The Underwoods (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) continue their ruthless rise to power. New alliances form while old loyalties succumb to deception and betrayal. Francis and Claire must battle threats past and present to avoid losing everything.
(This review of 'House of Cards: The Complete Second Season' contains spoilers for the first episode.)
(This review of 'House of Cards: The Complete Second Season' contains spoilers for the first episode.)
Although 'Orange is the New Black' has ostensibly become the crown jewel in Netflix's original programming lineup, 'House of Cards,' the streaming giant's original bid at prestige television (believe me, no one is counting 'Lilyhammer'), is still relevant if, for no other reason, it is simply terrific at garnering a great deal of attention. And considering the show's ultra glossy veneer comprised of a critically acclaimed cast headlined by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright; its slate of directors and producers that include David Fincher, James Foley, and Carl Franklin; and a D.C.-centric writer in Beau Willimon bringing it all together, that attention is most certainly deserved. And yet, despite the attention it gets, the series, as it demonstrates in a wildly uneven and oftentimes-hokey second season, may not necessarily be as deserving when it comes to the notion of acclaim.
After a flawed but sometimes intriguing first season, in which Francis Underwood (Spacey) and his Lady Macbeth-like wife Claire (Robin Wright) engaged in a devious and eventually murderous campaign to right the purported wrongs against them, after Francis was passed over for a promotion he was promised, season 2 sees the couple going full throttle in their political power grab that's enough to give any viewer whiplash. This can easily be seen as one of the few improvements over season 1, as the oftentimes languorous pace seen before has all but given way to an overwhelming sense of forward progression. And as Francis ended season 1 becoming a shoe-in for vice president, the obvious goal for season 2, then, would be to unseat a sitting president.
'House of Cards' dutifully lays out its proverbial cards early on, making its protagonist's machinations clearly known to the audience through his obsessive need to break the fourth wall and make a direct address. And, admittedly, Spacey pulls these moments off in the same kind of entertainingly flippant, slightly ironic manner as he did in the previous season. And while the direct address works in terms of putting the audience in touch with a character who would, in most other cases, ostensibly be the villain, they tend to generate a tonal inconsistency. Sadly, this discrepancy reverberates throughout the storyline and either undermines the gravitas of what would otherwise be an emotionally tense scene, or turns a program already prone to giving too much weight to its own eccentricities, into a borderline hackneyed affair.
While Spacey is busy hamming it up for the camera by himself, the scenes generally feel tonally consistent. When he's engaging in similar behavior with other characters, however, a discord occurs wherein Francis' underhanded preening feels too distanced from the way everyone else is playing their roles completely straight. The end result, then, is a disjointed sensation that often times makes the series' objectives seem to be at odds with its characters' affectations. That inconsistency is made more evident in the various other threads, which often times feature the supporting characters operating on their own. Without Spacey's presence, these scenes are played straight as an arrow. As such, many of them, like Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Francis' right-hand man, falling in love with a prostitute (Rachel Brosnahan) – which involves coming to her apartment and making her read to him – wind up falling completely flat.
There is another more troublesome thread involving Reg E. Cathey's ex-con barbeque master Freddy Hayes being approached to franchise his restaurant and become something of a celebrity chef. Ultimately, Freddy's dreams are undone by a mixture of his past catching up to him, his underwritten, stereotypically gangster son, and his association with Frank, which makes him a target of the season's unimpressive antagonist Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney). There is an overwhelming feeling Beau Willimon and his fellow writers intended such threads to carry a great deal of poignancy and to be emotionally resonant, essentially establishing how anything or anyone caught in the Underwood's cynical vortex would eventually be destroyed, but there simply isn't enough in either thread to truly tie them into the main themes of the story at hand. In the end, many of them just feel like filler, and the only thread that has much in the way of true resonance, is the revelation that Claire was the victim of sexual assault. That soon becomes the point from which her character begins a compelling arc that asks how she balances her and her husband's steely ambitions with the last traces of humanity she still has roiling around inside her.
Sadly, this arc is not developed much, and the other threads suffer from the aforementioned acceleration of the overall plot. 'House of Cards' season 2 is so intent to see Frank get what he wants, it often times feels like it's riding on rails. There are no real twists, turns, or about-faces; the season just barrels through the storyline to reach that one indelible image when Frank addresses the audience from his new station in the season's closing moments. Troublingly, the plot's tunnel vision becomes readily apparent in the season premiere, when the show purges itself of so many promising plot threads, one might have thought the entire series was under new management.
The most egregious move is the manner in which 'House of Cards' disposes of a central character right from the beginning, and then how, over the next 12 episodes, the series fails to follow that death up with anything that could remotely justify the incident or make its perpetrator anything other than a killer of young women (and yes, I am aware something similar happens in the original '90s British miniseries, but just because something happened before, doesn't mean it's good. Besides, given the length of the original, the event worked to increase the tension - here it had he exact opposite effect). The death of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and the subsequent marginalization of her fellow journalists Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) and Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) is not just a narrative misstep; it completely removes any notion of compelling conflict from the season's narrative. And while there are hints that perhaps either one might return in season 3, it doesn't justify the manner in which potentially rich characters and storylines were jettisoned in favor of allowing Francis Underwood to simply consume everything in his path.
As satisfying as it can be to see characters get what they want, and to see the (at this point, overused) anti-hero win, the pleasure and amusement one might receive from such a storyline is significantly reduced when the character in question can seemingly accomplish whatever he wants at will. There is really nothing of any import standing in Frank's way in season 2; he defeats billionaire industrialists, Chinese criminals, and even the President of the United States with the same level of ease in which he disposes of diminutive journalists. It's all just a schoolyard-shoving match to Frank, which makes each subsequent victory feel substantially emptier than the last.
In the end, it seems as though 'House of Cards' is simply unsure what kind of show it wants to be. Despite being steeped in the mystique of Washington D.C, the show is as much about politics and the political system as 'The Newsroom' is about the news. There is a compelling political thriller hiding underneath all the bluster and pretense and self-assuredness this series carries about being a prestige drama, but finding that seems increasingly unlikely as the storylines continue to require Kevin Spacey to prattle on in speeches worthy of Lex Luthor. To become a better, more fulfilling program, the series needs to go all-in on either its outlandish silliness, or it needs to develop into that compelling and taut political thriller it only occasionally wants to be.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats:
'House of Cards: The Complete Second Season' comes from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as a four 50GB disc set + Ultraviolet Digital Copy. The set comes in a cardboard package that is similar to the previous release. While the set looks nice, the sleeves housing each disc make it difficult to retrieve and replace them, and it seems like the likelihood that one disc will get fingerprints – or worse, scratched – in the process is incredibly high. Unlike last season's release, however, season 2 actually contains some special features, which are spread out over all four discs.
As with season 1, the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer is simply stunning. The image is virtually flawless, and maintains a level of aesthetic consistency that is surprising considering how many different directors were involved in the 13-epiosdes (sadly, none were Fincher himself). The series uses a variety of color palettes to establish a context of character and attitude throughout, and that typically means some light filtering is going on. None of this affects the actual picture, though – in fact, it might actually serve to enhance it. Fine detail is present in nearly every scene, again showing off what a digital camera is capable of in the hands of a competent cinematographer. Facial features are present constantly, as the stark, unforgiving photography readily reveals even the slightest imperfection on any face. Textures are also readily present in clothing, setting, and background elements. Depth of field varies greatly, and the image here makes great use of it, by featuring an exemplary image in either instance, typically playing up the tension when the depth is extremely shallow.
Meanwhile colors looks terrific, even if they mostly lean toward darker blues, grays, and blacks. The odd glimpse of red, yellow, or green, then, is accentuated greatly and pops with a distinct vividness that is bright, but not overbearing. Similarly, contrast levels are incredibly high, producing strong, full-bodied blacks that add tremendous definition, rather than soak up detail. Edges are crisp and firm throughout, and there is not a hint of crush or banding present anywhere in the image. White levels remain consistent, preventing the picture from looking washed out or dull.
Overall, this is a phenomenal looking image to a show that has a very distinct and precise visual aesthetic.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also very good. As might be expected, 'House of Cards' is a program driven primarily by its dialogue, and as such, the mix does a great job of making sure everyone is heard as clearly and distinctly as possible. Voices typically emerge from the center channel speaker, though they are often times present on the front right and left, and occasionally in the rear channels, depending on how the scene is set up. In that regard, the imaging and directionality of the sound mix is likely its greatest asset. The channels all work to discretely create an immersive feel to almost every scene, so that the listener feels as though he or she has been plunked down between the two characters doing all the talking. Most of the time this effect is fantastic, though there are a few scenes where the dynamic range of the sound seems to drop off for no reason, and the tone suddenly becomes a little flat. This only happens briefly, but it is noticeable when the rest of the sound is so strong.
Meanwhile, the mix also handles the music and sound effects quite well. There are few instances where LFE are used, but when it is, it is resonant and pleasing to the ear. Atmosphere is quite effective throughout, producing convincing simulations of restaurants, prisons, and busy offices. All of this is balanced out nicely, with the score and sound effects dipping imperceptibly when the dialogue once again becomes the focal point of the scene.
Overall, this is a nice sounding series that only briefly falters once or twice over 13-hours.
Politics For the Sake of Politics (HD, 4 min.) – This featurette brings in David Fincher, several other producers, and many members of the cast to discuss the idea of politics in the series and how the machinations of the various characters vying for power makes the series interesting.
Direct Address (HD, 6 min.) – This is a behind-the-scenes look at Frank Underwood's penchant for address the audience directly. Once again, this focuses heavily on Fincher, and, like the majority of the other features here, seems more directly related to the events of season 1 than season 2.
Two Houses (HD, 11 min.) – This short featurette describes the differences in the American and British versions of 'House of Cards,' and features interviews with Beau Willimon and Michael Dobbs, the author of the book series 'House of Cards' is based on.
Table Read (HD, 8 min.) – Here we are given a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how an episode is started by seeing the cast converge to do a table read of two episodes late in the first season. This also features more insight from Fincher, and a comparison of the table read with the finished product.
Line of Succession (HD, 18 min.) – This is the only season 2-centric supplement, which focuses heavily on James Foley's direction of a particular episode, and how the various elements of producing a show all come together to make one as sizeable as 'House of Cards.'
For the most part, 'House of Cards' seems to have stumbled over a desire to push its main character into a position of tremendous power without having it feel as though he did much to earn it. Moreover, the show's tonal inconsistency and oftentimes eye-roll inducing silliness undermines the self-important manner in which it otherwise carries itself. If the show were to better recognize its own smarmy, sordid nature, that would go a long way in legitimizing the series, rather than leaving it to wallow as a something of a half-baked black comedy with delusions of grandeur regarding its purported prestige, which are ironically analogous to that of its main character. Still, the series has its entertaining moments and it does benefit greatly from a talented – if somewhat underutilized – cast. With fantastic picture, great sound, and (finally) some supplements, this one is worth a look.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.