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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Deal Another HOUSE OF CARDS

Article first written for Seat42F.



WARNING: This review contains major spoilers from the first hour of the second season of HOUSE OF CARDS. It is recommended that you watch that episode, then return to read this review. There will be no spoilers given from episodes after the premiere, this being written before further installments have been seen by this reviewer.

Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS launched their second season in its entirety yesterday. For anyone who worried that the intense thriller might lose momentum in the second year, those doubts were quickly dispelled within the first installment, “Chapter 14,” by a series of major plot twists and the death of a very central character.

As “Chapter 14” begins, Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) are on their night jog. This is where we left them last year, and provides a seamless continuity between the two seasons. While nothing happens in this first scene, it’s important to give the show its cohesion, and it lets viewers find a framework with which to enter back into the story.

From there, the hanging story arcs are picked up one by one. Zoe (Kate Mara), Janine (Constance Zimmer), and Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) continue their frustrating investigation into Russo’s murder. Claire sees a doctor about the possibility of getting pregnant, while still fighting Gillian’s (Sandrine Holt) lawsuit. Frank prepares to assume the Vice Presidency and makes plans for who will succeed him, as well as dealing with the nosy reporters. It’s all just how we think the show will resume.

Even many of the minor players pop back up quickly. Doug (Michael Kelly) is forcing Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) to relocate so Zoe and company can’t find her. Christina (Kristen Connolly) is seen applying for a job with Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey), continuing her career trajectory. President Walker (Michael Gill) talks with Frank about changes in Congress, though is content to let others make the decisions. Frank gets another batch of ribs from Freddy (Reg E. Cathey). Meechum (Nathan Darrow) remains Frank’s driver and bodyguard, getting ready to transition into the Secret Service. Again, this really makes the series seem like the seasons aren’t separate, very important to ease viewers back in.

There are some new developments early on, such as the introduction of Jacqueline Sharp (Molly Parker, Deadwood, The Firm) as Frank’s hand-chosen replacement as whip, and thus the likely target of the next round of danger and scandal. But because Jackie is introduced in conjunction with Frank’s goals, it doesn’t feel out of place at all.

But then, as soon as we get comfortable, thinking we have the layout of the game figured out, Frank shoves Zoe, arguably the second or third most important player on the show, in front of a subway and she dies.

This is the brilliance of HOUSE OF CARDS. It lets the viewers think one thing, then yanks the rug right out from under them. It never goes into nonsensical territory, and the developments, even those that are surprising, are a natural part of the tale. It’s this unpredictability, though, especially after so much of the installment takes care to set up the opposite, that makes the writing so darn good, and the series highly addictive.

Lest we’ve forgotten the type of man Frank is, he tells us, just after he kills Zoe. He looks at the camera and reminds us he hasn’t let us slide. It’s a chilling end to the episode, the camera lingering on his cufflinks with the initials F and U, very appropriate for Frank’s attitude towards everyone. This is a man that can lie about having taken a life without batting an eye, never loses a wink of sleep for his actions, and most people in his circle would be wise to follow Janine’s example and run far away. He is the reason to watch HOUSE OF CARDS, a compellingly psychopathic character, unique in the television landscape, and masterfully developed by an actor at the top of his craft.

Wright also deserves major credit for “Chapter 14.” At first, I couldn’t figure out why Claire abandons her quest to have a child late in the episode. But after consideration, it has to be that Gillian’s pregnancy left her vulnerable to be manipulated by Claire. Claire doesn’t accept weakness, and if she can use a baby to go after someone else, she isn’t about to leave herself open to the same. Wright conveys all this without dialogue to explain it, and it makes Claire an interesting terror, one who is a quieter, but still appropriate, match for Frank.

At the end, we see Claire learn about Zoe’s death, but her non-reaction indicates she either likely knows that Frank is involved or strongly suspects as much, but she doesn’t care or trusts that Frank had a good reason. She has accepted her husband for who he is, and while may not always respect his wishes, making sure he gets a birthday cake, knows which buttons she can and cannot push, effortlessly getting him to quit smoking, at least for now. And he accepts her influence without a fight, showing us something neat about their seemingly closed-off relationship.

“Chapter 14” should satisfy all fan expectation, and be a highly enjoyable piece of television in its own right. The only disturbing thought I’m left with is, how could anyone possibly ever bring down Frank? The only one with a real motivation and opportunity to do so at this time is Lucas, but he’s hopelessly out of his depth.  I look forward to watching more.

All thirteen episodes of HOUSE OF CARDS’ second season are available now on Netflix.

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