The long wait is over. Thanks to the “binge-watch” format that the first season’s House of Cards so ingeniously spearheaded, fans can be rewarded for their patience with the immediate pleasure of consuming all 13 episodes at once (instead of the 91 days a regular cable network would ask of them). We resume with everyone’s favorite Machiavellian politician, the murderous Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), who is preparing to undertake his new duties as Vice President of the United States. Achieving the second highest honor in government in season one turned out to be much simpler than the tasks that would lie ahead in season two. With his build-up and tear-down of Pennsylvania Congressman/Gubernatorial Candidate Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), along with the ever-fierce help of his steely wife Claire (the show-stealer Robin Wright), he wove a series of manipulation, lies, and murder to springboard himself to the VP chair. Not all loose ends were tied, however, as the ever-ambitious Journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) began compiling many suspicions (albeit with little facts) about Frank’s true involvement. The ethical non-profit prodigy (and newly pregnant) Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt) is also threatening to entangle Claire in a nasty lawsuit over SanCorp’s involvement with her CWI organization.
Step one for the Underwood Mob, er…family, was to alleviate the immediate problems caused by Zoe and Gillian. Frank’s trusted Chief-of-Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) lets him know that the journalists are pressing hard for the facts surrounding Russo’s suspicious suicide. We last saw Russo passed out in the passenger seat in his garage, with Frank revving up the engine and leaving him to suffocate to death with a bottle of whiskey close by. Zoe directly confronts Frank in a park about her partner (in journalism and now in bed) Lucas Goodwin’s (Sebastian Arcelus) findings that Russo was found dead in the passenger seat, which was odd if he had decided to kill himself himself. Frank plays it cool, and denies and deflects, giving Zoe a chance to stop and continue their mutually beneficial partnership –“Don’t step out of the sunlight for no reason,” he tells her. Zoe is left to ponder.
Meanwhile, Claire gets ready for Gillian, and it is not for children – literally. Claire lets Gillian know that she’ll be cutting her health care from her severance package – a necessity for Gillian, as she needs the vital medication to care for her unborn baby. Claire lets out the coldest line in a show that repeatedly dips to near-freezing temperatures: “I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required.” Gillian has little choice with the trial date set months ahead to compromise, and Claire actually gives her control of CWI in exchange to drop the lawsuit. She has bigger things to look ahead to with Francis.
Frank sets up a meeting with Zoe in an underground D.C. Metro station to ensure that she deletes his contact information and any phone history between the two. When she stumbles upon Frank at the end of the tracks, we see him wearing some Sherlockian style outfit, which adds to the ominous feel of this meeting. Zoe complies with his request to erase their history, but continues her impulsion to pry into Underwood. She tells him that she wants to know he wasn’t involved in a murder. Frank, disgusted, turns and walks behind a wall. Zoe follows, only to have Frank grab her, turn her body to face the tracks and heave her into the oncoming train. After we all rewound a few times to confirm what we saw, we see the episode end with Frank finally addressing the audience in the tradition of Season 1, describing his reasoning for killing Zoe and simply stating, “Welcome Back.” The decision to kill Zoe was a smart one by the creators, as her character was too indecisive, and her connection to Underwood was too deep for him to risk. It made sense, even if the way she was killed required you to suspend some logic. I feel there would have been a bigger investigation into a death of a journalist that broke such major stories as she did in the first season. This first episode was the seal on the closed envelope of Season 1. Although Frank, as we saw throughout Season 2, is not completely safe from his transgressions – the remaining 12 episodes are the focus of his desire to ascend to the Presidency – with the continued cunning help of Claire.
At the end of Season 1, President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill) sent Frank to Missouri to see his billionaire advisor Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney). Frank was initially told that he was vetting Raymond for the VP position, although it was revealed the exact opposite was happening. Flash forward, and now Frank in his newly minted office now has to deal with Tusk on the majority of major issues that run through the Capitol. Frank’s plan is to get to the President by devaluing Tusk’s trust and influence. Every time I heard the name Tusk in this show, I was reminded of the Fleetwood Mac album of the same name, and sure enough he and Frank had about as many conflicts as Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham did. The Underwoods spend much of the season setting up their theoretical chess pieces to maneuver their way to checkmate the President. Frank constantly defies the President and Tusk through his sly and manipulative ways, using his Secretary of State, Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson), and his replacement as Whip, Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), among others as go-betweens and accomplices. He eventually spills to Durant and Sharp his intentions to unseat the President, and, tapping into their political desires, convinces them to join in.
The season climaxes with the careers of Tusk, Walker, and Underwood all at risk from the dealings with China. What starts out as a simple secret talk to iron out a deal on a bridge here in the States turns into a naval battleship standoff, as well as a money laundering scheme that affects both political parties (and, at the behest of Frank, threatens the Democrats’ majority in the house). It is Tusk who created the money scheme that would prove to be his and the President’s downfall, as a reactionary measure to Frank’s attempts to weed him out. Raymond Tusk never really felt like a threat to Frank, as most of his attempts were quickly thwarted by Frank and his thorough supporters.
A flaw in the show is that the Underwoods never truly feel in jeopardy – but when you take into account how naïve President Walker is, it’s not a surprise that it takes until Episode 11 for him to catch onto Frank. Only in Frank’s final letter to Walker where he gives the President the option to turn him in (as Frank hopes Walker takes it as a sign of regaining trust) does it feel like he’s rolling the dice instead of playing chess. Predictably, Walker falls for Frank’s last trap and sides with him. The President hangs Tusk out to dry, rescinding the pardon he had promised him if he implicated Frank, and Tusk responds by revealing Walker’s involvement in court – dooming the President to impeachment. Not long after, Walker takes the less bloody road and resigns, leaving Frank to be sworn in as POTUS.
The main storyline, easy as it was for Frank, was not the first reason why I kept clicking ‘next episode’ on Netflix. The wealth of interesting side characters gives fullness to the show, and provides you with a web of scenarios to think about. We’ve seen at any moment, an auxiliary character can make a calculated, or bad, decision or stumble upon new evidence and change the landscape. Let’s review the excellent supporting characters:
Lucas Goodwin and Gavin Orsay: Distraught by Zoe’s death, Lucas personally vows to investigate and implicate Frank Underwood. His journey leads him to the ‘deep web,’ where he is introduced to hacker/cyber wizard Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson). Here, Gavin concocts a plan for Lucas to put a device inside of phone servers to get Underwood’s phone records. Gavin has been used by the FBI (by request from Doug Stamper) to con Lucas into this mission. Lucas is immediately arrested when attempting to hack into the servers, and ends up facing 7 years in prison after he cuts a deal. However, despite Lucas’ demise (at least for this season), Gavin has an ace in the hole. The device he gave Lucas actually gave Gavin all of the phone records from the servers, which we see him use to blackmail the FBI and to get Stamper to agree to his protection. Gavin looks to be a major factor in season 3, and hopefully his pet guinea pig/shower loofah hybrid named Cashew is as well.
Doug Stamper and Rachel Posner: When Doug wasn’t dealing with the Chinese and rejecting Oriental threesomes, he was continuing his watchful eye over the former prostitute implicated in the Russo mess, Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan). Poor Doug. Poor, creepy Doug. Doug moves Rachel to an apartment in small town Joppa, MD. There she tries to get on with life, involving herself with a fellowship ministry and actually enters a physical relationship with her new best friend from the church, Lisa (they must have skipped that part of the Bible). Doug, who always presses Rachel to stay anonymous until things die down, continues to wreck her life by telling her to get rid of Lisa (Kate Lyn Sheil). We come to see as the season wears on that Rachel probably is fine and under no danger, and that it is just Doug developing romantic feelings and jealousy. He expresses those feelings by sneaking into her house and smelling her clothes and having her read to him – first the Bible and then The Tale of Two Cities. Rachel sees Doug as what is holding her life back, and she snaps when he tries to take her away one last time. Afraid that he is trying to hurt her, she jumps out of the car at a stop light near the woods and runs into the trees. He follows, but is blindsided by her and repeatedly pummeled and killed by a large rock. Poor, creepy Doug. She steals his car and drives off into Season 3.
Jackie Sharp and Remy Danton: We learn that Jackie Sharp, Frank’s replacement as Whip, has a military background, and that she’s killed a lot of people. She develops fierceness in her new post, and begins to look a lot like Frank did in his old stomping grounds. She’s a great addition to the cast, and looks to be the only female that doesn’t wither under the glare of Claire Underwood. Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) plays the cool as ice lobbyist from SanCorp, and as always plays ball for the highest bidder. These two hook up, and you know that means things start getting complicated. Remy starts carrying out orders from Tusk to bring down the Underwoods, and he knows of the money laundering that is threatening the Democratic hold of the house. When Jackie finds out, she is furious at Remy because her chances of re-election are now deteriorating. Remy holds firm to their promise they would not mix business with pleasure, though he should have known that when a woman doesn’t want you to say anything that she actually does. Elementary, Remy. The two seem severed by the end of the season, and Remy makes an effort to right the ship with Frank by leaving Tusk.
Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil): This guy is the definition of a wild card. We first see him gathering a notebook containing records of Claire Underwood’s off-the-record abortion. He comes to her and basically says, “Here, you can have this. Can I have a job as your media advisor?” She is obviously skeptical at first, but he ends up proving himself valuable and trustworthy on the surface…until you see him working for Remy. However, he quickly cuts that off because he wants to work for Frank. I love his conversation with Frank, where he tells him he doesn’t want a yacht and he doesn’t care about money – he wants to work for a powerful man like Frank. Oh, and after we see him at one point talking to Tusk by himself before Remy walks in, and he talks to the female journalist trying to investigate Tusk. All this while he’s trying to work alongside Doug Stamper as Frank’s media man/assistant Chief-of-Staff. Doug was suspicious, Remy thinks he’s a parasite, and I’m suspicious. This guy is playing the field for the best option and upward mobility. He is Frank Jr. in my eyes. Oh yeah, now that Doug is dead in the woods, he is going to be Frank’s right hand man. Well played, Grayson.
THE THREECHUM: OH. MY. GOD. We knew Frank was bisexual in his college days after last season, but even that couldn’t weather the shock of the Threechum. Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow), the Underwoods’ uber-loyal Secret Service detail, was becoming part of the family throughout season 2. He bought Frank the “F.U.” cufflinks, protected Claire from the terror scare, and even helped Frank prepare to throw out the first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles game. Everything changed within the matter of an episode. He walked in on Frank watching porn, and Frank just kept the screen open. Weird. Then, Meechum gets drunk with Claire and cuts his hand on broken glass. Frank comes home and sees the wound needs to be dressed again, and Claire kisses both their hands and then just like that, everybody starts kissing everybody. Truly a shocking moment that gives new meaning to ‘Secret Service.’
Other moments: Poor BBQ Freddy (Reg E. Cathey) gets screwed over by his ungrateful, ignorant son and had his amazing ribs joint shut down. At least he got to cook for the President and First Lady before it was over. Adam Matthews (Ben Daniels), the artsy photographer who had a passionate affair with Claire, was hurled back into the show when Remy tried to publicly expose the affair. Claire went cold yet again, and forced Adam to deny the affair and say that he was meaningless to her (although I don’t buy that). Still, Adam being the idealist that he is cannot comprehend the vileness of Washington politics. He was an honest character, even while knowingly being involved in a potentially defaming affair. Finally, an episode opened up with a Chinese guy (later known to be Xander Feng) being erotically asphyxiated. I’ll stop there.
Season 2 was thoroughly enjoyable for me. The constants of the show remain the excellent acting, the crisp and ominous cinematography, and the bold writing and direction. There are some gaps in logic, and perhaps some unrealism in the way these people behave, but it really does not hinder the overall experience. The best moments are Frank’s direct dialogue with the audience, which no doubt makes him the ‘good guy’ despite displaying the opposite at nearly every turn. Whether he’s slinging classic philosophy at you or saying some old South Carolina mantra, it always puts a grin on your face and let’s you know he’s in control (if you already didn’t). There aren’t many wasted scenes, as all of the characters provide depth and intrigue in their roles in the plot. The season ends on a shot of Frank with both fists on the resolute desk in the Oval Office, where he gives his trademark ‘double-knock’ on the wood with his right hand and the screen cuts to black. Fitting that with the end of Walter White’s saga on Breaking Bad, we have someone new to be the one who knocks.
Five Thoughts for Season Three
- Frank begins to repair the Democratic Party. We left with Walker’s approval rating in the toilet, and Frank has to focus on raising that for the 2016 election. It will be interesting to see what Frank’s ultimate goals are, as we’ve only seen his passion to get to the top – what will he do to thrive when up there?
- Claire is a wild card. Will she continue to support her husband unconditionally, or does she have an agenda of her own? She is not a woman to stay stagnant, so don’t be surprised either way if she hurts or helps or helps Frank.
- The real Seth Grayson? He is not as simple as he is leading on. This man came in quickly with a plan, and knows every step he’s taking. Now the likely Chief-of-Staff for the President of the United States, he is in a position to make some noise. It would not surprise me if he is some sort of agent, working alone or for somebody.
- Rachel’s escape. She took of in Doug’s car and fled the scene. It appeared that she had quite some time before they found Doug’s body. Where is she? I’d bet Frank, as much as Stamper meant to him, would prefer if she just escaped. She is one of the few who knows of the dirty dealings from season 1, and her being apprehended could be a crucial first step in bringing the Underwood’s down.
- Gavin Orsay is the man with all the information. He has all the phone records and is holding the cards. He is definitely interested in Rachel as well from his phone-tap of Stamper. Expect him to use leverage to get what he wants, perhaps even directly (or indirectly, as with Lucas) contacting the President to get his friend out of Prison, and maybe even Lucas. He and Rachel are the direct keys to Frank’s fate.
What are your thoughts?