The ascent (and descent) continues in House of Cards Season 2

House-of-Cards-review-1THE NETFLIX original series House of Cards finally arrived in its entirety for a second season on Valentine’s Day this year. For those looking forward to it (myself included)… that pretty much took up the entire weekend.

This comes as a continuation of possibly the best US political drama to come to our screens since Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. However, whilst The West Wing is an idealistic and positive show brimming with optimism, House of Cards is the opposite, showing the Machiavellian ruthless and relentless nature of politics.

For those unfamiliar of the premise, the show is a political drama adapted from a BBC miniseries set in Washington D.C.. Kevin Spacey plays Congressman Frank Underwood, who after backing a candidate to become president in return for a position in the cabinet, is left in his position as House Majority Whip to keep influence in Congress for the Democratic Party. In his anger and lust for power, he aims to seek the presidency for himself.

Frank’s main allies are his wife Claire, played by Robin Wright, and his chief of staff, Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly, who both play a key part in the ongoing plot for power. However, these are by no means the main and only characters the series focuses on. House of Cards also draws on a wide range of supporting characters including businessmen, reporters, lobbyists, and (of course) a wide variety of politicians and public servants too numerous and insignificant to mention them all in this review.

This is definitely a strength the show has, as the collective cast is very strong. With everything going on throughout the season, they are still able to portray distinguishable personalities and motives without the viewer being confused. This in particular applies to many of the politicians played by old white males. However, the main stars Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey, the core of the show, are by far giving some of the best performances of their career, with them both being hauntingly double-faced. Wright won a Golden globe earlier this year for Best Actress in a television Drama, and Spacey was nominated for Best Actor, only to lose to Bryan Cranston who finally got an award for his work on Breaking Bad.

A great aspect of this season after the first is that it is current and topical with the issues portrayed being similar to events happening in real life. A large part of the season arc involves trade wars with China which is definitely a hypothetical event on the minds of many. Along with this, there is the inclusion of the Tea Party, hacking, government shutdown and security threats to the U.S. Capitol. All of these have been major headlines, at least in the US, over the past year which definitely helps in the shows credibility and believability as a US political drama.

Whereas The West Wing had its signature walk and talks, House of Cards has Spacey consistently breaking the fourth wall, addressing the viewer and hinting at his possible machinations. Whilst this is a carry-on from the original mini-series set here in the UK, the makers utilise this really well, seeing as most of the series plot hinges on dialogue. Not only does it help to summarise what is going on, but it also keeps the viewer second guessing. It also works very well in terms of the character of Underwood; not only are you getting inside his head, you can’t help but like him as a character despite the despicable acts he plans and commits with no regard to anyone but himself.

One potential concern for someone new to the show is its focus on the US political system, requiring some previous knowledge of it to fully understand and enjoy it as a show. Whilst there is plenty of political language thrown around such as primary, caucus, filibuster, PAC and impeachment (!), this is by no means the core of what the show is about and is actually inconsequential when dealing with the plot. And if something is really bugging you as to what is going on, a quick Wikipedia article can surely satisfy your curiosity and send you on your way.

One of the main complaints I have heard in regards to this season is that the storyline is stretched over the course of the thirteen episodes. I would however, disagree with that assessment. While there are minor plots on the side that seemingly go nowhere, looking at the re-occurrence of plots from the prior season, we shall surely be seeing these come back to roost for the various characters involved. Also whilst the main arc shows Underwood’s ascent in power and dominance, these show the depth of just how far and low he is willing to go just to get at what he wants.

Another reasonable complaint is the amount of product placement that happens throughout the show. Whilst it is by no means innocent, there are far more sinful TV shows regarding this issue (Heroes), and it is important to keep in mind that none of the money spent on making the show comes from advertising, instead it is funded solely by Netflix.

Looking to the future of House of Cards, the second season is the end of what Netflix originally ordered, although a third season is definitely on the books. With the makers having a clear goal of where they wanted to be after the guaranteed two seasons, the future of this show will certainly be more interesting in terms of plot and seeing when it knows when to stop. There can always be too much of a good thing.

You can stream both seasons of House of Cards in their entirety on Netflix.