‘Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you’d hoped I had. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain there can be no mercy. There is but one rule – Hunt, or be hunted… Welcome back.’
Such were the words delivered by a chilling Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) at the end of episode one of House of Cards second season (paraphrased to avoid spoilers). To say that the series kicked into action with a bang is an understatement, at this point no welcome was necessary; we were all ready and set to watch Frank and his wife Claire (Robin Wright), the Underwoods, dominate the political jungle of Washington DC in their ravenous search for power and renown. At the end of season one, we saw Frank become the Vice President of the United States in a game of governmental chess that was equal parts riveting and despicable. People were used and abused, underhanded promises were made and with the help of his chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Frank managed to stave off the dogs of war and come out somewhat unscathed. Now though, his dark, quiet, almost chillingly personal home is being invaded and modelled for home security as he prepares to be in the frame of power, and the story continues.
The most notable change from season one to season two of House of Cards is the fact that, with their home being renovated for protection reasons since they decline to stay in the White House, the Underwoods lives are under a magnifying glass more than ever before. Both being experts at the underhanded game, Claire and Frank struggle with this idea early on, and it remains a strong theme through-out the season; if they put a foot wrong previously, it was only ever them at home who could see it and clean up the mess, now they’re surrounded by the secret service and one false step could ruin everything. The game could not be played the same way as before, and the game just got harder to boot. Carrying on from season one, Frank works fast to cover his tracks and set himself up as a trusted ally of the President of the United States. Easier said than done when he’s also competing with outside investors and friends of the President like Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) for first loyalty, and outside interference from foreign diplomats in China’s Xander Feng (Terry Chen) as well as problems much closer to home. It all serves to build greater tension, and we serve to try and follow along.
It’s in following along that House of Cards continues with one of the shows greater strengths – it’s accessibility. Taking something like politics and making a pulp scandal show out of it isn’t the easiest thing to do. Politics is notoriously boring as a topic and maintaining interest in the show while still sounding convincing could end up being too much of one and just being a touch messy. The sweet spot is here, where the dialogue and story-lines feel real, they feel authentic – I mean, I’m sure they’re not, but they sound right – while they’re also so riveting to watch, with each character proving a welcome change in tone for the other and each plot-line weaving nicely throughout to provide multiple cadences that feel satisfying and also intriguing. Every episode leads us to more of the right kind questions and has us on the edge of our seat as every character gets a little bit closer to the edge and we wonder whose going to take a plunge and whose going to stand strong.
And take plunges, some unfortunate souls do. This season is decidedly darker than season one, with much more personal exploration of Frank and Claire, as well as much heavier subject matter. Themes of murder, sexual abuse, war, adultery, lower class vs. upper class, seriously seedy business amongst others are prevalent through-out and no-one is shown to be totally clean or innocent, even if only by proximity. With the tempo of the show being it’s very steady fast pace, the delivery of each revelation and each row of dominoes falling feels even more shocking in the aftermath – I often found myself re-watching certain moments, trying to make sense of them before Frank would once again address us with another metaphor-laden diatribe on his reasoning behind each action. Of course, we have our villains, even if Frank himself is a villain protagonist, and they each have their moment in court, but it’s in intimately knowing how the Underwoods act and think that proves so hard to swallow when innocent sometimes by-standers, sometimes friends get chewed out as they attempt to contain their rise with the least amount of collateral damage possible. They are despicable, but I’ll be damned if we don’t love them for it.
The ‘villain protagonist’ approach to story-telling has been quite prevalent in television of the last decade. We’ve had several shows use the concept to great success, most recently with Breaking Bad absolutely dominating popular culture in it’s last season, spring-boarding Bryan Cranston and co. into the stratosphere of fame. They’ve all been very entertaining, each with a different slant on the persona, mob boss, heroic serial killer, good man turned bad, but I feel like House of Cards is taking those shows, and combining their best elements and defining the role to an extent. Frank Underwood is one of the most evil character’s whose perspective I’ve sat through; he is remorseless, absolutely blood-thirsty and when he turns the fire on and wants to control someone, he gets what he wants, no ifs, ands or buts about it. There’s one particular scene with Frank, Claire and Adam (Ben Daniels) where Frank and Claire form a united front against Adam and I was genuinely scared of the characters. Not just adrenaline pumping scared, actually scared of them. Communicating that kind of fear is never easy, and to make it so that you’re still hungry for the next episode is frankly impressive.
There’s some irony to be found in House of Cards being a flagship show in Netflix’s increasing roster of original programming. The show being about a cut-throat politician rising to the top could be taken as a metaphor for Netflix and it’s swiftly growing hold on the television and movie home-front. I’m not about to make such a claim as I think it’s a bit ambiguous, but the thought had crossed my mind. The fact is, this is a very well crafted show with Kevin Spacey at the helm. It’s got an incredibly diverse and tight cast with a slew of great writers handling the show with expert care. Jodie Foster even stopped by to direct an episode. Bar some light issues with character developments in this season, one almost-sex scene is just mind-boggling, I can find little wrong here. I mean, the whole thing is on Netflix, what excuse do you have not to give it a go?
House of Cards Seasons 1 and 2 are available in full on Netflix – www.netflix.com
[easyreview cat1title=”The Arcade Verdict” cat1detail=”” cat1rating=”10″]