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Review: House of Cards Season 2

Francis Underwood gives liberals their own Dick Cheney: a vice president able to push through his agenda.

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Political life is nasty, brutish, and short, but love conquers all in House of Cards

House of Cards

Written by Beau Willimon, Andrew Davies, and Michael Dobbs

Streaming on Netflix

To say that House of Cards is a political show is to state the obvious. The first season began with a newly elected president passing over Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the Democratic House majority whip, for secretary of state, despite Underwood’s forceful hand in helping the president win. This affront sets in motion the Machiavellian maneuvers that dominate the show, the full second season of which premiered on Netflix Feb. 14.

Much of House of Cards’ politics, however, are cartoonish, beginning with the fact that Underwood is a white Democratic congressman from South Carolina—something that has not happened since the ’90s. Despite that incongruity, plus a murder and Underwood’s direct address to the camera in a ridiculous Southern accent, Season 1 maintained a certain level of realism or verisimilitude that was largely done away with in Season 2. Such an abandonment of real life can vastly improve a show: During its first season, the political drama Scandal was just a show about a fixer; when it embraced vote-buying, assassination, and a secret government, it transcended its original, run-of-the-mill formula. While Francis’ schemes had a realistic sense of pacing in the first season—a move made in one episode would not seem important until five episodes later, when it either bore fruit or backfired—everything in the second season moves entirely too quickly, with little sense of drama or menace. Perhaps like the second term of a president, the second season of a show like this is subject to greater scrutiny—there is simply more plot that must add up. Which is why it is so much less probable that Francis’ machinations would work a second time, with an even bigger reward at stake. Ultimately, there is no sense that he can fail in Season 2. And after a death in the initial episode—shocking to anyone who has not seen the British version of the show—life, in this world, has little more value than Wile E. Coyote’s.

That devaluation of human life is perhaps part of the series’ larger strategy, and part of its complex pleasure. House of Cards successfully does what great politicians do: It emotionally manipulates us into rooting against our own self-interests. Just as the average Southern blue-collar worker supports a plutocratic party, the viewer pulls for Francis against the reporters trying to expose him, in a complete reversal of the classical political-journalism scenario as set up by All the President’s Men.

And just as The West Wing gave liberals their Reagan to lionize, House of Cards gives liberals their own Dick Cheney: a vice president able to push through his agenda, even if the agenda amounts to little more than a craven rush for power—an imaginative antidote to the frustrations of the Obama presidency.

The show is entirely non-ideological, however. Its intense grip on its viewers’ attention derives not from its understanding of politics but from its understanding of human nature. The principle that “all men are created equal” actually comes from Thomas Hobbes’ realization that no one human is strong enough that any other human might not kill him—not least of all because we all must sleep. “I’ve always loathed the necessity of sleep. Like death, it puts even the most powerful men on their backs,” Francis says in Season 2, where life tends to be nasty, brutish, and short.

Doug Stamper (the riveting Michael Kelly), Underwood’s factotum/chief of staff, is one of the most fascinating characters on the show because he embodies political life wholly separated from the social. Stamper has nothing outside of the political sphere, and every one of his movements is motivated by a pervading sadness. He resembles the pure priest of politics, who must sacrifice everything in order for the ordinary person to experience ordinary pleasures. Well, not just anyone: specifically, Francis and Claire (Robin Wright). Stamper enables them to share the small pleasures of their own particular domestic life, whether it be in the form of a shared cigarette by an open window or a complex sex life.

In Season 2, the relationship between Claire and Francis trumps every other element of the show, in part because it’s crucial to Francis’ desire for power. The intentionally childless among us disappointed by Claire’s seeming desire for a child at the end of Season 1 will be relieved to find that plot line aborted, allowing the relationship between the couple to return to the center of the show.

The key scene to the whole show may come at night, in the Underwoods’ bedroom, when Francis tells Claire that their Secret Service agent Meechum (Nathan Darrow) walked in on him while watching porn. Claire laughs in reply. Francis props himself on the bed next to Claire, then gently asks her if she misses her artist-lover, Adam (Ben Daniels). Claire asks if Francis regrets giving up erotic freedom (what that means becomes apparent in possibly the second most shocking scene in the season). Then he hits play on the video that Claire is in bed watching, a tape of their first joint interview. He responds to her, saying that they got this, their political lives, in exchange for their personal sacrifices. The Underwoods may want power, but they want it for each other.

It is that balance between this view of domestic life—where Francis and Claire are entirely honest with and devoted to one another—and a war-of-all-against-all political life that allows House of Cards to succeed as an operatic depiction of the banality of evil.

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