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