Tension and anticipation run high as the opening scene of “House of Cards” season two unfolds in a darkened hazy park where Frank and Claire Underwood take a casual jog, business as usual, followed by a pause and panting that invariably sets the pace for the entire new season.
Having rewatched, er, re-binged season one in anticipation of this review, pace seems to be the main differentiating factor between that season and this newest run of 13 episodes. At times the viewer feels like the entire series is a long jog — a marathon, actually — jammed with non-stop chaos and hard work. Where season one presented balance, calculated tense moments, unexpected twists and binge-view-essential cliff hangers, season two keeps the viewer speeding on a winding uphill road that never seems peak or give the viewer the satisfaction of coming down from a juicy high.
The first season of “House of Cards” was quite brilliant in building plausibility around the events and evil acts that ultimately earned Frank the vice president role. And while this Master of Manipulation still moves his political pawns like a pro, the plausibility of the season two story-line is whittled away episode by episode. A person can only fail upwards so many times.
As the series progresses though, the depth of Frank and Claire Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright respectively) evil nature is fully exposed as the viewer comes to realize that they are not only cut from the same ruthless cloth, but quite possibly among the greatest villains written into pop culture immortality. Afterall, “it was butchery, not strategy, that won the war,” Frank muses. Their only redeeming grace is the tenderness and compassion the Underwood’s offer one another quite frequently over the course of the season.
And though Frank and Claire are clearly the focal points of the narrative, the supporting ensemble cast often feels neglected with sub-storylines fading into the sidelines. While new and old characters come and go, “House of Cards” writers make it quite clear that outside of the core protagonists, the narrative will remain completely un-reliant on the supporting characters — they are but a seasoning on the grand narrative. Viewers can also delight in watching Frank surgically dismantle each of the varied personalities presented throughout the season one by one as he “manage[s] to isolate the president from everyone, including [himself].”
Season two of “House of Cards” also hits on some rather controversial and hot-button political issues. For instance, abortion, same-sex relationships, police corruption, and racial issues are staple topics intertwined into the various character storylines. At times it feels overdone but the issues injected into the episodes are well-woven into the plot line.
Despite a few editing flaws and a seemingly trimmed budget, “House of Cards” is still staggeringly well advanced beyond its other “web distribution first” counterparts. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are flawless. And it will be interesting to see how season three picks up some of the looming threads that were left unsettled by the end of round two.
And while Frank Underwood has climbed to the top of the “House of Cards,” and Netflix has positioned itself as the Ace of Spades, Season three will need to sort out the pacing issue and temper the intensity of the constant chaos so viewers can sustain the marathon into season four.
Photo credit: Nathaniel Bell for Netflix.