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End of Season Report: House of Cards, Season 2

24 Feb

What are the two?

I enjoyed season 1 of House of Cards but it had some serious problems which kept it ranked fairly low on the list of shows that I watch. In season 2, those problems are exacerbated rather than fixed. I’ll probably still watch season 3 and I can’t quite say I didn’t somewhat enjoy my marathoning through the 13 season 2 episodes. It was still on the side of more pleasant and less of a chore (which is always one of the signs before I drop a show). Still, it was a somewhat disappointing season fraught not just with problems that are somewhat inherent to the formula of House of Cards, but with problems that could have been fixed through better planning.

Since unfortunately this review is more about House of Cards’ problems, than its successes, I’ll break down those problems in the two categories I briefly mentioned above. First, the issues inherent to the formula established by House of Cards. Frank Underwood, and to some extent his wife Claire seem virtually omnipotent. Simply put, they always win and get what they want. Sure, it’s not actually that easy, and they face crisis after crisis, but they’re just smarter and more visionary than everybody else, and even more than that have an uncanny ability to manipulate everybody to do exactly what they want, wittingly or unwittingly. The president was putty in Frank’s hands, and even when he suddenly woke up and saw what Frank was doing, Frank won him right back over after a brief respite. You can’t beat Frank and Claire, and at some point that takes a toll on the tension of the show. Sure, there’s something to watching our protagonists come up with a plan and execute it successfully, but this is more than that – it requires so many things to go right that it strains credibility even within the universe of the show where I’m willing to give it some decent leeway.  This was more tolerable in the first season when Frank seemed to play the scrappy underdog (relatively) that many powerful people didn’t give enough credit to, and it was relatively easier to believe that their understimation of Frank put them in a position of weakness. Now, though, it seems hard to imagine people are constantly underestimating him as Vice President.

The lack of both serious crises and more than that credible antagonists make Frank’s victory’s seem more certain and less earned. More than that, considering how many obviously stupid mistakes he makes, one would think he’d be losing more often, or everyone around him is just not particularly competent or even close to his level. Maybe if all his plans didn’t contain so many obvious holes, his winning all the time would be convincing. Again, I’m not even saying he shouldn’t be winning more of the time than not; but the way it feels, is that there is almost never really any chance of him losing.

The breaking the fourth wall in which Frank constantly turns toward the camera could be witty, sharp, and funny – a meta-take on narration (or something) – and sometimes is, but it’s more often unnecessarily on the nose; telling us exactly what he’s doing even when it’s incredibly obvious to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention. It plays right into my much­-ballyhooed (by me) dangers of narration. We get it, Kevin Spacey, I mean Frank Underwood, we see almost every step of your plans, your explanations and wry remarks aren’t adding a whole lot.

Thirdly, the show suffers from a somewhat serious flaw which I think makes it ideal for binge watching and whatever the opposite of ideal is for ruminating about for any period of time. Quickly put, the show doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The machinations, the Frank Underwood-actually-killing-someone, the idea that these mind-bogglingly complicated plans that involve eighteen different moving parts working as smoothly as no real life game of mousetrap has actually worked (seriously, if you got Mousetrap to work, kudos) actually work step by step, is a bit much to take. Again, this isn’t The Wire, or even Homeland, I don’t expect real life or even a close facsimile. But it’s not fantasy world Game of Thrones either. I’m perfectly willing to follow Underwood pretty far down the rabbit hole but the second season continues to want to extend the leash, to a point at which it just it’s too far within the universe of the show. Just be reasonable ridiculous, which I don’t think is too big an ask.

Those issues are not going away and were more or less prevalent in the first season. Here’s some issues that were more particular to this season.

Forget the internal logic of the show, for a minute. There were straight out significant parts of this season that made me think, why is this here, or more coarsely, to simply say out loud, “what the fuck?”. Chief among these are the hacker scenes with Gavin (Jimmi Simpson, Liam McPoyle from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and his guinea pig. What? Why? I get that he will at least hopefully come up in the third season, and the writers are trying to get a head start on setting up that plot but the point of these short fairly meaningless bursts with this character were confounding. Even more confounding, the scene with Xander Feng having sex with the bag over his head. Whaa? Why? In generally, there were just wasted threads that seemed to go nowhere and have unsatisfying conclusions. Lucas was a pretty lousy character who did an awful job of investigating and after his disappearance, any journalism angle largely goes by the wayside. By no means is the show obligated to keep up the journalism plotline, but the parts the made it in and the point at which it was cut out just seemed arbitrary and odd. The same goes for the killing of Zoe Barnes; it was a total shock, which absolutely had some value as a viewer, but beyond that it didn’t seem particularly well thought out. These are some examples, and I could break it down episode by episode, but in sum, there are a lot of these moments, and it feels like the writers just didn’t edit their work very well.

Season 2 could have used more compelling antagonists. It’s hard to get worked up against Gerald McRaney’s Raymond Tusk, and less so even about him than about the bureaucratic pissing match that him and Frank have over the course of the season; it basically feels like the same episode six or seven times in a row as Underwood and Tusk go back and forth. The plots are repetitive and not particularly compelling. If someone who is actually kind of a nerd about politics finds this boring and pointless, I can only imagine what someone with no interest in politics thinks. This all is not even counting what a mind-boggling pushover the president is, compared to Frank.

All this being said, House of Cards probably isn’t going to rank particularly high when I get down to ranking my 2014 shows next year, but I’ll most likely still come back to watch the third season when it comes around because I still think the show has something to offer. So here’s some general advice based on everything I’ve said above. Tighten the damn screws.  You have a while to put together this next season. Stop wasting time; make sure the scenes that are shown, are shown for a reason. Thread the season together smarter and more compellingly; don’t have a back and forth between two characters that sort of just vacillates over points that nobody really cares about. It can be done. I’ll wait for Orange is the New Black in the meantime.