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There are two kinds of pain.
Of the half-dozen original series that Netflix has bankrolled in recent years, House of Cards seems to be the clear winner in terms of market penetration, though Orange is the New Black gives it a run for its money. With a show this successful, there might be a temptation to either coast into a second season, using momentum to carry the day, or to rush things into production to capitalize on the show's popularity, especially since there's no need to wait for the next "season." Thinking about House of Cards in these terms, especially the 13 episodes of this season, what's amazing is how of a single piece they feel. There are no "dud" episodes, no wheel spinning while the show gets its legs. Instead, with the release of this second season, House of Cards is living up to its potential to be the best political thriller television has yet seen.
Facts of the Case
For the first season, we watched as Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey, The Usual Suspects) was passed over for a political appointment. This set him off, and he and his wife Claire (Robin Wright, The Princess Bride) vowed revenge. His plan involved getting into the White House, and the season ended with Frank being tapped as Vice President following a scandal he'd orchestrated. As the second season opens, Frank is consolidating his position, which means dealing with journalist Zoe (Kate Mara, American Horror Story) and the increased scrutiny that comes with being second in line for Commander-in-Chief. While the main political issue of the first season was an education bill, this time it's a trade war with China and the interests of the president's friend Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney, Simon and Simon).
I don't really want to say too much about this seasons of House of Cards. Unlike many viewers, I didn't gobble it all up on Valentine's Day weekend of 2014, but I did see a lot of "oh god" kind of posts on social media followed by #HouseofCards. I actually managed to parcel out my viewing of these 13 episodes over a couple of weeks, proving that the show doesn't have to be binged to be appreciated. Re-watching it for this review, I came away with the feeling that this season has pretty much everything I could have asked for in a second season of the show. Things kick off with a bang in the first episode (I won't give it away, but it's a stunner) and keeps going from there. Each episode offers a new revelation or wrinkle, either in Frank's life or his plans, and the overall effect is addicting.
Perhaps the best part of this second season is that Netflix addressed two of my biggest concerns with the first season. The obvious one is that this season isn't afraid to tackle more weighty material. The plot line about rape in the military is both pulled from the headlines and well-handled. Though I don't think House of Cards is in danger of intruding on The Wire's territory, it seems like the show might have something interesting to say while it shows us Washington's seamy underbelly.
The second thing that gets better is the Blu-ray release. The first series felt like a rush job. The technical aspects were up to snuff, but there were no supplements. This time out we continue with the 2.00:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfers that look amazing. Detail is great throughout, and the darker color scheme is wonderfully supported. Black levels are inky and consistent. Similarly, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track keeps dialogue audible and well balanced with the excellent score. Directionality isn't frequent, but the soundstage is pretty well populated.
Extras start with a series of featurettes. They included pieces on the show's themes, the direct-address technique Frank uses to talk to the audience, the differences between this show and the UK adaptation, a table read, and a more traditional making-of featurette. It totals about 45 minutes of material and is a welcome supplement to the show. Episode recaps are also available, as is an Ultraviolet digital copy of the season.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps my biggest complaint about this second season is that it feels like the writers toned down the use of direct-address. Those moments where Frank turns to the audience and speaks directly to us where probably the most divisive aspect of the show, with many people hating it. For me, it gave us a window into Frank's schemes, and made viewers complicit in his actions, encouraging us to root for him in a way that other techniques wouldn't have. It also has, at least since Richard III been a favorite technique of power-hungry dramatic villains (and I wasn't surprised to learn that Spacey played Richard III on stage before tackling the role of Frank Underwood). It's still around in this season, but it feels less consistent. Part of that is no doubt due to the wider-feeling cast, leaving less time for Frank, but it also feels like a deliberate decision to tone things down.
Of course, Frank is still a monster, manipulating to get what he wants. Some of his back story emerges in this season, and both he and Claire are humanized somewhat. Still, there's all kinds of flagrant disregards of morality, from lying and cheating to sexual shenanigans. The show makes no bones about the corruption of D.C. politics, and it doesn't try to soften its bleak worldview.
Though I appreciate the inclusion of extras this time, it would be nice to have even more. The run-up to this season included streaming-only commentaries on each of the first season episodes. I'd love to see that same commitment here. Commentaries from those besides the director's would be great as well.
House of Cards is shaping up to be one the decade's Top 10 for television drama. This second season nicely wraps up a lot of plots from the first season while deftly opening up new lines for the third season. This release also demonstrates that shows that debut on streaming platforms don't need to avoid having a supplements-filled home video release. If you got any enjoyment out of the first season, then this set is worth picking up.
Still monstrous, but still not guilty.
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