Note: The article below is spoiler-free for "House of Cards" season two, though it does mention a major development from the end of season one. We'll have a more in-depth review of the season after it has premiered on Netflix.
Something shocking takes place early in the second season of "House of Cards," set to premiere in full on February 14th on Netflix. It's not something I can go into here (though I will after the premiere), because the company has everyone under an embargo about revealing plotlines and, of course, because developments like that are best enjoyed as they unfold.
I mention this not to tease but as a contrast -- when Netflix offered the first three episodes of season one of the series to the press last year, I didn't feel like there was really enough in them, enough happening, to review, and waited until I'd gotten through half of the full 13-episodes when they were available before starting to write. Otherwise, it felt like trying to judge only the opening of a movie, all introductions and stories being set into motion -- meet Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the Richard III of D.C., talking to the camera about not liking the uselessness of suffering before strangling a whimpering dog that had been hit by a car.
"House of Cards" was Netflix's big, splashy move into original programming last year after dabbling earlier with "Lilyhammer" -- David Fincher directing, Spacey and Robin Wright as the icy leads, a project that projected seriousness and prestige, sometimes in a way that was stifling. Its debut also make it clear how much there was to be figured out in a brave new world of series that aren't being rolled out week-to-week, that exist somewhere between film and television.
There was never a pilot made for "House of Cards" -- the series was freed from having to trot out all its characters in the first episode, to have to lay out its premise in hopes of catching everyone's eye, and instead simply began. One of the refreshing and exasperating things about "House of Cards" -- one that can be seen in other instances of ambitious TV as well, as emphasis slides far from the episodic to the serialized -- is that sense of a focus on the whole over the parts, which led to some episodes seeming devoid of significant occurrences as individual installments.
The up side of this is that season two of "House of Cards" begins in a fashion that's far more free and quick-paced, with the intros already having been made and the action picking up right where it left off at the end of season one, with Frank having accepted the VP position. Plenty happens in the first few episodes of this new season, and not all of it has to do with Frank. His wife Claire (Robin Wright) is still facing trouble from her former employee Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt), and has to contend with the possibility of a more public role, and Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and her former Washington Herald colleagues Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) and Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) are still trying to figure out what actually happened between Frank and Peter Russo (Corey Stoll).
And Peter is still dead, after Frank proved how far he was willing to go in the name of protecting and furthering himself last season, a scene that paralleled that early one with the dog without matching up as neatly, justification-wise, as Frank would surely like (it was far from a mercy killing). If season one slowly grew blacker in tone as it went from serious games of power and manipulation to life-and-death ones, season two starts off there and looks to only get darker in content, as the Underwoods level up and face the challenges that come with that. There are some new characters along with the returning ones -- most notably Jacqueline Sharp (Molly Parker), a third-term Congresswoman with a military background who, for better or worse, has ended up on Frank's radar -- but its Frank and Claire who are running the show.
And the first four episodes of the season feel much more like that -- a show, not in the sense of form but as entertainment, filling with some juicy developments as well as some slightly ludicrous ones, delivered with more of a wink by Frank than before. It may be darker, but it's also less heavy -- "House of Cards" seems to have shed some of the blanketing burdens of importance that weighed down the first season, and takes more pleasure in its own deviousness, with Frank as our slithery guide to hell or the Oval Office, whichever comes first, and the audience as his primary confidant.
We're his closest friend, made complicit by our investment in watching his machinations, and that conspiratorial glee makes Frank a different sort of antihero than his small screen precedents. Unlike Walter White or Tony Soprano, Frank feels at peace with his ruthless pragmatism and what he does in pursuit of power, and reminds us of the fact in his asides to the camera -- that we are invested in the story of the bad guy, and isn't that fun? Even more so in this second season, "House of Cards" depicts D.C. politics as a mess of personal vendettas, self-interest and momentum-stopping commitments to ideals, and then along comes Frank with his brisk, conscience-free willingness to take on what's needed to get things done -- he may be a ruthless sociopath, but there's something to admire there.