Season 2 of House of Cards, which began streaming in its 13-episode entirety Friday on Netflix, opens as House Majority Whip Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey) prepares to be sworn in as vice president of the United States (Secret Service codename: Little John). Frank’s ruthless path to this office has been a bloody one, and not just metaphorically: At the end of Season 1, Frank murdered a loose-cannon flunky, alcoholic Pennsylvania political hopeful Peter Russo, making it look like a suicide.
Even as Frank readies to claim his reward, however, his journalist adversaries – former mistress Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and her Washington Herald newspaper colleagues Lucas Godwin (Sebastian Arcelus) and Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) — have started to notice the holes in the story of Russo’s “suicide” and begun to connect the dots back to Frank. As they uncover more and more facts, they start to wonder: What if Frank had a hand in it?
And worse: What if Frank suspects that they suspect?
That’s really all the set-up you need to start Season 2, assuming you’ve already seen Season 1. As for these new episodes, suffice it to say that if you worried Season 2 was going to feel like an artificial continuation of the first 13 episodes simply to milk a ratings cow for Netflix, you can relax. If the first season caught some of us off-guard with its taut, intelligent writing and acting, Season 2 continues that dizzyingly complicated narrative organically and naturally. House of Cards signals that its second season is playing for keeps by bumping off a major character in the first episode, yet while these hours deliver a full quota of “WTF?!” moments, these aren’t the soapy over-the-top melodramatics that make ABC’s Scandal such a campy water-cooler hit.
Season 2 introduces several new characters, none more fascinating than Molly Parker’s electrifying turn as Jackie Sharp, the junior congresswoman whom Frank manages to maneuver into his old position as House Majority Whip. Frank clearly plans to use Jackie as his Congressional cat’s paw, but after screening several episodes (I’m about halfway through this new season), it’s starting to look as if Jackie may be nobody’s fool.
As enjoyable as the new characters are, however, there are other rewards in the form of older characters from Season 1 who resurface, usually eager to get revenge on Frank. The House of Cards writers have done a superb job of interweaving these old characters with the newcomers, and it gives me a headache to imagine all the storyline diagrams that must be hanging on the walls of the writers room.
Of course, this thriller about a modern-day Macbeth and his Lady wouldn’t work without its two main stars, Spacey and Robin Wright, who won a Golden Globe Award for her work in Season 1 as Claire Underwood. Spacey’s performance is spot-on, but somehow it’s just not all that surprising to me: We’ve seen this Oscar-winning actor deliver multiple variations on this sly, manipulating bastard before now.
Wright, however, is a revelation in her every scene. Hers is a very subtle performance, but it’s one that suggests roiling tensions firmly tamped down under Claire’s icy blonde exterior. We learn quite a bit more about Claire Underwood and her turbulent past in Season 2 and, while it doesn’t give the character a gooey center, it does suggest that, at some point, this female glacier is going to melt in a very interesting way.
Like a great, sprawling novel, House of Cards just keeps getting richer and more provocative the deeper you venture into it. I advise you to set aside several hours before sitting down to view it. You may not plan to “binge-watch” these 13 episodes, but you’re going to find it very hard to stop once you start.