TV: House of Cards (Season 2)

Recently Netflix released its second binge – er, season — of House of Cards. Like the first, I burned through it quickly and with pleasure. Dark, twisty, and not exactly realistic, House of Cards is a gleefully cynical political fantasy about the horrible people who run things and the innocents who get caught up in their schemes. Is there a grander moral in the offing? Time will tell, but right now it remains a slick, skillful, and compulsively watchable show. It’s also difficult to summarize without spoilers, so avert your gaze if you’re behind.

Having climbed another rung up the ladder, newly minted Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), with the essential collaboration of his wife Claire (Robin Wright), begins executing the next stage of his long con: leveraging his proximity to the presidency to new levels of power. This involves driving a wedge between the president (Michael Gill) and his trusted advisor, energy magnate Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney). It also means maintaining his importance in congress, which leads him to recruit a new ally, Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker). But those are just two of the many balls he has in the air. Underwood’s rise to power is built on a thoroughly corrupt foundation, and keeping those closet skeletons buried is never far from his thoughts. This gives his right-hand man Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) plenty of work to do, especially keeping tabs on a potential whistle-blower, former prostitute Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan).

Season two makes some bold decisions early on to alter its structural landscape, and they pay off, making the season a little less predictable and more satisfying than the first. Most of the fun is in watching Spacey and Wright, who are terrific as the nefarious Washington power couple – Spacey excelling with flashy theatrics and subversive expressions, Wright with a more nuanced and understated performance. Their relationship is quite interesting, and again I find myself hoping that their grand scheme has an unexpected and powerful endgame behind it, largely because it strikes me there isn’t really that much underneath this show’s surface. Engaging as it is, with its intrigue and melodrama and compelling political thriller trappings, I find myself craving more thematic resonance to accompany the plot machinations. Short of repeating what we already know – Washington is awful – it’s not really delivering a message. The way this series ends, whenever that may be, could go a long way to justifying the journey. Until then, though, I’ll continue to enjoy the binge.

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