Wednesday, February 19, 2014

TV Review - House of Cards: Season 2

Last year, I took my time and spread out watching the first season of House of Cards over a week or so, months after the series premiered on Netflix. This year, I binged all 13 episodes on the weekend of its release. Obviously, I did so because I thought the first season was fantastic, and I was highly anticipating what this season would do.

One difference that I felt watching the first few episodes of Season 2 as opposed to Season 1 is the apparent lack of direction. In Season 1, it became clear that Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, had a goal. He was the Majority Whip for the Democrats in the House of Representatives, but he wanted to be a member of the President's cabinet. Due to a series of circumstances, Frank decides to go after the Vice Presidency.

In Season 2, Frank doesn't have an obvious goal. He just seems to be episodically dealing with whatever crisis arises. Frank doesn't seem to have a plan, an over-arching plan in place like Season 1. He doesn't appear to be playing chess, as he was before.

That's not until the series gets to the end, and by the final episode of Season 2, one wonders if Frank were pulling the strings all along. Obviously, head writer Beau Willimon was pulling the strings, but I don't know if the ending was due to Frank's deliberate machinations from the start or if he merely took advantage of circumstance that was mostly by accident. Either way, the series is still intriguing because it shows that Frank is still a good strategist. He's still cunning and conniving. This season probably proves he's good on the fly as he is at long-term planning.

Frank is still ambitious and ruthless as ever. His ambition is not as obvious, given the reasons just stated. He doesn't seem to have an over-arching plan. His ruthlessness, however, is on full display. As last season proved, Frank is willing to kill in order to hang on to his power or preserve himself. This season continues that, and he's willing to do so with absolutely no remorse or guilt. If anything, this season is more about what he's willing to sacrifice in order to hang on to power and even what he's not willing to sacrifice like his home or his ring.

His wife Claire Underwood, played by Robin Wright, is no question Frank's Lady Macbeth, but the sense is by the end she does feel remorse or guilt. Claire is not privy to everything Frank does. She probably realizes the depths to which Frank goes and supports him unconditionally. She even does her own ruthless things to help him, but not to Frank's level, and the reason may be because she's more affected by it all than him.

For example, Frank outright destroys people and never gives it a second thought. Yet, when Claire hurts somebody, particularly someone for whom she previously cared like her former lover and photographer Adam Galloway, played by Ben Daniels, or military rape victim Megan Hennessey, played by Libby Woodbridge, Claire feels guilty. It might not be actual guilt, but her actions do reverberate back on her emotionally. Claire is particularly affected when she has to do something to hurt the President's wife, the First Lady, Patricia Walker, played by Dani Englander. Wright's performance here is superb. When the reverberation happens, specifically with the First Lady in a phone scene, the emotion of it hits Claire. It smacks her in a way that it never smacks Frank.

Frank is a constant. He is forever ruthless and manipulative and cynical. He really doesn't change. He does show glimpses of humanity. He shows glimpses in various relationships. His relationship with Claire is probably the best example. The way he is with her and the way they are together is so much more solid this season than last. Frank had his affair with news reporter Zoe Barnes, played by Kate Mara, and Claire had her affair with Adam, but, this season, they have no separate affairs. They still do have an affair but it's not separate of each other. The first season had a very provocative sex scene. This season seems to push the boundaries a little if not a lot further, but when I say the affair they have is not separate of each other, I mean that yes Frank and Claire have a threesome.

The boundary it pushes is that the threesome has a younger man sandwiched between Frank and Claire, and Frank is all too willing to enjoy this young man's physicality as Claire is. Last season, in the episode titled "Chapter 8," Frank visited his alma mater, which named a library after him. There, he met with old classmates, including Tim Corbet, played by David Andrews, and it was strongly hinted that Frank and Tim had a homosexual romance.

Given the gusto with which he takes the younger man in his threesome with Claire, I think that the speculation in "Chapter 8" is now confirmed. Frank had a gay affair with Tim. I won't reveal who the sausage is in Frank and Claire's sex sandwich, but I will say that Edward Meechum, the Capitol Police officer-turned-Secret Service agent whose job is to be Frank's bodyguard, played by Nathan Darrow, gets a front-row seat to Frank's sexual exploits.

Terry Chen as Xander Feng
in "House of Cards" - Season 2
But, speaking of which, while Frank's sexual proclivities get some clarification, a new character by the name of Xander Feng, a Chinese billionaire who is introduced in the episode titled "Chapter 18," has his sexual proclivities glossed over. The first time we see Feng, played by Terry Chen, is tied to a bed with a clear plastic bag over his head receiving fellatio from both a man and a woman. This sexual exploit is introduced and never revisited again.

It's interesting to see this three-way sexual encounter be the first one of the season. It could be foreshadowing the three-way to come with Frank and Claire, or a way of preparing the audience for what's to be seen, or at least suggested. Perhaps, it's to establish a parity between Frank and Feng. Frank's rise to power can't go completely unchallenged, nor can it go without any obstacles. Feng is one such obstacle. Showing parity in private is a way of also showing there's parity in public.

While Feng and the Chinese government are obstacles for Frank, his true nemesis is a character returning from last season. Raymond Tusk, played by Gerald McRaney, returns to make sure he has a direct link to the President, but Frank blocks him at every turn. There are also some international affairs that come between the two and the fun is seeing the two square off. Raymond has his billions of dollars to throw around. Frank has the power of the U.S. government to throw.

The plot is convoluted and too complicated to totally recount. The crux comes down to campaign finance controversies, which connects President Garrett Walker, played by Michael Gill, and his administration to corruption like Feng and Chinese criminals. Raymond Tusk is behind it all. Frank investigates and tries to handle it without the President finding out. At the same time, the remnants of Peter Russo's death, including the prostitute who can implicate them all, Rachel Posner, played by Rachel Brosnahan, as well as the news reporters investigating Russo's death, including Lucas Goodwin, played by Sebastian Arcelus, are all on the fringes threatening to bring Frank down.

The plot is convoluted and complicated, but Willimon's writing and the performances from all the many actors from this enormous cast make that plot understandable and followable. The acting in particular grounds everything. The writing and directing always keeps the show lively. Maybe because there is so much happening that it's difficult to get bored! Yet, it all wouldn't have worked if each character wasn't fleshed out, and characters who were on the fringes last season get brought to the forefront this season and given more to do.

Mahershala Ali (right)
in "House of Cards"
Characters like Ed Meechum and Remy Danton, played by Mahershala Ali, the lobbyist working for Raymond Tusk, are pushed more to the forefront and given more to do. It fleshes out those characters and makes them, as well as this world, created by Willimon feel more real. Another character pushed to the front and given more is Freddy, the owner of a tiny, corner restaurant in DC that makes Frank's favorite BBQ ribs. For example, this season we meet Freddy's son Darnell.

Christina Gallagher, played by Kristen Connolly, returns this season. Her character was given a little something, and I think I know why she was used, but ultimately I thought she was pointless here. Her character and storyline were vital last season. She was the love interest of Peter Russo, played by Corey Stoll who was by far the best part about Season 1, but with him gone, Christina should have been gone too.

The character of Gavin, a computer hacker, played by Jimmi Simpson, is used for a specific purpose, but after that, he wasn't needed. In his case, the writers gave him too much. He at times reminded me of a bond villain when at one point we see him stroking a pet rodent that sits on his shoulder. He does things that are funny and weird and creepy, but it got to be too much. His character intersects with Lucas, which at the same time makes a lot of the stuff with Lucas feel superfluous.

Instead of that, I would have preferred the show develop the character of Ayla Sayyad, played by Mozhan MarnĂ², more. Hers was a New York reporter who also starts investigating the campaign finance stuff, and her work that pushes and exposes a lot of things.

The best arc is given to Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly. It doesn't really come until the end, but his relentless loyalty and need to protect Frank is put to the test and is even challenged, while he also deals with his conflicting feelings for Rachel who gets her own lesbian storyline, as well as Doug's continued struggle with alcoholism.

Even the President is more of a three-dimensional character this season than last season. There are many, many great moments in this series, moments that parallel the first season like the killing of an animal by bare human hands, as well as a live TV interview that goes off the rails. The characters are interesting and compelling. The world that has come from Willimon's head is demented and twisted. Yet, he got political pundits on both sides of the aisle, including Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow to guest star, so clearly Willimon is doing something right.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 50 mins. / 13 eps.
Available only on Netflix.

One last question: Is this a world where Barack Obama exists? This might be a spoiler, but President Walker has a line in the series that by implication refers to himself as the 45th president. Obama is the 44th president, so does Obama exist in this universe?

Favorite line in the series: "The United States can be just as dangerous as Iran." - said by Raymond Tusk to Ayla in "Chapter 22."

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