House of Cards is a show defined by polarity. At times, the individually brilliant pieces that constitute it manage to click together and deliver moments of audacious entertainment. Elsewhere, however, the gleaming machinery of plot and character hiding just beneath the program’s stunning acting seems to creak and moan, the respective parts whirring away at varying speeds and directions. The result is an uneven but enthralling mish-mash of high-intensity melodrama and ham-fisted political rhetoric that is best swallowed in one meaty gulp.
If you don’t remember what happened in the first season, don’t worry; the writers are counting on that. The season begins by effectively wiping Frank Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty) slate clean in a shocking plot twist too good to spoil here. However, while it works in the moment, the twist hurts the narrative tension of the show tremendously. Without that particular Sword of Damocles hanging over his head, Underwood’s menagerie of two-dimensional foes have very little leverage to hold over him. Even Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney, Deadwood), the first season’s supposedly megalomaniacal mogul-cum-antagonist, offers up little resistance to the unstoppable steamroller that the writers want Underwood to be.
LITTLE MORE THAN A MASCULINE POWER TRIP
These structural problems have plagued the series since its inception, but there are many more bright spots this time around. Whereas last season the supporting players were little more than identical chess pawns for Frank to play with, season 2 marks their graduation into the higher ranks of game pieces. In particular, Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright, Princess Bride) and chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly, Changeling) transform from henchmen to something resembling actual characters. The show keeps its signature brisk pace and slightly convoluted plot, but, beside Frank’s infallible ability to read people, it manages to minimize the logical leaps that the first season suffered from. In general, the actors seem like they’ve become aware of the show’s penchant for self-parody, and that makes the entire season that much more palatable.
THE SCRIPT IS PEPPERED WITH GROANERS, LAZY METAPHORS AND CLICHÉS
So, is Season 2 of House of Cards going to convert anyone to its cause? Not likely, but that’s probably the show’s aim. Like it or not, House of Cards is never going to be the political take on the Breaking Bad formula that the critics thought it could be. As it stands, Cards is a well-acted, competently-made B-level show that only occasionally yearns to be something more. If you come in with the right expectations, watching it in an enormous binge will probably be enjoyable enough. Just don’t stop to think about it too much, or the illusion will come tumbling down like its own namesake.