No new tricks

In the midst of an after-hours heart-to-heart in the corridors of the White House, President Walker (Michael Gill) suggests, “Let’s assume that in one of these chairs, staring at this wall, is where Truman decided to drop the bomb, and see if we feel anything.” He and his companion, the Vice President, look thoughtfully into the middle distance, trying to embody Truman’s frame of mind. The two men quickly come to the same conclusion—no, they feel nothing.

Such encapsulates the tone of the second season of Netflix’s American reboot of House of Cards. This exchange occurs moments after the Vice President—ex-Majority “Hhhwhip” Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey with cutting and sinister precision—declares, “Presidents who obsess over history obsess about their place in it instead of forging it.” The idea of legacy, particularly the process of cementing one, looms cloudlike throughout the new thirteen-episode stream.

Needless to say, a number of skeletons are present in the Underwoods’ closet in the wake of the first season, and it seemed a reasonable assumption that the second season would focus on following them up. After all, Frank did murder a congressman to secure the Vice Presidency. The first season finale hints that Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and her fellow journalists at Slugline and the Washington Herald have the potential to expose him. The second season premiere, however, posits that this would be far too simple for a show whose hallmark is masterful storytelling. It warps this expected plot arc with a derailing shock, and within half an hour, House of Cards sends a clear message that predictions will be useless and nothing is sacred.

This also means that the writers have an opportunity to start fresh rather than engage in post-season cleanup. Season two unfolds like a clean installment rather than a heavy-handed continuation of old threads. Frank adjusts to White House work as he involves himself in political negotiations with China, and an on-air revelation pushes Claire (Robin Wright, on point as ever) to pursue new political and media projects. The beginning of the season hits somewhat like a scatter of disparate strands, thrust into the thick of new storylines and characters, but as the season develops, this becomes less overwhelming as loose ends all too quickly intertwine. It is in this context that familiar faces and threats begin to emerge from the woodwork.

In addition to this onslaught of new narrative, House of Cards sets its sights on expanding arcs beyond its core power couple. Significant storylines follow aptly-named journalist Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), VP chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), and even Freddy of BBQ ribs fame (Reg E. Cathey). With leads as magnetic as Spacey and Wright, spending time with other characters occasionally feels like an intermission from the real story—Remy’s affair with new Majority Whip Jackie Sharp certainly induces eye-rolls and glances at the clock.

The Underwoods easily remain the show’s north star, their artful one-liners and nearly unmatched strategic intellect stealing every scene. House of Cards is clearly indebted to a Shakespearean theatrical tradition, and when its leads are nothing short of impeccable, it feels frustrating when some other characters are not written or acted with similar finesse.

That said, the overall visual construction of the show certainly reflects a considerable attention to thematic detail. The backdrop of episode two is a construction zone, as Frank and Claire’s townhouse undergoes renovations to accommodate Vice Presidential security detail. A loaded setting such as this contributes to season-wide anxiety regarding change, as Frank is determined to exert the control he enjoyed as whip in his new position, right down to refusing to move into the Vice President’s residence.

As episodes pass and other characters are implicated, the impossibility of this hope becomes obvious. While Frank obsessively turned to the rowing machine in season one, he now fixates on building a small-scale model of the Battle of the Bloody Angle, an obsession of his brought on by learning that an ancestor fought and died there. Though he declares to the President that he focuses on “forging” ahead, Frank is subconsciously gripped by a preoccupation with his place in history. The directors and cinematographers from episode to episode quietly underscore this simmering tension, as Frank is often framed with portraits of various presidents, similar postures creating a visual rhyme. We see Frank’s attempt to fit into this history, and this doubling seemingly works naturally; the question becomes whether or not this position can remain stable or unchanged.

The variables are in play, and these are the ideas that House of Cards so skillfully dissects through Frank’s quest for power—a balance between strategy and luck, but one that always demands sweat and ruthlessness. The season premiere begins exploring these themes with characteristically elegant cinematography, the first scene fading in from black onto a nighttime view of a jogging path. In one uncut take, Frank and Claire continue their evening jog. They pause in the foreground, huff, share a glance, and continue onward with a nod. Season two presents that continuation.

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