February 18, 2014

THE SKED Netflix Review: “House of Cards” Season 2 (Eps 11-13)


House of Cards Season 2

Eps 1-3 Review Here.

Eps 4-7 Review Here.

Eps 8-10 Review Here.

It’s a paradox of the Netflix version of HOUSE OF CARDS that in many ways, its least interesting character is the one at its center.  Pick the wildlife metaphor of choice:  Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a reptile, a spider, a shark, the proverbial scorpion who rides (temporarily) on the back of the frog–after 13 hours of his company, despite all the dead-eyed, tightly-coiled vitriol that Spacey puts into the role, it becomes clear that Frank is almost entirely lacking in the kind of moral or emotional dimension that makes a character compelling, even more so than his equally ruthless wife Claire (Robin Wright), who occasionally shows signs of deeply-buried anguish.  Aside from some brief moments of comfortable scheming with Claire, Frank operates in just a few modes:  seeming placidity, fake sincerity, tense calculation and vicious attack, and since the only genuine emotion is the last of them, he can become monotonous to watch.  He has none of the English Francis Urquhart’s sadistic jolliness, and even this Frank’s moments of exultation at the close of the final episode are tinged with an anger that will seemingly never be sated.  (The only exception comes in Episode 11, when we finally, if briefly, find out what pleases Frank sexually.)

The final 3 episodes of Season 2, all written by US series creator Beau Willimon (Episode 11 with Co-Executive Producer John Mankiewicz), and with Episode 11 directed by John Coles and 12-13 by James Foley, depicts the iron pincers of Frank’s master plan closing in on the US presidency.  For those who know the British series, it’s surprisingly unmelodramatic (although there’s an act of possibly fatal violence in the final hour, it’s only tangentially related to Frank), a complex but steady exercise in pressure being applied to President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill) until his staying in office is untenable.  It’s not that Frank has remarkable insights that others don’t; he’s just able to spot the weaknesses in others, and he’s a step faster and more implacable in capitalizing on them than anyone else.

Some portions of Frank’s strategy are more convincing than others.  For a moment, around the start of Episode 12, there’s the exciting prospect that President Walker might actually be a match for Frank, fully aware of his propensity for betrayal and ready to battle him on equal terms.  But by the final episode, we’re supposed to believe that the President abruptly turns naive again, convinced by Frank’s unctuous sentiment into doing exactly the wrong thing because it’s been typed on a manual typewriter–it diminishes Walker, and thus cheapens Frank’s ultimate win.  Willimon is much better when he shows Frank backing an opponent into a corner where they have no good solution and might as well side with him, as with his manipulation of House Whip Jackie Sharp (the excellent Molly Parker, who gets a terrific face-off with Wright in Episode 12).

It’s surprising that the season ends with some loose ends, since the original concept was that Cards would be a 26-episode-and-out event.  Although Frank’s story reaches a conclusion, important characters like Jackie, lobbyist Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), master hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) and former prostitute Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) are left somewhat unsettled, and the fate of Frank’s Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) amounts to a cliffhanger.   The word is that Netflix is so pleased by the show’s success (even if those of us outside the company’s inner circles are unable to quantify it) that it’s now in discussions about additional seasons–Netflix has certainly proven that it’s not afraid to write big checks–so there’s plenty of material open for future storylines.

The fact that its protagonist is a sociopath driven by a single ambition limits House of Cards, but the show is still marvelously smart and uniformly well acted, even more of an ensemble than the first season was.  Wright was particularly strong this season, giving Claire’s evil a human side that Frank’s doesn’t have.  Willimon made a lot of good decisions going into Season 2, like minimizing the efforts of the crusading press to stop Frank (which was never going to happen) and building the complexity both of existing characters like Claire and Remy as well as new ones like Jackie Sharp.  (Only Joanna Going’s First Lady remained a mostly gullible fool, willing to believe whatever Claire told her to the very end.)  Even though the plot concerning Doug’s warped obsession with Rachel seemed to belong on a different show, both actors were excellent.

Netflix’s cash also made for a beautifully produced show, with rich photography by Igor Martinovic and handsome production design throughout.  Jeff Beal’s martial-flavored score was also a standout.  Even the use of real-life journalists from Rachel Maddow and Ashleigh Banfield to Morley Safer and Sean Hannity was more thoughtful and convincing than such cameos usually are.

House of Cards was faster and more entertaining this time around, and it has room to keep going.  Now that Frank Underwood has reached his biggest goal, he’ll have plenty of challenges ahead, but the biggest one for the show will be to keep him watchable without softening him.


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."