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

By Cory Barker

Apr 08, 2014

House of Cards S02E13: "Chapter 26"

Editor's note: Welcome back to our reviews—er, one final review—of House of Cards Season 2!  Due to waning reader interest in episodic coverage the season progressed, we ended up taking a break from the show for awhile and skipping a few reviews, but now that we've finished watching, we couldn't resist checking in on the season finale. 

Despite the events of the Season 2 premiere, House of Cards isn't a show built on surprises. In fact, it mirrors the scheming of its lead character, Frank Underwood. The second season, much like the first, methodically moved toward a pretty obvious conclusion—and with "Chapter 26," it finally reached said conclusion. Just 13 episodes after becoming the vice president, Frank received the ultimate promotion, his very own desk in the Oval Office. You guys, Frank is the president! How shocked are you right now? Oh right, you're probably not shocked at all. Once Frank started palling around with President Walker, the writing was on the wall. 

The thing is, I don't think the almost predetermined nature of some of Season 2's storylines made them that much less enjoyable. House of Cards made a sort of fascinating turn this year where it simply stopped pretending that anyone could stop Frank (and to a lesser extent, Claire). Zoe Barnes provided some challenge in Season 1, but Frank took care of her early on, and once Lucas got locked up, there was no real opposition from the media. Few people within the political arena pushed Frank either. It's like Beau Willimon and his team realized that if they were going to let Frank win in almost every context, they might as well let him really win, consistently, with next to no resistance. So while I still wish the show had found someone else to push back against Frank (sorry Raymond Tusk, you didn't really do the trick), I can at least understand the decision to stop pretending that any current character could effectively do so.

Similarly, the show's moral corruption took full hold in Season 2. Not only were there no characters who appeared to present tangible threats to the Underwood Plan of Attack, but there were also very few moments where traditionally "good" people succeeded—or even had the chance to. There isn't a character like that to root for on House of Cards, which is kind of odd, and occasionally frustrating and life-sucking to watch, but still generally entertaining. 

As a result, the second half of the season was often dominated by Frank breaking down President Walker, both politically and personally. He and Claire worked their magic on the Walker marriage, convincing the president and first lady to seek council, which eventually led to the former taking medication that would ultimately be his downfall. Meanwhile, once the backchannel maneuvering with Feng, Tusk, and the Chinese contributions to the Super PAC were in the public eye, Frank smartly circled the wagons, feigned "transparency," and eventually left the president hanging out to dry. There were moments, particularly in the very strong "Chapter 24" and a few scenes in the finale, where it seemed like Frank might actually face some real consequences for his actions, but that didn't last long. Just long enough to remind us that Frank is 10 steps ahead of everyone else, even when it seems like he's backed into the tiniest corner. 

This final episode gave us the last punctuation mark on Frank's long con, and it did so pretty successfully. Frank cuddled up to President Walker one final time and set forth a change of events that convinced Tusk he had no choice but to take control of his own criminal behavior in front of the congressional committee, lest Remy do it for him. By the end of the episode, Tusk admitted his wrongdoing and Walker's involvement in the Chinese funding, but lost his pardon, while Feng watched his immunity dematerialize within moments of Frank taking over the presidency. The three men who amounted to Frank's biggest obstacles were all taken care of in one fell swoop. Just like that. 

As Frank's final rise to power took root in the back of the season, many of the show's other characters were pushed aside. Claire's marginalization, however minor, was probably the biggest letdown; the fourth episode of the season suggested a lot of big, interesting things for the character and the show's world, but House of Cards never seemed entirely committed to telling that story. Claire's budding relationship with the first lady was cold and calculating in the exact same way as her husband's with the president, only the female side of the story wasn't given nearly enough time to develop. It was thus both too similar and too undercooked to have much of an impact. 

However, while the life of Claire's sexual assault bill experience some odd twists and turns throughout the season, the finale almost made everything worth it when Claire went to visit Megan, the bill's figurehead. In that moment, when she came face-to-face with the true human damage that her scheming had caused, Claire seemed to acknowledge her regret. Robin Wright was up to the challenge (like always), but I do wish House of Cards was more willing to give Claire that kind of material. I understand that vulnerability isn't something these characters really "do," and so we're supposed to appreciate the scant moments where they actually show some, but I can't help but wonder if House of Cards would benefit from adding more variety to Claire. It's too easy to just say "She's an ice queen!" and move on.

At the third level of story importance, the last few episodes of the season were quite the wild ride for Michael Kelly's Doug Stamper. He took some major heat from Frank once the Super PAC info started to leak, he seemed to be crashing toward some kind of breakdown thanks to his obsession with Rachel, and yet he pulled himself out of his tailspin just long enough to make Frank proud and look like the old D-Stamp again. I've made my appreciation for Kelly and Doug well known throughout these reviews, so it's probably no surprise that the character's ultimately temporary recovery was one of the highlights of the season. But one of the unfortunate truths about addiction is that you're always one misstep away from falling off the wagon. Rachel was Doug's new drug, and even when things seemed to improve for him professionally, he couldn't let go of her. Rachel bonked him on the head with a big rock, and he's presumably bleeding out in the woods somewhere. That's a sad end for a character who was always trapped because of his job. Frank never really cared about Doug because Frank doesn't really care about anyone. There was no support system to curtail Doug's creepy behavior, and sometimes when you're a creep, you get smashed in the face. 

"Chapter 26" brought two seasons' worth of stories to their natural endpoints. In the pilot, Frank sat out to obtain more and more power, and he accomplished that goal like a political Pac Man sucking up adversaries who were probably less threatening than Inky and Blinky. In the process, Frank used a number of compelling people (Peter, Tusk, Walker, even Doug) as pawns before disposing of them—sometimes literally. The Underwoods have what they wanted. The way House of Cards developed over its first 25 episodes, it would have seemed super-odd for "Chapter 26" not to be the conclusion to Season 2. In that regard, it was a successful finale to a solid season... but both "successful" and "solid" come with the caveat that House of Cards is not one of the best shows on TV. It's compulsively entertaining, with some really strong performances at the core, but to reach another level, the series should really consider blowing up its conventions and trying something new. 

The good news is that the show is kind of set up to do so in Season 3. If we assume that Tusk, Walker, and Feng are all out of the picture, that Doug is dead, and that Rachel is long gone, there's going to be a pretty substantial void in the show's universe that could be filled with weirder characters and more complex storylines. Frank has the highest position of power he could possibly obtain, right? If these first two seasons have taught us anything, it's that there's only one way for him to go now. 


– Okay, you got me. The double knock on the desk in the Oval Office was pretty awesome.

– If Netflix had released these episodes one (or even two or three) at a time, I'm guessing that "Chapter 24" would have been the most talked about, specifically that final sequence with Claire, Frank, and Meechum having themselves some sexytimes. The show did a good job of building to that moment in the middle part of the season with Frank and Claire pulling Meechum into their lives more and more. The moment itself was sufficiently weird and erotic. Nevertheless, I wish the writers would have followed up on it, even once, in the two episodes that followed. I get that everyone on this show buries their feelings, but dang. 

– Similarly, the Jackie-Remy relationship had some spark, but the show's cynical nature took hold of them pretty quickly. And in this case it was pretty purposeful, wherein the couple was derailed by all the distrust and scheming that's simply in the air in D.C. I liked that! 

– I'll PayPal you $8 if you can tell me exactly who Seth was working for, truly. Tusk? Frank? An omnipotent alien being? Sometimes it's okay to work with clarity as opposed to being confusing just for the sake of POLITICAL SCHEMING. 

– Good on House of Cards for finding something for Gavin to do in the final couple of episodes. I don't know why he couldn't return in Season 3. Maybe we'll get some full hacker storylines out there on that DARK INTERNET?


Note: Due to waning reader interest in 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

What'd you think of the finale? How about the season overall?

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  • MSmollins Jun 02, 2014

    Solid albeit predictable finale. This show is good and entertaining but I also feel like it is overrated as well.

  • SueDietrich May 04, 2014

    I just did a marathon watch of Season 1 and 2. "Life-sucking" is such a good description. Spacey and Wright are exquisitely cast but I have to hope that life isn't really like that on the hill. I too loved the knock knock at the end. could it have been any more powerful? Wonderful.

    I feel they did the Freddy story injustice. When watched all together, the episodes are choppy and tied up too neatly at the end. When once we were promised Super-sized chain fame, then fizzle, he is closed down and gets nothing. No murder, kidnap, bashing, no contract stealing...not interesting. Freddy deserved a better story.

    Claire's story was much the same -- hinting at wonderful cathartic storylines and nothing.

    I hope there will be a season 3.

  • numberonecubsfa Apr 22, 2014

    Season 2 was a mixed bag. It had good things. Claire's CNN interview was a wonderful moment, but it ultimately didn't amount to anything interesting. Stamper's story if his evolving creepy obsession with the hooker and its ultimately tragic end was really interesting and hard to watch. Jimmi Simpson's hacker character has a ton of potential.

    It also had bad things. I didn't care about the reporter's fruitless plight for revenge and the truth. Too much time was spent on political wrangling. Tusk was a terrible bad guy, because he lacked the human moments and flaws that make Frank Underwood so fascinating. He was just a greedy old man of comic book level evil who literally crushes a bird that annoys him in his hand.

    Of particular note is Chapter 22. It is an hour of complete garbage that destroys Freddy's life, and drags back in Adam to destroy HIS life, all for absolutely no purpose.

    And can someone tell me what was WITH all the weird sex stuff this year? People banged a lot in season 1, but it had context. Here? We're literally introduced to one character with him tied to a bed, a bag over his head, being blown by a man and woman in turn. The out of no where bisexual threesome with the Underwoods. The hooker being a lesbian (or, I guess, bisexual maybe?) just because it's an excuse to have that lesbian sex scene Stamper looks in on.

    Next season does indeed need to do new stuff. And with most of the characters dead or written off, it's a perfect chance to do that. Let's hope they follow through.

  • efonsecajr Apr 08, 2014

  • jamesbond Apr 08, 2014

    can someone please explain the 2 knocks at the end of the episode

  • efonsecajr Apr 08, 2014

    It's from Chapter 12, at 19:34.
    Tusk: "Can I ask why you do that?"
    Frank: "Do what?"
    Tusk: "Tap your ring like that. I've seen you do it on TV. Two taps every time you get up from a table or leave a lectern."
    Frank: "Something my father taught me. It's meant to harden your knuckles so you don't break them if you get into a fight. It also has the added benefit of knocking on wood. My father believed that success is a mixture of preparation and luck. Tapping the table kills both birds with one stone."


  • MarlboroMagpi Apr 08, 2014

    It had been now almost 2 months since I watched the finale it seems like a lifetime ago. I never expected to see this review.

    Tusk did provide some resistance to Frank and they were moments I saw Frank back into a corner but I knew he would wriggle out of it somehow and the fun was watching how he do it.

    Perhaps I am a fan of Spacey and his charms so I had no problem rooting for his character. I do sense season three will be the final chapter and he would have his downfall.

    Claire got more story than last season which is an improvement.

    I do think Frank care a little about Doug in his own way. He did give Doug lots of chance as Doug is an addict and would have find it hard to find a job such as this. If not for his obsession with Rachel he would have been President Chief of staff. I liked Doug and I am sad he died. I hope he don't but the show seems to implied he has. I loved Rachel and the actress playing her. I think she might be Frank's downfall.

    Frank seems to care for the ribs guy too (cannot remember his name now) though I know some might argue otherwise.

    I agree the original president character seems to be too easy to manipulate. He got no chance against Frank.

    I loved the show and cannot wait for season three.

  • ben45tpy Apr 08, 2014

    This really is one of the strangest shows. It knows how to hook you in and keep you riveted, especially with it's discliplined directing and superlative acting. It's great at building momentum towards the end of a season, tying together many of the narrative threads in the process (something that many good shows struggle with) and it's ended seasons well. But with all those strengths it also manages to be predictable, to drop promising stories, to make all of its non-leads stupid, stupid, stupid people and to seriously lack obstacles and adversaries to Frank's goals.

    While I've never found the show to be less than riveting, I've had difficulty undertstanding what it's trying to achieve and why it's going about things in the way that it is, so I looked into the original series and the books. I found that the story is inspired by Richard III, which seems obvious now, but I'm not the quickest. There is the inspiration for the 4th wall breaking, the amoral power games and the lack of adversaries.

    But here's the difference, and I think it's part of the reason I didn't get the connection immediately. Richard III succeeded without too many obstacles because it was showcasing cruelty. It wasn't a level playing field because the other characters were moral and trusting. The same cannot be said of House of Cards. We expect pretty much all the players in Washington to be capable of backstabbing, to turn against their principles, to be ruthless and power hungry. We don't see any of the other characters as particularly virtuous and when they fall we don't feel particularly sorry for them, nor does it make Frank seem particularly evil (the occasional homicide notwithstanding). Without that clear moral distinction the show becomes less about how evil Frank is compared to everyone else and more about how stupid they are compared to Frank. This is the fundamental issue for the show. If you take away the morality gap between the characters then why does Frank have such an advantage over everyone else? He's not that smart. Having nearly all of your characters acting stupidly to prop up the main character is a pretty egregious flaw.

    I don't know whether this flaw was always present in the material dating back to the original series and the books or whether it's been (presumably unintentionally) created or amplified for the American version. Would it be easier to accept morality in British politicians than Americans? Maybe, but it's hard to see why in the Thatcher period. Maybe it's just the whole concept that is flawed. Anyway, like Richard III there will be a reckoning and that should be something to look foward to.

  • SinspaW Apr 08, 2014

    Seth is working for himself. Which is to say, he works with whoever person he sees the most powerful or potentially powerful at the time. His flag's colours can change at a moments notice. That's my take on it anyway.

  • marcusj1973 Apr 08, 2014

    This series will get infinitely better when someone steps up who can be a legitimate threat to Frank. Like how any hero is only as good as his villain, the same goes for Frank, whether his opposition is a hero or another villain.

    HoC really is a quality show, but when the outcome is NEVER in doubt, not even a little bit, it's hard to invest yourself.

  • kanniballl Apr 08, 2014

    The only shocking thing I recall from this season was killing Zoe.

    When Frank killed Peter, there was a LITTLE bit of the pilot in there. Frank killed a dog who was suffering to death and commented that he hates pointless suffering. So when Peter was going on about how miserable he was I KIND of interpreted it as Frank seeing himself putting a dog out of his misery while also covering his arse.

    Don't get me wrong, Frank is and was without much conscience so his murder was still dark and wrong. But there was at least that bit of "angel of mercy" aspect.

    With Zoe, it was just wham-bam-thank-you-BAMF!.

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