewers or what?^^

    In any case, so Franky can die too, choking on those slow bleed ribs one fine morning... and henceforth we will be watching House of Ghost Cards... I love the show don't get me wrong, but it's just not true, to say "anyone" can be offed... and to say Zoe was an interesting character well, that's an opinion I don't share.

    I assume, as long as there's fresh influx of new offable peeps the show will be fine...

  • dh4645 Feb 18, 2014

    yeah i cant believe they killed Zoe off right away. she was half the reason to watch. watched half of season 2 so far. it's ok, but season 1 was much better IMO (so far)

  • dh4645 Feb 18, 2014

    also, i really liked Zoes pics that janine got. nice!

  • Hungry_Homer111 Feb 18, 2014

    I loved the first season. It was right up there with Hannibal as one of my favorite new shows last year, and my personal favorite Netflix series (although I do love the new Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black).

    That being said, I really enjoyed this first episode. I'm a bit mixed about Zoe's death, because I think Frank is much more interesting when he's manipulating people than when he's actively murdering them. Of course, it's not out of character for him to do so (see Peter's death), and I don't really mind it happening from time to time, but I agree that they shouldn't over-use that as an escape for Frank's problems. But other than that, I'm very happy with the first episode of the season. I may have to get used to the darker tone of the season if this is an indication of what's to come for the season, but I'm already very excited to see where this season is going.

  • brunoccj Feb 18, 2014

    If this ridiculously all-mighty villain doesn't fall in the 3rd season as he should like the original, we're gonna see the "U" family will have a daughter called Clair. The daughter, disgusted by what the parents do, chooses not to take politics as a prfession, goes for an American Idol audition and then becomes a great singer... blah blah blah.

  • maggieroberts92 Feb 18, 2014

    Oh my dear, naive little children - wait until you get to ep 11. THAT ending will FU you right up!!

  • alexbatbee Feb 17, 2014

    Dadddddyyyyy.

  • oveanh Feb 17, 2014

    I still wonder why they killed Zoe instead of Rachel... She's the only evidence left.

  • Gonzai Feb 18, 2014

    Doug likes Rachel. That's keeping her alive.

  • current Feb 16, 2014

    Sure the first chapter/episode started with bells and whistles but it's left itself in bit of an oubliette to get out of shock-wise. In that Frank's killing of Ms T&A; and then the OTT scene of Claire cruelly fucking over Gillian and threatening to indirectly kill her unborn was chillingly good. But, and it's nearly as big as Mara's, I can't see it topping what's already been screened for the evil duo of Frank and Claire; save for political machinations and is that going to be enough to hold interest? Yes it's supposed to be an intellectual show and that should be enough. However, it's always tried to deploy shock factor tactics along the way now and then to stop it merely looking like a tale of two petty and entitled sociopath fuck ups in a sea of similarly minded political ones. I fear boring back-biting ahead and lots of it.
    Everyone just yields to them. What I'd like is for someone to just pick up an ornament and lamp one of them over the nut with it, lots. Or to at least be self-destructive enough to realise they're beaten but ding our main cunts a little in a pyrrhic victory.

  • briansouthworth921 Feb 16, 2014

    For those of you that hate the fact that Zoe died, well...it means you haven't seen the original series. And even though I had seen it, my mouth still dropped open when FU pushed her. I thought they'd build that story to the end of the season. I was delightfully surprised. Nice to know that there is probably a three season plan, just like the British series. At least i hope they stick to that plan and not try to jump the shark.
    Anywho, I just wanted to say that normally America messes up remakes. Especially of British stuff. However, this series has far surpassed the original and has turned the original plot driven series into a wonderful character driven series that far outshines its British counterpart. This is not to say that I don't like the original, just that I do like how much more character driven this series is. Looking forward to this show winning more awards this year. For any of you skeptics, season two is even better than the first one. Can't wait to see season three.

  • Gonzai Feb 18, 2014

    People are almost always harping on how much better the British version is, but I find both series equally good/bad, just in different areas. And one place I do prefer the American - by a lot - are the female characters. The women in the British version were weak or barely visible. The American version...the men are swimming with sharks and don't even know it.

  • briansouthworth921 Feb 18, 2014

    Agreed, especially the ending. FU's wife in the British series was hardly visible to the point that it made the ending a litte out of left field and Zoe is more prominent and less the prop.

  • See More Comments (43)