Season two of “House of Cards” arrived in full last night at 3:01am ET. Television shouldn’t be a race, though Netflix’s season-at-a-time model encourages binge-viewing, especially with its autoplay feature that can lead you seamlessly from one episode to the next. I ran a spoiler-free review of the season earlier this month, but having just crossed the midpoint in finishing episode seven, now it’s time to talk details. The piece below will contain spoilers for major plot points through the seventh episode of the new season, but I’ll try to designate how far along each will go so that if you haven’t made it to the same place yet, you can avoid reading too far.
Before we start: “House of Cards” has generally felt to me like a series that’s gorgeously made and interestingly twisty but that has tendencies to be dour and soulless, to mute itself with its own obligations toward self-importance. It’s not a radically different show in its second round, but the way it skips the introductions and jumps right into the action makes it a much livelier one, if also significantly denser this year in its intrigues, with a battle over China and the domestic energy industry making for some escalating negotiations that have to be carefully tracked.
But I think it’s a mistake to take “House of Cards” too seriously, or at least to give too much weight to its extremely cynical estimations of politics. Unlike the television antiheroes who came before him, Frank (Kevin Spacey) has no illusions about doing things for some greater good or for his family — or certainly, in this season, the country. He unabashedly acts in his own self-interest, while inviting us along for the ride in his asides to the camera. “House of Cards” is not about moral ambiguity, it’s about the pleasure of watching people break things, sometimes in very clever ways.
Without further ado, here’s a look at five major plotlines from the first seven episodes. Spoilers, clearly, will follow, and we’ll have a piece on the second half of the season next week.
Oh my god, they killed Zoe. (Episode 1)
I have to hand this to Netflix — they kept the secret of the unceremonious death of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) very well, with the actress even doing a big shoot for GQ this month. But in the season premiere, directed by Carl Franklin (of “Devil in a Blue Dress” and a pair of episodes from season one), Zoe got to be impatient with former coworker turned boyfriend Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), to poke around after Peter Russo’s former call girl Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) in the investigation into the congressman’s death she was working on with Lucas and Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer), and to die at the hands of her former lover Frank Underwood.
I have to admit to letting out a shocked laugh when it happened, the show letting go of the difficult millennial that had dominated its first season so abruptly. It’s one of several storylines the first episode wiped its hands of with amusing briskness, along with Claire’s (Robin Wright) bludgeoning former employee Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt) out of her lawsuit (“I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required”) and then handing the Clean Water Initiative over to her as Claire readied to take on the full-time role of wife of the Vice President.
When Frank offed Peter Russo at the end of the first season, it was at the end of an escalation of misdeeds, an act that was paralleled with the mercy killing of the dog in the series intro, only far more convenient. But the killing of Zoe was abrupt and brutal and kicked off this season, a deliberate resetting of the bar for Frank’s bad behavior as well as an amusing unsentimental discarding of the difficult millennial who shaped much of the initial arc of the story. And as much as I felt that Zoe’s cutthroat careerism was actually justified, there was a sense of relief to knowing we weren’t in for more power games between her and Frank, something the series seemed to set up (“Are we good? And we can put all this nonsense behind us?”) before Frank pushed her in front of the train. Yes, it seems unlikely that Frank would put himself at that much risk of being exposed, but it was a moment of admirable brashness, upping the machinations to a more stylized level acknowledged by the “F” and “U” in Frank’s new initial cufflinks. Who says this series doesn’t have a sense of humor?
Claire and the children she hasn’t had. (Episode 4)
Even ballsier than the murder of Zoe may be Claire’s strategic accusation of rape while doing an interview with Ashleigh Banfield on CNN. Frank, who was meant to join her, was trapped in the Capitol due to an anthrax scare, and Claire was fielding increasingly (improbably) invasive questions from the interviewer about the couple’s not having children — “Never felt the pressure? No maternal instinct?” There’s something horribly defeminizing about this line of inquiry, like Claire’s very womanliness is under attack because she and Frank chose to put their careers first, and when the standard replies didn’t work (“Francis and I did what was right for us”) and Banfield suggested Claire had gotten an abortion at some point, she breathtakingly turned the tables on the interviewer by confessing she had gotten an abortion, as a result of a sexual assault. It was half a lie — Claire had actually had three abortions, and she had been raped by a man who’s since become a general (and described what happened between them as “dating”), but hadn’t gotten pregnant that time.
The sequence is a fascinating example of minefields in feminist issues. Claire knew and acknowledged that confessing to having aborted her and Frank’s baby because they weren’t ready would have caused a scandal from pro-lifers, while lying could cause problems from the other side. Why hide it? So she claimed she wasn’t ashamed while casting the incident in a far less easy to judge light by linking it to the rape, and in doing so changing the conversation to one about sexual assault, getting long-delayed justice by naming names. It was another sequence that proved how frighteningly formidable Claire can be, but with a savvily different approach than her husband. And it’s further complicated by the fact that Claire began the season contemplating pursuing a pregnancy and seeing a fertility specialist without telling Frank. Even though she set the idea aside again, she obviously hadn’t completely come to terms with letting the opportunity to be a mother go.
Lucas’ adventures in hacking. (Episode 5)
Lucas may be a more experienced journalist than Zoe, but he’s softer, more emotional and therefore less of plausible threat to Frank despite his grief-fueled desperation. After Zoe died and Janine fled to Ithaca, basically giving up, he made a lot of noise about conspiracies, spiraled downward and couldn’t get anyone to take him seriously. And then he stumbled onto the Deep Web (“Where you go to find everything and anything”) and before you could say “Silk Road” was being taught how to use Tor by a helpful coworker and began browsing for freelance hackers. And found one!
This storyline, which involves Jimmi Simpson as Gavin Orsay, a condo-dwelling, guinea pig-clutching cyberterrorist, has had some amazingly eye-rolling moments, from the hacker contacting Lucas via his laptop screen suddenly blitzing to messengered delivery of a tablet at a diner, and for multiple episodes looked like the goofiest kind of Hollywood treatment of cybercrime as a magical solution to plot problems. “House of Cards” includes a nice on screen treatment of texting but also presents social media as more of a mystery to anyone over the age of 40 than it should be in its first season, so there’s reason to be very skeptical about the series’ continued travels in the realms of technology. Thankfully, the whole Gavin thing has turned out to mostly be theater — he’s an FBI informant turning on people in order to save his own skin, meaning that Lucas, already a mess, has far worse things coming his way.
Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), Frank’s chosen successor. (Episode 6)
Third-term congresswoman Jacqueline Sharp has been the major new character introduced this season, but hasn’t gotten a terribly memorable storyline yet by the season midpoint — though one seems to be percolating with regard to her hookup with Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), the former Frank protege now working for billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney). We do know that Jackie has a military background, a tattoo and a Frank-like willingness toward “ruthless pragmatism” in the name of getting things done: She forced her supporter and family friend out by exposing a personal secret in order to secure the seat that Majority Whip Frank vacated and wanted her to fill.
But Jackie doesn’t seem quite as conscience-free as Frank, despite what he sees in her, which suggests that at some point the two of them are going to end up going head-to-head. For now, she’s sided with him in terms of party agenda. Jackie is competent, but she’s also determine to establish her own means of getting things done rather than play things the way her predecessor would. Instead of offering up favors to get votes, she’s been able to shame her colleagues into acting as she needs. “House of Cards” generally has a very harsh point of view on the idealistic — see Gillian, who’s treated as naive and a hypocrite, or the progressive Donald Blythe (Reed Birney), who reemerges this season once again as a somewhat pathetic obstacle for Frank to sidestep. But Jackie’s presence hints that being effective while not entirely surrendering a sense of morality is indeed possible in the show’s rather poisonous universe.
Frank vs. Tusk. (Episode 7)
Immediately after ascending to his place at President Walker’s (Michael Gill) side (without, as he pointed out, a vote cast in his name), Frank began a war with Raymond Tusk, the billionaire nuclear baron who also serves as Walker’s closest adviser. Part of this is because Frank just doesn’t like Tusk, and part of it is because he vowed an Iago-like general vengeance on Walker and his crew after getting passed over for the Secretary of State position, something Tusk actually grasps in the seventh episode, and Tusk is standing in his way. But part of it is that Frank instinctively looks for people to battle, and Tusk is a formidable opponent — possibly too formidable, as episode six finds him using his position to cause blackouts he blamed on the overloaded energy grid and to manipulate prices higher, and episode seven has Tusk funneling millions of dollars into attack adds on the Democrats through the front of a Native American casino owner.
Tusk is shaping up as a damning portrait of a .01 percenter, one who’s able to wield incredible influence over the White House without ever feeling bound by the obligations and scrutiny actually being a part of the government would entail. He sees no deviation between what’s good for the country and what’s good for his business, and has a very favorable alliance with the even more wealthy Chinese businessman Xander Feng (Terry Chen) set to net them both a lot of money before Frank started meddling. Given how little of an ultimate goal beyond revenge and self-interest Frank seems to have — what kind of President would Frank make, with no one above him to topple and no apparent personal beliefs? — it feels strange to root for him in this scenario, which is punishing the country with power outages and soaring electricity costs.
But Tusk’s comfort that his cash can buy anything means that he and Frank are literally representing the forces of money and power that Frank delineated back in season one: “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.” Frank may be overstepping, but it’s fun to see him with a worthy opponent.