Given the straightforward in-season narrative structure that House of Cards introduced in its first installment, the question for Season 2 wasn’t What are they going to do?, but rather, How are they going to do it? We knew that Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) would almost certainly be making the jump from Vice President to POTUS by the end of Chapter 26, but there were any number of scenarios that could have dictated the season’s events and built towards that conclusion. When Frank’s “Watergate” finally broke and President Walker’s (Michel Gill) fallout with the public forced him to resign, it was a solid but unspectacular resolution to a season that could be described in much the same way.
In fact, the best thing about Season 2 was the way that it began. Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) was a strong character who had a huge part in making the show’s first season the juggernaut that it was, but the move to kill her off right away was an unexpected stroke of genius. Getting rid of Barnes was the first step towards diffusing the trio that came together at the end of Season 1 to make sense of the discrepancies in the Peter Russo case, which inevitably pointed to Frank. As long as any of those three remained in the fray, they could only detract from the newly unfolding plotlines—which Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus), the weakest of the journalist characters, did by wearing out his welcome. But the murder, as Frank alluded to several times before pushing Barnes into the subway tracks, gave both him and the show “a clean slate.”
Unfortunately, the aforementioned unfolding plotlines were largely underwhelming. The ongoing chess match between Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) and Frank over Tusk’s Chinese money laundering had its moments, but it lacked the intrigue that the Russo arc had last season. Only in Chapter 17, when Claire (Robin Wright) publicly revealed that she had been sexually assaulted in college, did one of the season’s larger themes really grip me for the first time. Without Barnes around, we almost forgot what it was like to have a major media story break; but this was a game-changing moment that worked well with the bottle episode scenario that was simultaneously unfolding as Frank watched the interview on TV from the quarantined White House.
Since the aftermath of Claire’s sexual assault revelation stayed relevant for most of the season, it was puzzling to see her history with Adam (Ben Daniels) get dragged into the media as well. Although it made sense as a way for Remy (Mahershala Ali) to publicly shame the Underwoods—and for Claire to once again demonstrate how gutty she can be—it felt like overkill to have two scandalous stories about her personal life within a few episodes of each other.
It also felt like overkill to Ayla Sayyad (Mozhan Marnò), the no-nonsense journalist who tracked down Tusk instead of jumping on the media frenzy created by the Adam allegations. Sayyad slipped into the journalist void left by Barnes, but she obviously fell well short of having the same impact. However, she has the same professional drive that Barnes possessed—sexual ethics likely notwithstanding—and could be a recurring character to watch out for in Season 3.
The prominent female character that should have stepped up more was Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), but she fell short of crossing the threshold between being important to the show and becoming one of its iconic figures. Sharp was an ambiguous character, and her relationship with Remy quickly lost its novelty. Between Sharp, Sayyad, and the unexpectedly vital Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), once got the sense that the show was trying to experiment with various female characters in hopes that a ten and two fives might add up to the $20 bill that Barnes represented—but it’s better to have one impactful character than multiple average ones.
One of the inherent problems with Season 2 was that the biggest obstacle between Frank and the presidency doubled as one of the show’s least interesting characters: President Walker. Ideally he could have functioned as more of a foil to Frank, but Walker just continued his pattern of putting up a minor resistance to Frank and eventually being swayed by him. Even when Walker comes to the realization that Frank has been pulling strings, we don’t have enough faith in the president as a force to be reckoned with that Frank’s final act of manipulation against him doesn’t come as a surprise.
Now that Frank is confirmed as the figure we thought he’d be by season’s end, I’m excited for what House of Cards might offer next. In the short-term, the absence of Doug (Michael Kelly) and the recklessness of Rachel—not to mention the challenge of beginning an administration mid-term—pose crucial problems for Frank; in the long-term, he still runs the risk of being exposed for the murder of Russo, which faded to the background as the season moved along, but still seems like the loose end most likely to bring Frank down.
It was far from perfect, but Season 2 moved things along for Frank (God help the free world!) in entertaining enough fashion and set the stage for a third season that has the 46th President bringing plenty of baggage with him to the White House.