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.