February 16, 2014

THE SKED Netflix Review: “House of Cards” Season 2 (Eps 4-7)


House of Cards Season 2

Eps 1-3 Review Here.

A 13-hour season may be a bit too much free rein for HOUSE OF CARDS US series creator Beau Willimon, who is enthralled by the intricately devious strategems of politics, but lacks Aaron Sorkin’s genius for condensing them into bite-sized, easily comprehensible capsules.  So the journey to Cards‘ Season 2 midpoint may contain more than many would like about the minutiae of Chinese currency speculation, rare earth mineral subsidies and nuclear power distribution regulatory rules, all of which figure into Vice President Frank Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) schemes for achieving national, if not world, domination.

Episodes 4-7, written variously by Executive Producer David Manson, Co-Executive Producer John Mankiewicz and Staff Writers Kenneth Lin and Laura Eason, and directed by James Foley and John Coles, are primarily concerned with the escalating war of wits between Frank and billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), a longtime advisor and mentor to President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill), amidst the somewhat arcane battlegrounds noted above.  Tusk is wily and rich, but of course no one on House of Cards is the equal of Frank Underwood, so soon enough Frank is using Tusk’s Chinese billionaire ally Xander Feng (Terry Chen) against him.  By presenting so much detail of the conflict, Willimon and his writing/producer staff expose the weaknesses of the plotting–it doesn’t really make sense that Tusk would go down, switching his allegiance to the Republicans, without making a convincing appeal to his old friend the President, nor that he would antagonize the President, and the country in general, by taking his power plants out of service during a brutal heat wave–but McRaney and Spacey are well matched as actors, so their confrontations are fun to watch.

Episode 4 is the highlight of this quartet:  it gives Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) a powerful hour as she has to give a solo national interview (to the real-life Ashleigh Banfield, with a much more substantial role than journalists usually play in this kind of drama) while Frank is quarantined in the Capitol during an anthrax scare, and she confesses a version of the truth about her rape at the hands of the Army general Frank was forced to promote in an earlier episode, as well as a partial truth about having had an abortion.  That plot percolates along in later episodes, but as more of a B story.  The show blessedly made short work of eliminating Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) as a serious threat to the Underwoods, as he walked right into an FBI cyber-terrorism sting orchestrated by Frank.  However, the more than slightly creepy relationship between Frank’s chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and former prostitute Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan)–the only remaining person who can tie Frank to dead Peter Russo–continues, and can only end badly.

Two relatively new story threads are uneven.  Communications Director Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) is so patently untrustworthy that it seems highly unlikely the Underwoods would ever let him near, even after he’s “confessed” that he’s also being paid by Tusk lobbyist Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), who for his part is drifting into a relationship with Frank’s replacement as House Whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker, underused in these episodes).  Meanwhile, a subplot that has Claire undermining the President’s marriage by suggesting to the First Lady (Joanna Going) that the President might be having an affair with an aide (Kristen Connolly) who used to work for Russo feels like very, very watered-down Scandal.  (One of the oddities of Cards Season 2 is that it’s relatively sexless for a pay-TV series–hardly anything in the first 7 hours would fail to pass broadcast Standards & Practices other than the profanity.)

Despite some flaws, the first half of the new Cards is considerably quicker and more engrossing than that of the show’s first season.  Frank Underwood, lacking any dimension other than calculating ambition (he doesn’t even have much of Ian Richardson’s humor from the British version of the show), can only be so interesting, but Spacey makes the most of him, and Wright is fascinatingly ambiguous.  Now that the dumbly heroic reporters are mostly gone, the rest of the characters squirm around entertainingly on the Underwoods’ hooks.  All the episodes thus far have been photographed by Igor Martinovic (he filmed the nearly single-shot horror movie Silent House, an impressive technical achievement), and Cards is as handsomely produced and designed as any show on television barring the epic Game of Thrones.

With its ferociously complicated intrigues, House of Cards rewards–and may require–some degree of binge-watching, suiting Netflix’s aims perfectly.  Even with the knowledge that the Underwoods are going to win out in the end, a viewer can’t help hurrying to see how they’ll reach their goals.


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."