On Friday (Valentine's Day), Netflix sent the second season of House of Cards into the ether and dared us to consume every single second. We hibernated, obliged, and spent out weekends with Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) Underwood. With brains soggied by analogies and itchy eyes, we've cobbled together our thoughts about the season's first four episodes:
Warning: there are spoilers here.
The Show Needs to Find a Worthy Adversary for Frank
One of my favorite things about the first season of House of Cards was the final few episodes where, at long last, it felt like Washington was wriggling out of the Underwoods’ chokehold. Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and her ragtag Scooby Doo group were putting things together, and Gillian (Sandrine Holt) was turning the tables and getting that lawsuit against Claire in order.
To my disappointment, the show decided to snip those storylines in the first four episodes of season two, possibly to make way for a full belly-flop into pulp fiction. Frank Underwood, the next Vice President of the United States of America, decided to go to a metro stop and push Ms. Barnes in front of a moving train. And then Claire tried to kill Gillian's baby (by denying her healthcare) and give Gillian her charity in one swoop?
Why wouldn’t Frank just hire someone to get rid of Zoe? Why would he risk being spotted by cameras in the metro station? Why wouldn’t Gillian talk to the press about the next First Lady denying her insurance? And further: Why is Frank so insistent on sabotaging his own administration this season?
The show, which puts so much work into making you see that Frank is always thinking and plotting, wasn’t as thoughtful in its effort to make those storylines disappear. That would be fine if the trade off was worth it. But when you look at the pulp fiction we’re left with — so much Rachel Posner; FBI stuff; retirement age bills; a rape that came out of nowhere but with a reaction that feels like it's been brewing for a season or three; a smarmy communications director; too much Remy Danton; and more Raymond Tusk— it feels like we got shortchanged.
We spent an entire season watching Frank and his silly analogies along with Claire and her icy glares outsmart dumb old Washington. That was fun, but like watching any sport where someone’s always overmatched, it gets tiresome. Doubly tiresome when the only person that can go toe to toe with Frank is on his side. —AAS
No One Can Compare to Claire
The first few episodes of the second season do set up a few possible adversaries for Frank, it's just not very convincing. There's Raymond Tusk versus Frank for the president's ear, and Tusk has a 20 year advantage. Majority Whip Jackie Sharp could also become a problem for Frank — she's not going to be easily manipulated like Peter Russo, even though Frank is under the impression that she'll owe him.
But Frank's main adversary is General Dalton McGinnis, the man who raped Claire her freshman year of college. I usually hate the way shows use rape as a plot device, but in episode two, when Frank realizes he has to pin a medal on the man who assaulted his wife and there's nothing he can do about it, I thought that was pretty real. There aren't enough moments in the series where Frank is helpless.
Which is why it's so satisfying when Claire outs him in her interview. The show has no problem giving Frank nearly unlimited power. McGinnis getting demoted for some reason or suffering an accident would have been about as believable as Zoe's death. But Claire does it, because she really is the only one who's on Frank's level, especially as a character. While Frank doesn't care about anything that isn't power or Claire, Claire is more conflicted. She tells Gillian she'd let her baby "wither and die" inside of her, but then she seems so pained when she cancels her appointment with the fertility doctor, the motivation behind that isn't cut and dry. When she says she won't feel ashamed about her abortion there's genuine, not calculated, integrity in that moment, even if she was technically lying about the circumstances surrounding the abortion.
So really, I think the show needs to find a match for Claire — someone who's not a politician or lobbyist with an agenda, or a schlubby journalist (seriously, why are all the House of Cards journalists slobs?) looking for knowledge. —AJ