Nathaniel E. Bell / Netflix

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright return as the Underwoods in Season 2 of Netflix’s “House of Cards.”

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‘House of Cards’ Season 2 debuts Friday

Published: Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014 - 7:27 am

Vice President Francis Underwood takes the oath of office in a low-key, private ceremony. Rachel Maddow snarks on MSNBC that it’s just as well, calling the president’s choice “a placeholder for 2016, assuredly. There’s just no real wow factor.”

Of course, Maddow doesn’t know that Frank Underwood danced his way to the White House on the back of his alcoholic protégé, who was pounded below rock bottom and left to suffocate in a running car when his usefulness dried up. How’s that for wow factor?

“One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name,” Frank (Kevin Spacey) confides in us as his swearing-in commences. “Democracy is so overrated.”

Frank hasn’t changed, and neither has his brand of Machiavellian political theater. In its second season, “House of Cards” is just like its main character: clever, ruthless, a bit too self-satisfied and surprisingly powerful.

Netflix drops an entire season of its acclaimed political drama on Friday, another 13 hours of “Mr. Macbeth Goes to Washington.” Spacey has lost none of his smarmy magnetism as the cartoonish villain of David Fincher’s fun house version of present-day Washington, D.C.

The shock and delight of the showy storytelling – a carryover from the British original – has faded a bit, but text messages still dribble down the screen for us to read. We’re not getting much of a look at Frank’s mind when he sends messages to his ex-lover, but we can see his phone.

Spacey’s catty asides to the camera weren’t universally loved, but they supplied some laughs and enough context to keep complex threads of the first season from unraveling. He waits until the first hour of Season 2 before breaking the fourth wall again.

“Did you think I’d forgotten you?” he inquires. “Perhaps you hoped I had.”

Then he dispenses this subtle nugget of wisdom: “For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: Hunt or be hunted.”

Still on the hunter side of the equation as the season kicks off is blog reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). She’s no longer sleeping with Frank or planting his leaks. She instead decides to gather the scraps of her ethics, put on a fresh hoodie and dig deeper into what happened to Peter Russo, who was running for governor of Pennsylvania with Frank’s backing when he was found dead in a garage. In the passenger seat.

Zoe’s partners in journalism are her old frenemy Janine (Constance Zimmer) and her sheepish boyfriend Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus). Their investigation sucks them down a rabbit hole into a surreal underworld no sane reporter would explore. These grizzled watchdogs of our democracy take so many boneheaded risks they wouldn’t make it past the first chapter in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” paperback.

After one skittish source denies her involvement with Russo, Zoe declares, “I have to get in her face.” Instead, she settles for another clandestine meeting with Frank, forgetting that Deep Throat was such a good source because he wasn’t, ya know, Richard Nixon.

Then again, worrying about media ethics or realism seems silly in a show where one man makes everyone else dance with a flick of his finger, sometimes letting his wife have a quick turn running the puppet show.

Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) had plenty of cold-blooded moments in the first season, but she’s not messing around these days. Not with the prying questions about her childfree lifestyle, the nightmarish attack that’s haunted her since college, or Gillian, the pregnant former employee who is suing Claire’s nonprofit.

“I am willing to let your child wither and die inside you, if that’s what’s required,” Claire tells Gillian after cutting off her health care coverage. “Am I really the sort of enemy you want to make?”

When Frank gets locked down by a terrorism scare at the Capitol, Claire sits down for a live interview with Ashleigh Banfield without him. In another one of her flawless black dresses, perfectly composed, she drops a gossip bomb on Banfield that would give “Scandal” fans a seizure.

It will probably work well for Frank, though. Everything does. He quickly gets to work undermining the president’s confidante, Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) and humiliating the show’s tea party loyalists. His job is an exercise in delicious escapism. Ever wanted to slap handcuffs on some senators to make them get back to work? Live through Frank for an hour.

A show can successfully revolve around one man, but a flawless winning streak gets monotonous, especially when we’re made to believe that Frank doesn’t get lucky, that he’s really always two steps ahead.

Walter White, who induced many a headache with his magical ricin cigarette on “Breaking Bad,” would roll his eyes at the intricate puzzles that “House of Cards” presents for Frank to solve.

It’s not enough to deliver 13 well-crafted episodes at once for TV fans to binge or nibble on at their leisure. If “House of Cards,” which already has been approved for a third season, wants to retain its punch, it’s time for someone to take Frank down a notch.

If it doesn’t happen, it’s not for lack of foreshadowing. In one high-level meeting, Frank doodles a raging bull on his notepad, then muses, “There are two types of vice presidents: doormats and matadors. Which do you think I intend to be?”

But soon afterward, Claire serves their dinner guests glasses of ruby-colored cabernet and teases him, saying, “Frank faints at the sight of blood.”

Whether Claire will someday try to scrub that blood from her own hands remains to be seen. The Underwoods have proved themselves almost robotic in their pursuit of power, but they have more eyes on them than ever.

For the time being, watching Netflix’s power couple keep the plates spinning is more satisfying than contemplating the real horrors behind Washington’s closed doors.

Read more articles by Sara Smith



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