Monday, February 17, 2014

Five Things I Loved and Hated About 'House of Cards' Season 2

So there it was. Eight bucks, half an hour and I had a 'Netflix' account on my PS3.

This effort was for one thing, and one thing only. To watch the second season of the Netflix produced show 'House of Cards,' released on Friday/Saturday (depending on where you were in the world) in its entirety for a few days.

My partner and I were both up for a marathon. We came late to the first season - we didn't watch it till some months after it had aired in serial format - but we devoured it whole once we got into it. Evil congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), his alien wife Claire (Robin Wright) and a host of power crazed numbskulls, only too ready to get sucked into this alpha couple's schemes.

It could hardly be better.

We did it in two halves; six episodes on Saturday, seven on Sunday. All that's left now is the wash up... and the countdown to the next premium Netflix marathon!

Warning: Spoilers.


1. The Opening Ep.

Things had worked out pretty well for Frank by the end of the first season. His relentless scheming had landed him on the verge of the Vice Presidency, most of his enemies had been thwarted, he'd gotten away with murder and he'd even managed to lure his wife back from the right on photographer she'd run away with (briefly). But Season 2 upped the stakes immediately, pitching Frank back into conflict with the spunky journalist, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), he'd toyed with throughout Season 1. As she honed in on his lies and coverups, Frank suddenly took decisive action and bumped her off, a plot twist so outrageous I think I yelled at the screen. 'No! I can't believe that! Can you believe that? They can't do that!' But they did, and everyone who knew Zoe was smartly looking for a quiet place to hide. Advantage Frank, and the series beautifully set up.

2. Lucas Melts Down

It was unlikely that anything in the new episodes could have topped the story arc of Peter Russo, the likable and doomed pawn of Frank's play for the VP slot from Season 1. And unlikely it proved. But after Zoe's stunning exit, her half boyfriend Lucas' mental collapse gave a bit of heart and raw emotion to what is, otherwise, a pretty chilly programme. Tossing caution to the wind as he tries to find out what happened to his dearly departed, Lucas quickly finds himself caught in a downward spiral, rapidly running out of friends and credibility. Set up and jailed by the end of the first brace of episodes, Lucas tells his story to his former boss, the now retired newspaper man Tom Hammerschmidt. Bearded, red eyed and ruined, Lucas' reaction to Tom's article - 'You made me sound crazy!' - was an unforgettable moment.

3. Claire Loses Her Cool

Speaking of chilly, Frank's sepulchral wife Claire is so cold it's a wonder she isn't standing in the kitchen, humming. But this season showed that beneath her imperturbable exterior a passionate heart does beat, normally manifesting itself in some particularly vicious plan or comment. Witness the flabbergasting maneuver she pulls on a disgruntled former employee; a woman unwisely suing her for harassment, who also needs expensive pregnancy medication paid for by Claire's firm's health care plan. Not only does Claire have the woman's health coverage stopped but, when she is confronted about this, tells the pregnant woman calmly, 'I'm willing to let your baby wither and die inside you.' Suffice to say, Claire shortly gets what she wants. Another great moment arrives after Frank has been bested by his wealthy nemesis, Raymond Tusk. After Frank states that he wants revenge, Claire adds, 'And let's make him suffer,' with such intensity that if she had been staring at a piece of wood at the time, you imagine it would have caught fire. Bravura, boo-hiss villainy.

4. Freddie

Oh course, it's not all perverse fun. Sometimes things get out of hand, and there are plenty of bodies littering the roadside in both series as testament to the toxic effect the Underwood's have on most people that cross their path. And in Series 2 one person to cop a whack was Freddie, the well drawn supporting character (beautifully played by Reg E. Cathey) who runs the down at heel rib joint where Frank likes to hang out. As the media spotlight turns more heavily on Frank, a nasty secret from Freddie's past comes to light, with dire consequences both for him and his troubled son. Unlike most - all - of the other people in his life, Frank does genuinely seem to care about Freddie, so their subsequent breach carries a surprising emotional weight. And watching Freddie forced to sell his business and then walk down the street and out of the show is a rare poignant moment, amidst the shenanigans. 

5. Frank v. Tusk

Of course, Frank Underwood, FU to his friends, is the main game here and he lives up to the high expectations created by Spacey's first go round. Whether he's grinning affably while sweet talking someone he loathes, calmly lying to the President of the United States or pushing someone he used to be intimate with under a train, Spacey again seems to fully inhabit this oily skin. Throughout the Season, some of Frank's best moments come as he tangles with the wily Raymond Tusk, a super wealthy political busy body who is drawn like Warren Buffet's evil, fish head eating twin. Frank and Raymond cross paths repeatedly, and ever more aggressively, as they try and get in the way of each other's plans, with increasingly dramatic results. Frank throwing a steak offered by Tusk into a swimming pool is a comic highlight, while their final wit-matching in a service corridor before a crucial congressional hearing sums up the whole series in a few pointed sentences. With Frank installed as President by Season's end, you hope a re-match is on these cards for Season 3.


1. Wimp President

Ok, so Frank has quite a roll call of enemies; Raymond Tusk, Remy Danton, Jackie Sharp, Linda Vasquez, Janine Skorsky, Lucas Goodwin, Tom Hammerschmidt... and on, and on. And The President is written as really just one more pawn in Frank's game. The show isn't really set up to make them go head to head. But did he really have to be as dim as he is? Can't he see... anything that's going on? As soon as Frank comes in as VP his whole administration turns to shit! Doesn't he notice? One minute everything is calm, Frank comes in, everything turns bad. Surely even George W. Bush could connect those dots! Instead, this guy says, 'I'm counting on you to fix this mess Frank. I'm delegating you total authority, total independence and total everything else. You can tell everyone that whatever it is you're up to is in my name.' And then he goes off to nap. You want to give him a clip round the head and demand that he be a more formidable target. Frank rolls his eyes as the Prez leaves the room, and you don't blame him.

Don't list- Oh my god, not again?!

2. Mastermind?

On a parallel topic, some of Frank's plotting seems a little transparent this time. Part of the fun in Season 1 was trying to figure out what the end game was going to be; how would Frank's different schemes tie together into a self beneficial whole. But we know the answer from the jump in season 2. He clearly has his sights on the Presidency and there is a lack of subtlety about some of his means to this end; he champions dud strategic ideas (has any President, ever, willingly embraced a special prosecutor?), he tells obvious, disprovable lies and he engineers so many sackings and resignations from among the Presidents trusted staff that the White House starts to resemble a tomb. It gets so blatant that the President himself almost notices... and then changes his mind and puts Frank solely in charge of crucial policies x, y and z. 

3. Stamper In Circles

One of my favourite characters in HoC is Doug Stamper; Frank's quietly loyal, ruthless fixer. And, at the start of season 2, it seems that he is going to get a more central role this time around. As well as putting out fires for Frank all over the place, Stamper also becomes deeply fixated on the young call girl, Rachel, he helped conceal during Season 1. His relationship with her tantilises; does he love her? Hate her? View her as a surrogate mother? A surrogate daughter? Is it just his addictive personality? Does he want to help her, fuck her or just listen to her read Charles Dickens? This is complex, arresting stuff... which, unfortunately, doesn't really lead anywhere. Stamper goes around in a circle over this girl, alternately looking out for her and bullying her, and can never make up his mind what he wants to do with her. And still hasn't, when she finally clubs him over the head and makes a break for it. A disappointing fizzle that may re-kindle, in some fashion, next year.

4. The Gimmick

It says a lot that Frank doesn't talk direct to camera until some way into this season... and even more that you don't miss it. To me, it seems like the time on this device is up. Best play it straight in season four and restore that fourth wall. 'Nuff said.

5. Rush to the Finish Line

Maybe I was getting Netflix marathon fatigue, but it seemed like the last few episodes flashed by in a blur. So much ground was covered in the last two episodes in particular - The President goes from solid to unpopular to toxicity and impeachment in about twenty minutes - that I wondered why so much time was expended in the first half of the season on not very much. The end of the season is fun, but a whirlwind, which seems out of step with the shows calculating characters. The final ep also fell a bit flat, as things wrapped up very neatly for Frank. Surely some disgruntled loyalist of the President's could have made trouble? Most of them seemed to have some idea of what Frank was up to (always excepting the President himself, of course). Maybe they were just enjoying the ride too much, or were too busy watching their own backs. Congress men and women, even fake ones, are a busy bunch, Still, the finale played out with a disappointing lack of tension.

Despite these quibbles, the series was mostly very satisfying. I'll definitely be back for more next year... and be ruthlessly applying some of Frank's tricks on my corporate colleagues in the meantime.

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