There are about 4,563,937 things I would like to talk about regarding the second season of House of Cards, but my time and your patience do not lend themselves to such lengthy remarks. I had my doubts heading into this season of the show, unsure how the soulless Underwood tactics would translate into the higher rungs of the Washington power ladder, but as far as I can tell they did so wonderfully, escalating the issues and ends to which Frank must go to maintain his power, ramping up the proverbial shitstorm. The show remains attached to reality while stretching the bounds of Frank’s influence, even if you can’t quite imagine the Bidens acting as the Underwoods do.
This second season marked a collective growth for the show and its characters. Robin Wright took home a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Claire in the first season, though she and Kevin Spacey came up short to deserving winners at the Emmys, as did the show itself (to Breaking Bad…no objections here). I feel comfortable in predicting many trophies for the leads and the show, but also for some of the supporting, susceptible cogs of the Underwoods’ ruthless mechanisms. I wish I could get to everyone, but I’ll stick to some of the important figures that help make this season even stronger than the first.
Doug Stamper has been by Frank Underwood’s side since the outset of the show, but his personal and professional battles threatened (and succeeded?) to undo him in season two. Michael Kelly gives Stamper an edge, playing him with the soullessness trickled down by Underwood without ever fully leaving behind his personal feelings, as we see in his increasingly unstable relationship with Rachel Posner, the call girl he must hide from the public eye following the Peter Russo Affair. Like Russo in the first season, Doug slips as a result of the stress his work presents, broken down by his desire for Rachel and disappearing like her out of the soul-crushing world of Underwood’s politics. Jimmi Simpson’s (Yes, this Jimmi Simpson…) tech genius Gavin Orsay lives in the shadows, eventually throwing Doug’s world into chaos as the season reaches its climaxes. We are left with Orsay’s work pushing Doug to move Rachel, which of course ends poorly for Doug. As the final credits roll, Doug lies still in the woods, though Frank does not know this, unaware of the lingering concerns presented by Orsay and the Russo scandal. Doug ardently shows his loyalty for Frank, but even this servant of over a decade falls victim to the games of his boss.
Another of Frank’s fallen allies lies in the form of Freddy Hayes, played by Reg E. Cathey, the loyal rib-genius who seems destined for a small fortune before stories surrounding the pasts of him and his son surface, forcing Frank to distance himself from their crimes. In Chapter 22, as Frank leaves Freddy for the last time, he turns to us and says “The road to power is paved with many hypocrisies…and casualties.” We know by this time how much Frank is willing to lose as he scales the power chain, but here his voice seems to be becoming more and more of a reassuring force, encouraging him to persist in his path. This body blow does not seem to faze Frank, though the departure of Freddy’s familiar face and fare must leave some discomfort in his mind.
Perhaps most likely to earn awards buzz in the near future, Michael Gill has appeared out of apparent nowhere to turn President Garrett Walker into a compelling force for Cards, going toe to toe with Spacey for much of the second season. Yes, Walker does still come out as the prey for much of Underwood’s predatory scheming, but his emergence as a volatile and prideful man forced Frank to dig deep into his bag of tricks, bouncing from dutiful Vice President to backstabbing rival in the blink of an eye. Gill’s liveliness made the tension between the two leaders believable; a weaker actor may have led us to believe Frank could take him down quickly rather than needing an entire season’s worth of cunning. Underwood eventually wears him down to the point of resignation but not without diligent effort, permeating Walker’s conscience in intimate moments and deflecting the powerful accusations the President throws his way, namely following Walker’s confrontation during his Floyd Mayweather speech. Frank and Claire masterfully corner the Walkers into their secluded, detached townhouse in Chapter 20, pulling the First Couple away from their home in order to plant seeds of disruption. Underwood cannot usurp Walker’s power quickly, instead forced to flexibly move between dutiful and undermining to Walker, until he has made the President believe his resignation represents what’s best for both of them.
Together, Mahershala Ali’s Remy Danton and Gerald McRaney’s Raymond Tusk provide Frank Underwood’s strongest opposition, wielding enormous amounts of money and Congressional influence. Even they succumb to Frank’s relentlessness in the second season, with Remy allowing his personal life to get the best of him and Tusk dragged into Frank’s seedy world of deceiving the President and his closest confidantes (This especially comes out when Tusk kills one of his birds, an eerie parallel to Frank’s killing of a dog in the series premiere…). Armed with their immense power, Remy and Raymond remind us of just how soulless Frank can be, given how soulless they themselves appear to be until Remy falters and Raymond allows his anger to get the best of him as he lies before Congress near the end of the season. In Chapter 24, Frank watches Remy leave the church before telling us, “Poor Remy. The heart can choke the mind when all the blood flows back into it…” Having taken blow after blow to his plans and psyche, Frank trudges onward, staying the course as his most powerful adversaries fall aside.
I have not even gotten to talking about Meechum or Jackie Sharp, two of the show’s most intriguing characters, and I wish I could say more about Spacey and Wright, but for now we’ll have to pause to consider where the Netflix original has left us. I’ve touched on Frank’s ability to withstand personal and professional adversity, and his final ring-knocking in the Oval Office leaves us with a picture of his belief in his infallibility, but really he knows very little of what lies ahead. The concluding Chapter 26 saw Claire crying on the stairs following complications surrounding the fight against sexual assault, and the aforementioned issues surrounding Doug and Gavin Orsay’s access to damning knowledge and information. With Zoe Barnes dead, Goodwin behind bars, and Rachel Posner on the run, Frank gives no thought to the dangers that lie ahead. But there they are, lurking in the shadows.
Frank has his office but has lost just about every person he can trust – he suddenly finds himself at the top but standing on unsteady footing. Claire remains by his side but shows signs of weariness. Rachel and Orsay pose threats he cannot see, and Frank suddenly finds himself at the top, yet he also has subplots spiraling out of his control. He brought down — to borrow from Fitzgerald — the “whole caravansary…like a card house,” and he has rebuilt it. As we wait for what’s sure to be a spectacular third season, we are left wondering: does Frank know just how precarious his perch is? Is the house of cards the one he has just crushed or the one he now controls? Frank knows sacrifice is necessary in his journey to the top, but the pieces seem to be spinning out of control.