“House of Cards”: Season Two in review

house of cards s2

Editor’s note: The following is a roundtable discussion between Heave TV writers Chris Osterndorf and Matt Brassil. Major SPOILERS relating to House of Cards Season 2 within, so tread carefully.

Chris Osterndorf: Okay, so before we really dive in here, lets set up some context. Am I correct in assuming that while you’re a fan of House of Cards, you’re not necessarily a fanatic?

Matt Brassil: Yes. While I do admire the advances in TV narrative House of Cards is making (especially in new media), there are a handful of dramas currently on the air I put above it including Hannibal, The Americans, Sons of Anarchy, and everyone’s favorite, Mad Men.

Yeah, those are some great shows, although the only one I would’ve ranked over the last season of HOC would be Man Men. So admittedly, my expectations going into this season were pretty high.

I don’t think there’s any other place to start than episode one. For the record, if you’ve ignored the SPOILER ALERT warning at the top of this post, now is the time to start paying attention. Obviously, what everyone was talking about after that first hour was Zoe’s death. What did you think of that choice overall, and of the way it was executed (no pun intended)?

MB: Pun very much intended. I believe that they made this choice as a clear statement of what Season 2 was going to be. That is, Frank’s rise to power rather than a murder conspiracy political thriller. While the latter would have been entertaining, I believe it would have convoluted the overall Season 2 arc.

Kate Mara was a valuable energy to the House of Cards universe. But I think her absence has opened the show up more to Claire, the show’s true leading lady

 in terms of how it was executed. Cold and calculated is what I’ve come to expect from Frank Underwood.

CO: Right. It’s funny, because I remember reading, “Kate Mara isn’t actually in that much of Season Two.” But I took that to mean that, you know, she was still basically going to be IN the show, rather than essentially just shooting an extended cameo. But they were smart about it. They squeezed as much as they could of her into the promos (which wasn’t much) and advertised her as being a part of the whole thing. So when she started walking down into the subway, I thought to myself, “That’s weird, it kind of seems like she’s going to get murdered here, but I know I read that she’s a part of this season.” Gullible old me. I was definitely surprised. But you’re right, I think it was the best move they could make; a sign of a clear departure from the first season.

I like Kate Mara, and I liked Zoe, but I’m not sure there’s much more they could’ve done with her. I also TOTALLY agree with you about Claire, but lets come back to her later.

I would like to touch on some of the new characters. The person who I thought was probably featured most prominently was Molly Parker as Jackie Sharp, the new House whip. Yay or nay on her? (By the way, the fact that it’s her job to whip the votes and the fact that I just said “Yay or nay” was also totally unintended. These puns are just coming out of nowhere!)

MB: You know there was a moment early on with Jackie where she is talking to another Congressman and I thought to myself “This week on House of Cards – people you don’t care about argue while you wait for Frank to return to the screen.” That criticism wore off a bit over the course of the season though. Sharp was a stronger Yay mainly because she became her own working machine and not just a cog in Frank’s. Yes, at the end of the day, she was an accessory but she at least had her own story in the meantime.

CO: I agree. I basically enjoyed her and look forward to see how she’s going to clash with Frank in the future, and how long she can actually resist being just another cog. I also thought her relationship with Remy Danton, who we also saw a lot more of this season, was interesting. I thought her whole “I like pain” thing was kind of a stupid and an easy choice, but other than that, I too would vote yay on Jackie.

In terms of the show’s large ensemble of politicians, I also thought it was interesting that we saw more of President Walker and the First Lady, Tricia, this season. Because in Season One, Walker is really just in Frank’s peripheral. We know that he’s easily manipulated (which didn’t change), but that’s about it. But by the end of Season Two, I have to say I actually thought he and his wife were pretty compelling characters. Granted, part of that is just by virtue of the fact that Frank had to spend time around the President this season for the story to work, but I thought it was all pretty well done.

MB: What I enjoyed most about the Walkers being more present was Claire’s response to them. She seemed to be trying to tear their marriage apart slowly. They became this couple they were competing against and not just in a political game. Walker is a man of virtue and in Frank’s world, that is a flaw. He tries his best to play the game but we just know he can’t. His relationship with Tusk really weighed him down. He was tested from within at all times. It was interesting watching Frank work him in this way that made Frank seem incompetent at times. To throw in some Game of Thrones, power resided where he believed it did. Frank wanted to make him think he could be a virtuous President just to show him that he couldn’t.

CO: I think Raymond Tusk definitely merits a little more attention, but before we get to him, there’s just one other character I want to bring up: Gavin Orsay. I thought he was interesting, and that Jimmi Simpson (or as I’ll always think of him, Liam McPoyle) did a good job of being his typical, creepy self while playing the character. But the whole hacker thing threw me off a bit. Not that it isn’t feasible, but part of me feels like hacker storylines are becoming an easy go-to when writers don’t know how else to get information across. “How does someone steal a bunch of money? Easy, they’re a hacker. How do they obtain secrets from the government? Easy, they’re a hacker. Boom, done, easy.” Did you feel that way at all? Or was it just me?

MB: I honestly saw Lucas as a means to Gavin. He holds a great deal more cunning. Hackers are an annoying element of these universes but it’s a necessary evil. They got rid of all the texts Frank and Zoe had – Gavin is a means to find that information. It’s a tad too easy, and this is where a show centered on a villain can fail. So much has been done to make Frank impossible to best that there isn’t any strong opposition. Gavin’s the closest thing to it though.

CO: I am extremely interested to see how he plans to combat Frank in Season Three, especially since it looks like that’s where things are going. But in terms of Frank’s main adversary in Season Two, it has to be Tusk. I thought for awhile that we might see more of Xander Feng (and who knows, maybe we will next season,) but for the most part Feng seemed to be just more of a complication in the larger Tusk situation. And, you know, he was into really weird stuff sexually, so there’s that.

Did Tusk work as Frank’s opposition for you? I didn’t necessarily know when they did that one-off episode about him in the first season that he would go on to be such a huge part of the show. And for all I know, he’ll continue to stand against Frank in Season Three, although I would doubt he’ll be as prominent.

For me, it was hard to see Tusk as more than anything than a grandfather-like, albeit obviously brilliant businessman for most of the season. And then there’s the scene where he strangles his bird. That kind of did it for me. Once you strangle a bird, chances are I’m going to find you pretty menacing. It didn’t hurt that he grew that bad guy beard either.

MB: Now you see for me, Tusk was something I was skeptical of at the end of the Season 1. He did seem to be that grandfather type you’ve suggested. Then Tusk cut off the power grids. The gravity of his power was realized in that moment. Although he killed the bird, his true malice is in the form of his gripping big business. Tusk managed to work in a level of control that only could be reached through the presidency. Even so, I found his branches of power far more interesting than him when it comes to characterization. Feng was such a sparingly used character. I found this strange because of his haunting introduction. Perhaps there is a metaphor in that sexual act we are supposed to be interpreting?

But overall, Tusk was a fine challenge for Frank Underwood the Vice President. I feel the circumstances and duties of that position really pushed him in a direction that required fighting Walker’s business partners.

CO: I think you might be giving the Feng thing more credit than it deserves. I think they just wanted to be weird.

Going off the power grid – I thought it was cool to see them incorporate stuff that’s popped up in the news over the last few years into the show. Like the actual outages in DC, and America’s continually tenuous yet important relationship with China.

I guess my only other question related to Tusk is, did his battle with Frank work better or worse for you than having Frank mysteriously climb the political ladder without really revealing his plans, a la Season One. I think for me, I didn’t even realize last season that, “Oh, I have no idea what he’s been doing all this time,” until he actually inserted himself into the conversation about becoming Vice President.

It was a strange structure, but I actually kind of loved it. And then there’s Peter Russo. As hard as it was to see Frank take Russo down, I loved the character. And one thing I have to say about Season Two, is that they didn’t introduce any new characters that were quite as complex as he was. I really think Corey Stoll was just excellent in that role.

MB: Corey Stoll was the absolute treasure of Season 1. I mean this is a man who played Ernest Hemingway under the direction of Woody Allen. Every person who likes writing has an orgasm over that sentence.

You have touched upon one of the best issues of House of Cards: Do I really care about anyone’s well being on this show? Russo’s death was devastating because he was a broken soul just trying to get himself together. Zoe had just gotten deeper than she realized. I still didn’t really care about her that much. Her death was shocking but is she someone I truly pity? I ask myself that over and over. When I think about the death of characters from my favorite shows (for example Sons of Anarchy), my emotion is the foremost thing affected, not my logic. Even if they are killers who sling drugs and have done God knows what else, I feel for them.

This is where House of Cards has been difficult to get attached to. The plan is the major drive. That’s why we watch it. And the lack of delivery on what the plan is makes it all the most enticing. It does not seem to be a plan until we look at it with hindsight.

CO: There is something exciting about the idea that we’re always a few steps behind Frank.

This season featured a few episodes that veered fairly far away from the main story. I’m thinking mainly of the one that focused largely on Freddy’s troubles with his son and his business, and Claire’s affair with Adam Galloway. Worthwhile, or just a distraction?

MB: I have to pick and choose there. Freddy was super interesting because it showed how Frank affected the little guy. A regular Joe who got accidentally squashed by Frank’s big foot.

Adam Galloway was a bit more of a waste of time. If the two of them had broken off their affair bitterly, I would have accepted it more so in a revenge sort of plot. There was this air about that whole thing that felt like we were seeing Adam suffer for a purpose. But the purpose, it appeared, was just that he didn’t really matter to them.

CO: I can’t say I’m going to think of Freddy’s subplot right away when I think of this season, but it was nice to see the show go for the heart, rather than the head, even if it was just for a minute.

It’s funny, to get back to what you brought up before, because I don’t really know if I find Frank likable. He’s not necessarily any more despicable than some of my favorite TV antiheroes (Tony Soprano, Walter White), but perhaps he’s just a bit too conniving? I’ve heard people call Kevin Spacey’s performance cartoonish, and while I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, I will admit that while I love Frank Underwood, I love him mostly because he’s deliciously evil, not because he’s evil AND complicated.

Claire, however, is another story. We’ve danced around her enough, and I don’t think she can be ignored any longer. While I agree with you that the Adam Galloway story wasn’t enthralling, I was far more enraptured by her in general this season. I didn’t really get it last year when people said, “I watch the show just because of her.” She was never a co-lead to me. This season, I think that changed. Not only did she feel almost as big a part of the story as Frank did, but I found myself more and more interested in her with every episode.

She has some especially great moments towards the end with Private Megan Hennessy that were among my favorite scenes the show has ever done. At one point Claire says something to her, and Megan responds with something like, “It’s because you guys say stuff like that, that people hate Washington.” I’m not exactly sure what it was, I think something about shifting political landscapes. But we see how that reverberates in the next episode, when Megan tries to kill herself. “Shifting political landscapes,” or whatever, doesn’t help the American people. And what’s fascinating, is that while Claire can play the game, it bothers her more than her husband. When she collapses on the stairs in the last episode, allowing herself to feel bad about all the cruelty she’s inflicted, even if only for a second, it might be the most human moment in the whole show.

I also feel it’s worth touching on the whole rape storyline in a large sense. I thought it was handled with care, and truly became one of the best subplots of the season. However, I did read something recently questioning why TV often uses rape to justify why strong women are strong, so in a sense it gave me pause too.

MB: I absolutely agree with you on this. Claire Underwood kept me watching every week. She is the most complex character of the show. Her ability to actually feel the power of her actions is far and away more than Frank has or will ever give us. Frank’s move towards the presidency is so seamless when you really think about it. I read a piece about how there’s not much variety to Frank’s manipulation. He really only talks people into doing things they don’t want to do. Although I think that’s a bleak generalization, it is not all that far from the truth. With that lack of variety in his actions, his rise felt more like a matter of when. Now we are there, we are left to wonder about how the fall will work. This is where I feel we will see the side of Frank that’s been lacking. Otherwise, it will be tiring just watching him get everything that he wants. The narrative of House of Cards is much briefer than people realize.

Claire, however, will be there along for the ride. She adds depth to Frank by association. Their relationship will be tested in this next season. I honestly would love to say more about Claire but you’ve mostly nailed it.

Rape is always a hard subject for me to discuss as a character trait or plot device.  I don’t know if it would call it an explanation of her strength. The layers that are glazed over that haunted past are what really bring her character full circle. Think about the shocking 11th episode; she has the power. She has had it for years.

CO: Yes. We have come to the 11th episode. It is time.

One of the odd things about Season One, is that I think the episode where we do get the most insight into Frank is where he goes back to his old military school, and we learn a bit about his views on mortality, and that his sexuality might be more fluid than we once expected. And yet, for me anyway, it’s one of the show’s low points. It’s far more distracting than any of the episodes that took us away from the main plot in Season Two, and honestly, it’s just kind of boring. I flashed back to that episode a little bit this season during “Chapter 18,” aka the Civil War episode, partly because of the setting and partly because it felt like they were getting at something deeper about Frank again.

But in any case, regardless of how I felt about the episode where we first learn about Frank’s ability to swing both ways, I loved the way they brought it back this season. The way Claire edged them toward it. The way it felt so easy. The way that everything was weirdly normal again the next morning. I loved it.

That being said, I knew something was up. Everybody was talking about episode 11, and there were also a few moments with Edward Meechum in episode 10 that made me go, “I’m feeling like at least one of the Underwoods wants to have sex with this guy.” Not to mention, it seemed like there was a reason he was in so much of Season Two, and the show, up till that point, had been far less sexy than Season One.

MB: When they discussed having someone to fulfill their needs, I knew that Meechum was the easy target for both of them. Each of them had their private moments together over the course of the season. Meechum walking in on Frank watching porn and the conversation that followed really cozied him up to swinging the other way once again.

What was more surprising was Meechum’s initiation of the act. He was the one to close his fist oh so tenderly. We never really understand what his feelings are in that situation. He just seems to want both of them unreservedly. If any one couple in the world was going to do this though, it would be the Underwoods. Something about having Kevin Spacey in a movie almost always makes me think a scene like this is coming. Maybe American Beauty just left that much of an impression. I’m not sure.

Regardless, the Underwoods are a couple that take all that they want from life. They wanted Meechum and they wanted him bad. My biggest questions come in the reference to fallout. Will this ever be discussed again? I wouldn’t be surprised with either route.

CO: Same here.

Alright, it is well past 2 am your time, and the non-crazy thing to do would be to wrap this up.

I want to touch on expectations for Season Three, but first, let me ask this about the end of Season Two: You said there was something that felt inevitable about Frank’s ascension to the Presidency. With that in mind would it have been more satisfying if he hadn’t actually gotten there in season one? Or rather, would you have preferred it if there was some sort of twist at the end that kept him from getting there for the time being?

MB: It’s momentum at the end of the day. House of Cards was moving in that direction. If I were to title the seasons of House of Cards, Season 1 would be “The Whip,” 2 would be “The VP,” and 3 will be “The President.” When you think about them as a series of books, that sort of steady progression makes a lot of sense. When have we really watched Frank not get everything thing that he wants? Russo didn’t kill himself. That’s about it. Even when he’s failing, he’s still winning.

I honestly don’t mind that it’s been so swift. This whole Netflix binge culture that we are entering demands that kind of immediate progress. Season 2 has been out a week and what? Maybe three other people I know have finished the season. The internet is riddled with spoilers and disjointed discussion. It takes some of the joy out of the whole experience to be honest. The consolation is that something big happened by the end of the season.

Oh, mercy does Orange is the New Black simply not impress this upon its viewers as much. By having more complex characters and this thing called an “ensemble,” that Netflix original has the edge; it is difficult to binge. Where as House of Cards is a slab of ribs (you’re welcome), Orange is the New Black is a slab of ribs, a loaf of corn bread, a quart of mashed potatoes, and a 50 oz. coke.

I’m happy to see Frank in the Presidency so soon. Now I expect to see the fall just as swift as the rise. Does that mean this show will be only 3-4 seasons in total? Most likely, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Also, Doug Stamper: totally dead and one of the many fragile cards that just needs a gentle breeze to topple over.

CO: Yeah, to get back to something you mentioned at the beginning, I have always loved that House of Cards feels almost like this long movie, rather than a traditional television show. But I loved the first season so much, I don’t think I was quite as fond of this one. Unlike when it arrived in January of last year, I can’t say it’s the one show out right now I’m more excited about than any other (that would be True Detective, another piece of television that’s essentially a long movie, and one that you can bet I’ll also be writing about at some point.) Also, you make a great point about Orange is the New Black. It feels a lot more like a traditional TV show, so perhaps I was initially less excited about it for that reason, yet it’s characters are so much richer than those on HOC, I think it is slightly ahead in terms of overall quality.

When thinking about this season though, we should consider that House of Cards was always going to be 26 episodes, so I guess it makes sense that the trajectory was always about Frank’s rise to the Presidency. In a way, the story feels over, but in another sense, it feels like it’s just beginning. What will the show look like now that Frank has actually achieved his goals? As you said, I suspect it’ll be the fall after the rise.

But even beyond that, we could speculate a lot about season three. Despite how perfectly this season ended (in my opinion, that is,) it seems like there are so many loose threads still. Doug Stamper’s death (and I agree, he definitely is dead) to say the least, although it seems like they kind of brought Seth Grayson in this season to replace his role on the show. Side note, Doug’s relationship with Rachel Posner was so creepy this season. At times, he seemed in love with her; it was almost sweet. That is it would have been if he didn’t turn around every other minute and become her tormentor. When he followed her into the woods, I expected that he might be meeting his end too. By the way, I was glad to see more Rachel. I like her, and I liked her relationship with Lisa, even though that was another one that you could see coming from a mile away.

And then there’s the Janine Skorsky/Lucas Goodwin/Tom Hammerschmidt triangle. I found it jarring how they were just dropped from the story mid-season. Do we assume at least one of them will end up working with Gavin? I just think that the whole journalism side to Washington is too interesting not to incorporate.

Finally, there are characters who it seems like we’ve just scratched the surface of. I’m talking about Alya Sayaad, who was investigating Tusk this season, and Conner Ellis, the Underwoods first press secretary, who I’m assuming will come back at some point, or that was some poor writing, since he really didn’t do anything but arrive and then leave right away. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Christina Gallagher comes back. She was loosely tied into Claire’s scheming to undermine Tricia this season, but other than that, we saw hardly any of her. One thing you have to admit about HOC: it’s all about planning and payoff.

MB: And that’s about the perfect way to cap off this discussion- or, if you will, this debate (political jokes!) Lots of loose threads that really can only point to an inevitable fall. The only questions is how swift the fall will be.

CO: Sounds about right. How should we end this? “Stay hungry,” maybe? I’m trying to think of a way to work in another ribs reference.

MB: *knock, knock*

CO: And now we look at the camera.

  • davefromcamp

    Great discusion. Too many times people are hating on things it is good to read an honest enjoyment of a show. Maybe because I mostly agree with your naritive? I really enjoyed doug stamper arc though. You didn’t really touch on this. How his addiction got him killed anyway, it wasn’t the alcohol but the girl. While watching the show my wife and I both said poor doug, he has a miserbale life. Season 3 has many possibilities: Democrats WILL loose the mid terms so frank will have to deal with that mess. He will interact with other countries leaders and perhaps Frank Underwood them into what he wants. Perhaps there won’t be a fall “Do the Means justify the end” type of ending. I’m a little suspect of only being renewed for 1 more season and not 2. We shall see thanks for the read.

    • Thomas Rakewell

      Claire will have Francis killed, one way or another. They’ve really heavily emphasised her coldheartedness and I’ve yet to see the pay-off for that, so it has to point to something that’s yet to come. How she’ll have it done, that’s the question, I guess.

      That’s my bet, anyway.

      • davefromcamp

        Killed by the wife? mmm I doubt it. I buy the assisnation line, would be a better way to end it. An evil man imortalized. Impeached would be lame since the prior prez just resigned due to pending impeachment. That’s too bad you didn’t like season 2. This series is definitly a played out drama. I was sad it was over. I think that is the key to a good series. I still encourage friends to watch this show as one of the best out there. I think the question was what was frank doing all these years as the WHIP? If he was this good at political calculation shouldn’t he have moved faster?

  • Thomas Rakewell

    Good discussion.

    I enjoyed season 2 HoC but found it really lacking in many ways, nonetheless. It was like a soap opera, with no overall form and too many characters. Frank was the only character I actually found watchable, I tended to check my messages or play an ipad game when the others spoke. The way Frank rises to power (I’d say this for season 1 too) is too reliant on coincidences or events that are out of Frank’s actual control, and any mistakes he made felt like someone in the writing room has said “oh, this is too easy, why don’t we have him making a mistake?”.

    Also, what’s Frank’s main challenge? Is is Tusk? The president? The press? His wife? Something in himself? The whole thing needs an antagonist to actually challenge Frank, in an arc that lasts the whole season, not an episode or two. Because otherwise it sounds like Netflix has just looked at what it thinks is popular and told its scriptwriters: “Oh, put a hacker in. And a random sex scene. And this actor, give him a cameo… Etc. etc. etc.” And that’s left the scriptwriters trying to find some way to make the whole thing hang together. Which it doesn’t, quite.

    But on the other hand, it looks great, it’s beautifully shot, Kevin Spacey makes the most of it, and there are some fun moments. The whole thing is still watchable, at least if you’ve got something else to read o your lap as well, or your emails to check.

    In the end, I lost faith that the writers knew what they were doing and had an overall plan of where they wanted to go. Having seen it all, I’m not now sure they did. I think they had a load of scenes and “things” they wanted to include (including the final scene, which didn’t feel climactic, it was just another scene by that point) and they found ways to shoehorn it all in. Like a soap opera. I’ll still watch the next season, and look forward to it when the hype cranks up again, but I no longer think this show is a potential classic.

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