At the end of the first episode of House of Cards' second season [Editor's note: Spoilers abound], Kevin Spacey's ever-scheming and mercurial Frank Underwood, after strongarming his way into the vice presidency (oh, and murdering someone), turns to the camera in the show's now signature outré breaking of the fourth wall and chides, "You thought I forgot about you, didn't you?" The scene and episode end with a closeup on his new cufflinks – literally, a giant "F.U."
When Beau Willimon's adaptation of the Nineties BBC drama of the same name (which was based on the series of novels by Michael Dobbs) premiered last year with its David Fincher mood lighting, featuring marquee names, and on its exotic-by-comparison network, Netflix, it was dogged by comparisons to Mad Men or The Sopranos as a prestige drama of the streaming video age. That lumping together of Willimon's series with those shows wasn't so much a critical misfire as an honest mistake: In many ways, House of Cards passes the Prestige Drama Sniff Test, but when you consume the show as intended (ahem, "binge"), what you realize you're smelling is pure, unfermented cheese. Frank's parting words in that first episode work as a redress to that initial confusion, a distillation of the show's borderline campy intent: It's so over-the-top that it has become actual political theatre.
The second season picks up where we left off: Frank is sworn in as vice president as part of a long, duplicitous ascension among a fictional Democratic leadership. His wife and Lady Macbeth, Claire (Robin Wright, whose iciness could flash-freeze you with just a glare), ever the smooth operator, is ready and waiting in the wings of their cavernous D.C. townhouse, which of course Frank demands be retrofitted to meet the security standards needed for the vice president of the United States. (You can't blame the Underwoods for not wanting to leave their home: For murderous maniacs, they have impeccable eyes for home decor.) As the season progresses, the White House becomes more and more entwined in acrimonious dealings and a military standoff with the Chinese, though all roads seem to lead back to the president's longtime mentor and confidant, business and energy tycoon Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney). Tusk has an unnerving amount of sway with the president's decision making, much to the chagrin of Frank, who quickly engages him in Machiavellian power plays to undo and sabotage the other.
House of Cards' version of D.C. exhibits only a tangential relationship to its real-world counterpart, fitting in a weird middle ground between the revisionist idealism of Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing and the pressure-cooked freak-out of Shonda Rhimes' Scandal. The supposedly tooth-and-nail battle between Frank and Tusk and how it manifests in policy-making decisions is marred by tedium: No one, it seems, is a true, worthy adversary of Frank Underwood, whose ruthlessness and ability to swiftly backstab continue to be unmatched. Their feud of pride, rage, and psychological imbalance is inflated to a matter of national security, congressional harmony, and presidential stability – the Capitol is where well-pedigreed white men badmouth their petty differences. It's an empty, cynical sentiment.
Tiresome, convoluted, political machinations make up too much of House of Cards' foregrounding. The exchanges in the halls and offices of Congress and the White House rarely matched the far more satisfying and intriguing moments of outright sleazy hokum this season, which includes a fiery, baiting TV interview Claire conducts; a cheeseball, drive-by plot about the Deep Web, complete with the menacing stroking of a guinea pig; and a truly WTF threesome.
All said, those moments are deeply beholden to the show's binge-watch model – if everything didn't bleed together the way it does when you watch it in large chunks, it would be hard to recommend. (If it aired weekly, I'd have given up last season.) The binge-view has a paradoxical effect: It makes its weaknesses all the more apparent and bravura moments feel all the more pulpy. You feel a lot of whiplash watching House of Cards this way, too: Molly Parker, as a junior congresswoman tapped by Frank to take his old post as Senate Majority Whip, has a knockout introduction, but the show quickly loses track of her.
Netflix has already renewed House of Cards for a third season, and this season has laid the (messy) groundwork for Frank's long overdue retribution. I thought Kevin Spacey was the weak link in the show's first season, but now, having binge-watched his performance again, I liken him to a well-cooked ham in this role. He's found just the right amount of smarm to counterbalance Robin Wright's steeliness. House of Cards is a show about power dynamics, particularly how inequitable they can be where parity matters most, among leadership. The Underwoods, then, are a dark foil to sexual equality: man and wife, each just as evil as the other.
Beau Willimon dissects season two at the Harry Ransom Center as part of the Austin Film Festival's On Story series on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2pm. For tickets ($12, general admission; $5, AFF members, students) and complete details, visit www.austinfilmfestival.com/events/convo-beau-willimon.
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