House of Cards, Season 2: A Preview

James Gallagher

If, like me, you’re a bitter singleton with sociopathic tendencies who looks upon the gullible, faux-romantic adherents to the corporate mantra of Valentine’s Day with a mix of scorn, jealousy and pity then fear not, for this year you can spend the day with a man who feels much the same about such wretched oxygen wasters as you do; a man for whom such trivialities as love, commitment and devotion are evidence of abject weakness and a man whose sole passion in life is the pursuit of ultimate power at the expense of all else… ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Mr. Frank Underwood.

That’s right, everyone’s favourite politician-cum-murderer-cum-smooth talkin’ sonofabitch is back as the new series of Netflix’s self-commissioned, critically acclaimed drama House of Cards goes live today. If you’re single, that means thirteen hours of devious politicking, track-covering and Kevin Spacey winking at you. Heck, even if you’re not single just pit it against shop-bought flowers, a cheap meal at Nandos, a bottle of plonk from Tesco and a drunken fumble to prove you’ve still “got it” – or whatever it is you people do – and the decision must be obvious. I mean come on, let’s face it, your partner(s) will never live up to Seyser Koze himself…

So what is this House of Cards malarkey anyway? For those of you who don’t know, it’s an American political thriller / drama based on the BBC series of the same name which, in turn, was an adaptation of a popular bookby Michael Dobbs. This version focuses on Frank Underwood, a Democratic congressman from South Carolina, as he attempts to undermine his party from within in order to rise to the post of Vice President. As HouseMajority Whip, Frank exerts subtle but critical influence over a large number of people, tricking them into acting on his behalf so that he can scale the ladder unopposed.

The first season of the show was primarily concerned with a deep character study of Underwood. The dark underbelly of Washington that Frank represents, in which self-interest and corruption rule unquestionably, is dissected and mocked in the form of what one might call “televisual theatre”. The stage-esque nature of the show allows the audience to get deep inside Frank’s head; not only do we get to see how his machinations fall into place but he also speaks to us via monologue and soliloquy, with a wink, a nod and a fuckton of classic Spacey charm.

What we learn about Frank in the first season is that he doesn’t possess much of a political ideology. In the BBC show Francis Urquhart (the character upon whom Frank is based) was very much on the right of the Conservative Party. He was principled and believed in a set of values that he was determined to see written into law. Though he was just as unscrupulous as Frank, Francis was very much an ideology-driven man. Frank, however, is a Democrat; though were the balance of power to shift he could probably join the Republican fold pretty easily. In the first few episodes he had already turned on the unions – natural supporters of his party – purely to cement his own position as a potential candidate for the Vice Presidency. For Frank, politics and the party system is just a feint through which he can gain power.

Don’t be fooled though, for Frank is far from one-dimensional. The pantomime villain façade hides some dark internal issues; one of which is his sexuality. Though Frank is a Southern, no-nonsense married man (albeit one who has an affair with a much younger woman just to get his agenda into the media…), there are hints – namely in episode eight – that Frank might once have been involved with another man. The hints are subtle and never verified though this is just one example of the numerous “demons” that Frank appears to be tackling. In his pursuit for absolute power, he comes across as a man who is terrified to look into the mirror; perhaps the reason he speaks to the audience so much, rather than himself or his acquaintances, is because we can’t answer back and show him his true self.

Of course, a person is truly defined by the company he/she keeps and Frank Underwood is no exception. In the first season we were introduced to a whole host of allies, lovers and enemies, most of whom Frank has wronged in one sense or another. The rock upon which his schemes are built, however, is his wife Claire (Robin Wright), the Lady Macbeth of the piece who encourages and supports Frank’s schemes. She is a lobbyist, a businesswoman and every bit as ruthless as Frank is. Heck, she even turned a blind eye to Frank’s affair with journalist Zoe Barnes in the hope that it might help him in his quest for power. She is driven by all of the same instincts as Frank, so much so that just as he started to develop feelings for Zoe she, in turn, started developing feelings for an old crush. It is through these complex characters that House of Cards truly makes its mark.

Now, Netflix has come on leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. House of Cards is perhaps the service’s most successful self-penned show to date, though others – such as Hemlock Grove and Orange is the New Black – prove that it is willing to take risks to make a name for itself. One of those risks was to release the whole of House of Cards is one go; all thirteen episodes, back-to-back, as though it were one epic, Peter Jackson-esque saga. What this meant was that the first season was able to devote a lot of time to character development; there was no fear that the audience might be lost between weeks because anyone who wanted to could simply watch the next chapter straight away. Season two will take the same approach.

So what do we have to look forward to in season two? Well, for starters, Frank is now the Vice President so expect him to exert / abuse more power than ever before. His wife Claire is embroiled in an employment dispute with a woman who wants to ruin her, Zoe ain’t the useless “bit on the side” Frank mistook her for and will no doubt want to investigate the mysterious death of Congressman Russo (who Frank murdered), while Frank’s allies in the House seem set to want something in return for the help they’ve given him thus far. With all of these issues to juggle it’ll be interesting to see if Frank can handle the perils of the position he’s craved for oh-so-very-long.

As for me; well, I’ll be watching all thirteen episodes today (how cool am I) so I can review the entire season for you lucky, lucky people next week! For now though, get yourself over to Netflix to watch a true master at work; you know you want to…

About James Gallagher

James is a film addict, a bitter misanthrope and a graduate from the University of Sheffield. Raised in Birkenhead, he is like a (very) poor man's Paul O'Grady. He has lots of opinions – almost all of which are wrong – and can normally be found reading, writing and drinking whisky. @theugliestfraud