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Thursday, March 6, 2014

House of Cards Season 2 Midpoint Check-in

Article first published as House of Cards Season 2 Midpoint Check-in on TheTVKing.

Note: This review is written after having viewed season two, episode seven of House of Cards, "Chapter Twenty." If you are not that far along yet, please watch some more, then come back to this column.

Season two is shaping up to be a great one for Netflix's House of Cards. There are a number of personal stories interwoven around the main plot, but the central thrust thus far has been a war between Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney, Simon & Simon, Major Dad). Which has more influence in Washington: money or power? I believe we'll find out as this year continues to play out.

By "Chapter Twenty," Frank has successfully sabotaged Raymond's sway over President Walker (Michael Gill). Rather than being defeated, though, this makes Tusk more determined to have control, switching his allegiances to the other political party, without it being publicly obvious that he has any affiliation with either side of course. This isn't something Frank can stop, and his meeting with Tusk's business partner, Lanagin (Gil Birmingham, Twilight), as well as Stamper's (Michael Kelly) efforts with another partner, Feng (Terry Chen), come to nothing.

That doesn't mean Frank is done, by any means. Frank has wormed his way back into Walker's good graces, expertly dismantling a feud and forming a friendship. It's all an act, from Franks' perspective, just another strategic move in his game, but Walker seems completely taken in, and while money can buy elections, those still in office do have influence.

One wonders how this could end up. Frank wins by manipulation, something easy to do in the halls he's so familiar with, but much harder to do on a national scale in terms of elections. On the other hand, Tusk may be shut out of the White House, but he can buy up as many TV spots as he likes, which can sway public opinion. Frank seems to be scoring minor victories, but is losing overall. I wonder who will come out on top?

It's interesting that Frank is building a Civil War battle model in "Chapter Twenty" of a conflict that resulted in heavy losses on both sides and no clear winner. Might this be how House of Cards lets this war play out? Or is this just how Frank sees things as they are, leading to so much frustration that he smashes his work?

We don't yet know Grayson's (Derek Cecil) true loyalty, which could shift the balance. He confesses to Frank that he's been working for Remy and Tusk, but professes that he thinks Frank is the better man to back. I'm not sure if this is true or if Grayson is really good at what he's doing for Tusk. Grayson does get Remy to remove Ellis (Sam Page), an obstacle, from the Underwoods' circle, but is that Grayson playing Tusk or trying to accomplish his mission? This arc still has too much mystery to make anyone comfortable, but it's this kind of suspense that drives the series.

Luckily, Frank has something Tusk lacks: Claire (Robin Wright). Claire isn't directly involved in the current machinations, but she's there to support Frank, taking him on a run to calm him down. She also helps Frank throw a dinner for Walker and the First Lady, Tricia (Joanna Going), whom Claire befriends, giving the couple even more of a bond to the Underwoods. I've learned never to underestimate Claire, so the fact that Tusk may soon be fighting the two of them, not just Frank, is what should have Tusk worried.

I'm a little confused about why Claire is sabotaging Christina's (Kristen Connolly) reputation. Is Christina merely collateral damage, a way for Claire to get in with Tricia? Or did Christina sleeping with her boss really offend Claire so? Or does conflict in his marriage make Walker confide even more in Frank? Or maybe I just missed something.

Something that might make Frank's life more difficult would be a defection in his own ranks. Jackie (Molly Parker) doesn't seem like the loyal little soldier any more. I guess it's true; once a backstabber, always a backstabber. She has a history of this behavior. Her rebellion would only ever be a minor setback for Frank, he's dealt with worse, but she's playing with fire that could destroy her. Do not ever, ever betray Frank. He might push you in front of a subway or fake an overdose. We're not talking career suicide, we're talking literal suicide.

To make matters worse for her, Jackie is shacking up with the enemy, sleeping with Tusk's man, Remy (Mahershala Ali). I like what we see in Remy, that he's not content for casual sex, revealing something more about him than has been obvious, a noble moral compass. But Jackie is probably just trying to advance her status, and not doing a very good job of it since she doesn't fake the emotions that will help her attain her goal. She is no Frank, and these weaknesses will be her downfall.

It does appear that one of the threats to Frank, the media, has been neutralized. With Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) discredited and in jail and no one coming to his aid, Frank may have defeated this branch of enemy. Or it may just be dormant, meant to be revived later, possibly with the help of Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson), who seems sympathetic to Lucas' cause.

Amid all this chaos, love may be blooming for Stamper and Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan). Suddenly, Stamper is refusing pretty women in China (ridiculous!) and calling her just to check in. His harsh words on her voice mail are clearly just a cover, though. Who would have thought this might happen? Does it have any chance of working, Rachel being broken enough to be drawn to the man who would protect her? Or is this a distracting side story that doesn't mean much?

Speaking of odd subplots, in "Chapter Twenty," Freddy (Reg E. Cathey) finally gets his own focus. There's a really sweet scene with him meeting the Walkers, but more important, he's suddenly in the press and being offered franchise deals. Is this a sneaky plot by Tusk to knock Frank off his game, trying to steal away Frank's beloved ribs? Or is this a completely separate story? The former seems much more likely given the tight writing of House of Cards, but I appreciate that no ulterior motive has been given for Freddy's fame yet, making it seem like he's earned well-deserved recognition.

By "Chapter Twenty," there's plenty of exciting plot to watch, but no real clear vision of how the season will play out yet. This is completely fine, as House of Cards is great at tying up unexpected threads at just the right time, one in which we don't quite see it coming, but it makes sense in retrospect. It's full of incredible writing and acting, and season two has maintained the quality of the first year, even as the mystique has started to fade away, fans finally figuring out what the DNA of the show is. As long as it keeps up the good work, we should all be satisfied.

Both thirteen-episode seasons of House of Cards are available now streaming for Netflix subscribers. Join me in a couple of weeks for my season two finale review, date TBA.

2 comments:

  1. Mrs. Wetzel better get her act together and help you watch the rest ASAP. I cant be waiting so long between reviews and watching or i'll forget what happened!!

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  2. Two weeks isn't bad for half a season. That's about one episode every other day. This week, we're concentrating more on catching up with HBO's True Detective. Next week, I'll push her to finish House of Cards.

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