I was disappointed with the general reaction to House of Cards’ first season because, while many seemed to enjoy the show, it was always put a tier below more “serious” dramas, like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and the few other universally beloved shows. But then, House of Cards wasn’t for everyone, and it wasn’t as easy to like. The show’s first scene featured its protagonist, the anti-hero Frank Underwood, killing a wounded dog and telling us (yes, us, directly) that what he was doing was morally righteous. It was sick and sad, sleazy and campy, beautifully shot and frighteningly acted, making it a perfect prelude for what would come. But no, certainly not easy to digest or appreciate.
The shooting style David Fincher set down in the first two episodes of the show became its guiding path, not just for how House of Cards looks but also how it’s written and acted. Expressionism was the guiding light, or perhaps lack of light, that kept the show’s wheels running. Realism was only there insofar as it could keep the story running, but really this was a dark morality play, an indictment of American politics drawing from both The Manchurian Candidate and Richard III in a struggle to understand why the system, as it stands right now, is broken. And unlike other anti-hero shows, House of Cards was also a “network” show, as focused on the web of conditions that allow Underwood to rise in power as it was the man himself. The apparatus clicked for me instantly, likely for the same reasons that many dismissed it. The theatricality and artifice were tokens of a cold, intelligent show rather than one fueled by emotional intensity—while they’re both horrible men, Frank Underwood couldn’t be more unlike the progenitor of the genre, Tony Soprano. Its central metaphor was a chess game, but what often gets forgotten when considering this analytical way of viewing the world is that quite a lot of people, pawns and otherwise, end up dying in the game, even when it’s played perfectly.
Unfortunately, the first season also ended poorly, though it’s not a huge surprise that it had trouble maintaining the momentum once one of the greatest living directors could no longer stay on the set. After Peter Russo’s death, Zoe Barnes went through an about-face and became more concerned with the possible scandal surrounding his death than anything else. Her personality shifted unrealistically, and the show succumbed to a few of the pitfalls of this chess game-based writing, adapting her character to fit the storyline rather than the other way around. The season petered out, and while there were many great moments between Frank and Major Dad himself Raymond Tusk, ultimately the focus on moving the story overwhelmed the central logic of the show (for fans of the Game of Thrones television show this will feel all too familiar).
House of Cards’ second season begins literally a few moments after the first. Frank and Claire are returning from their jog when Doug reaches them, telling them that the situation with the reporters has gotten out of hand. Suddenly this is no longer a problem Frank can delegate (and I want to add here that Stamper, for all his cockiness, sure does a consistently poor job cleaning up problems) and is instead something he needs to take an active interest in.
And boy does he. For those not interested in spoilers—and what are you doing here in the first place?—stop reading now. Anyhow, Frank eventually takes care of the problem by pushing Zoe into an oncoming subway train. Needless to say, this is the most shocking moment in the series so far, and I mean that in the best possible way. While we knew Frank was willing to kill, Russo was a wounded dog who he felt needed to be put out of his misery. Zoe, on the other hand, was simply in his way while an opportunity arose (which isn’t to say that this wasn’t premeditated, as it most certainly seems to have been). At another point in the episode, Frank gives his choice of a replacement Jackie Sharp a small lecture about cold-hearted pragmatism, and we see it in action right here. It’s important to Frank that Sharp knew full well that she was murdering innocents when she did her job, because to him that’s what makes him worthy of the roles that he’s held. Zoe was an innocent who got in the way of his mission, and that he had a lengthy affair with her is no matter if it might put his position as vice-president in jeopardy.
While Frank is off literally killing anyone in his way, his wife spends the episode figuring out how to have a child before coming upon a brilliant new plan: she’ll take Gillian’s. In exchange for the entirety of her charity and dropping the lawsuit, Claire wants Gillian’s baby and is willing to blackmail and harass her until she gets what she wants. At this point, Claire is going from cold-hearted pragmatist like her husband to kind of an evil witch, snatching up the children of the innocent. What’s still yet to be seen is what Frank thinks of all this, but at the moment it seems unlikely he’ll even really care.
Neither of these summaries contain the best part of the episode, when Frank finally breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the viewers in a monologue that as usual is one part Shakespeare, one part Funny Games. But this first episode was also filled with other great setpieces, and it’s as if the writing staff was trying to do something extra special for their return. Freddy’s creepy speech about slow-bleeding pigs was frightening, but even moreso was the scene of Stamper looming in the dark over Rachel. In less than an hour, there were half a dozen unforgettable scenes that were as good or better than anything in the first season.
The borders of what we thought were safe, the lives of main characters or even the fate of children, are no longer so, and suddenly House of Cards is like Frank, in that it’s impossible to guess what the show’s capable of doing. While it’s not the grandest claim to say that this is the best episode of television I’ve seen this year, considering that we’re less than two months in, that’s still no small feat—while I’m sure many went from here right into the next episode, I needed to stop after the credits rolled because there was no way a second episode could be this good.