February 17, 2014

THE SKED Netflix Review: “House Of Cards” Season 2 (Eps 8-10)


House of Cards Season 2

Eps 1-3 Review Here.

Eps 4-7 Review Here.

At the three-quarters mark, this season of HOUSE OF CARDS has a somewhat different feel, not just from the English original but from the initial Netflix season.  While the series may never give Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) an antagonist who can truly beat him–for Frank, all of life is like the lower levels of a first-person shooter video game–one of the smart things that US series creator Beau Willimon has done this season is to give him a constant barrage of multiple challenges, enough so that rather than simply stomp past the puny obstacles in his way, Frank has to weigh their relative importance and take the risks of prioritizing them, building traps that could potentially ensnare himself.  Even for those who have seen the British show and have a feel for where the season may be headed, this helps to obscure Frank’s path to his ultimate goal.

This season has also been marked by a stronger sense of compassion for Frank’s and his wife Claire’s (Robin Wright) collateral damage, and in that light, Episode 9 is the standout of this trio.  Written by Willimon himself and directed by Jodie Foster, it focuses somewhat atypically on a situation where Frank and Claire are being victimized themselves by billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), who has turned out to be this season’s Big Bad.  Tusk ruthlessly manipulates Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels), the photographer with whom Claire had an affair last season, by threatening the man’s Colombian fiancee with the execution of her innocent father; and even worse, Tusk goes after perhaps the show’s most purely sympathetic character, BBQ ribs master Freddy (Reg E. Cathay).  Frank and Claire ultimately abandon both victims to their fates (in Adam’s case, rather pitilessly), but for once the Underwoods aren’t the true villains of the hour.  Foster shows a strong directing hand, expanding the series template to provide a glimpse into the lives of characters outside the show’s usual DC bubble.  (Freddy’s backstory also gives Cathay a chance to provide viewers with fond memories of his days on The Wire.)

Also notable is Episode 10, which marks the directing debut of Robin Wright (written again by Willimon, this time with Staff Writer Laura Eason; Episode 8 is written by Executive Producer David Manson and directed by James Foley).  One of the quiet strengths of this season has been the performance of Michel Gill as President Garret Walker, who’s provided a very adept portrait of the kind of decisive yet bland leader who often gets elected to high office in the US.  Gill has done an exceptional job of presenting Walker as someone who can be lulled and manipulated by Frank without looking like an idiot (as his counterpart the Prime Minister did in the British version), and as Frank’s endgame starts to become evident, that touch becomes increasingly important.  The hour also finally blows up the relationship between the Underwoods and Frank’s replacement as House Whip, Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), over Jackie’s refusal to sponsor Claire’s bill imposing civilian authority on the military in cases of sexual assault (although her reason for taking that stand isn’t particularly clear), and Wright handles the strong scenes between herself and Parker, and then between Parker and Spacey, extremely well.  Another supporting performer who’s really had an impact this season is Mahershala Ali as Tusk lobbyist (and former Underwood aide) Remy Danton, and this episode nicely taps into the paranoia between Remy and Jackie, who are trying to have a romance while not necessarily on the same side.  (Thinking of romance, as it were, we also had a rare glimpse at what lies underneath the Underwoods’ monstrous but happy marriage, as Frank watched pornography on his laptop and then talked matter-of-factly with Claire about her former lover.)

Some of the shortcomings of this season remain.  Communications Director Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) wears his untrustworthiness too prominently on his sleeve, and it’s not convincing that Frank, so canny a judge of people, would equate him with longtime Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly)–and even though the script gives Frank a to-the-camera moment to explain that he finds it worthwhile to let them brawl with each other, having that take up everyone’s time and attention while he’s in the middle of major crises makes little sense.  Stamper’s “relationship” with former prostitute Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), now a semi-born again lesbian, is certainly building to something, but it has a weirdness (he has her read to him from the Bible and “A Tale of Two Cities”–the latter because his mother used to read it to him) that doesn’t fit with the rest of the show.  Claire’s intermittent attempts to make trouble in the marriage of the President and First Lady also feel much clumsier than her usual style.

Nevertheless, as it enters its home stretch, this batch of House of Cards is considerably more compelling and propulsive than its first, and it promises some fireworks in the final three hours.

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."