February 14, 2014

THE SKED Netflix Review: “House of Cards” Season 2 (Eps 1-3)


Viewers familiar with the original British HOUSE OF CARDS won’t be stunned by The Thing That Happens in the first episode of its Netflix second season, but it will start things off with a bang for those who aren’t.  Its timing represents a smart use by US series creator Beau Willimon and the other producers of the 2-season order Netflix gave Cards up front, because when The Thing didn’t Happen in the Season 1 finale, it may have lulled even the knowledgeable into thinking that it wouldn’t happen at all in this version–or at least until the end of Season 2.  Moving it to an unexpected moment, like much else in the first 3 episodes of Cards‘ second group of episodes (it’s hard to think of them as a real “season” when they’re all presented at the same cyber-instant), demonstrates a renewed commitment by the show to entertainment value and narrative force.

Anyway, SPOILER ALERT–from here on, I’ll stop tap-dancing around what The Thing is.

Cards has a considerably faster pace this time around than in its initial group of episodes, partly because the concrete blocks of exposition have already been laid (Netflix doesn’t provide so much as a “Previously On” to jog viewer memories–I suggest Vulture‘s round-up for those in need of a quick refresher course), and partly because Willimon and the other writers are seemingly more confident with their show’s mix of gravity and pulp melodrama.  When The Thing Happens and ambitious but terminally dumb reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) is heaved by Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) from a high place to a lower one–although merely off a Metro platform, a less iconic drop than her British counterpart, who was pushed off the roof of the House of Parliament–you can almost feel the writers’ relief in getting rid of her annoyingly ambivalent attachment to Frank and being able to move on to meatier drama.

Frank, of course, is now Vice President of the United States (and a two-time murderer), and he wastes no time in spinning webs from his new perch.  The legislation involved in the first trio of episodes, involving a possible government freeze and a stand against Chinese cyber-terrorism, is grabbier than the education bill that took up the early section of Season 1, and with Frank now a national figure, we’re spared the details of last season’s South Carolina district politics.  There’s quite a fun bit, for example, in Episode 3 (the 1st 2 hours are written by Willimon and directed by Carl Franklin; Hour 3 is credited to Bill Cain and directed by James Foley) where Frank manipulates the Senate’s Rules of Order to physically force Republicans onto the Senate floor.  As usual, it’s not always clear when Frank is really trying to help his President (Michel Gill) and when he’s deliberately obstructing his purported immediate goal in favor of the long game.  The season’s most important new character, Frank’s chosen successor as House Whip, Congresswoman and former soldier Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), may be someone he truly sees as an ally, or simply his latest patsy.

The other key character in Cards is Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright), whose role in Episodes 1-3 is somewhat uneven.  She’s as ruthless as Frank in the season premiere, psychologically wiping out pregnant former employee Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt) but then (apparently) rescuing and even promoting her, no doubt with nefarious future ends in mind.  Episode 2 gives her a degree of emotional pain that’s unusual for the show, as Frank has to give a promotion to the Army officer who raped her in college, a subplot that will certainly resurface.  She’s a relatively minor character in Episode 3.  We’ve seen just about all of Frank’s moves, so Spacey’s performance is enjoyable but not surprising, while Wright’s Claire still offers the possibility of as-yet unseen depths.  (When terrorizing Gillian over her pregnancy, there’s a subtle but clear level of regret in Claire that she’s chosen a path of unwavering ambition rather than any more nurturing alternative.)

Although the US Cards is very different from the British version in tone and often plot (Frank’s smirking asides to the camera, a trope from the original series, still feel out-of-place here), the two share one shortcoming:  an absence of worthy adversaries for Frank and Claire.  With Zoe gone, her reporting partner/lover Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) is so clearly, pathetically incapable of defeating Frank that scenes featuring him are like watching a mouse edging ever closer to its trap, and wan former prostitute Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), ambiguously protected by Frank’s Chief of Staff Doug (Michael Kelly), is another victim waiting to happen.  Billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), despite having the ear of the President, has already made miscalculations in going behind Frank’s back, a fatal error.  Even though the show is setting up Jackie as someone who’s smart and ruthless enough to be powerful foe when she ultimately reaches her limit with Frank, she’s shows signs of conscience (i.e., weakness) that suggest Frank will easily push her aside when it becomes necessary.  Unless and until the time comes when Frank has to face off against Claire (which is how the British House of Cards concluded), Frank won’t face much of a challenge, which allows for limited suspense.

The Netflix Cards isn’t as conceptually exciting as the very best of TV (or “TV”) these days–it’s not even the most thrilling show on Netflix, compared to Orange Is the New Black.  Nevertheless, it’s an intelligent, beautifully acted and visualized potboiler, and this batch of episodes promises to be less stately and more fun than the last.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."