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