So, I finished House of Cards season 2 this weekend (Like season 1, I found myself exhausted by binge-watching and took a break midway through, before returning to binge-watch the final episodes), and as the season went on, found myself wondering what the hell happened to the show I’d enjoyed so much the first time around.
It’s not that the second season is a bad show, but it’s — everything that I didn’t like about the first season amplified, I guess? I don’t want to spoil those who haven’t seen it/finished it yet, but there’s a flabbiness to the plotting/overall arc of the season that combines with a misguided belief in its own navel gazing (Yes, yes, I get it: Machiavellian white guy is fighting with other Machiavellian white guy and they’re using everyone around them as pawns, do something exciting with that idea please) and increasingly cartoonish plot developments that just got me down, as much as there were things that kept me watching.
(One of those things: the way the series portrays Claire Underwood, which is either nuanced or schizophrenic depending on how generous you’re feeling towards the writers at the time. Her arc this season was at times thrilling and amazingly frustrating, the latter especially as the season went on, which may in fact be intentional for future developments.)
It wasn’t just the ridiculousness of the plot by the end of the second season — seriously, I can’t tell you how much I want the third season to open with someone asking “No, really, how did that actually happen?” just to acknowledge quite how stupid it got at the end there — but the fact that, by this point, the show had created a rhythm by giving us two seasons where Frank plots, is almost stymied, and then ultimately succeeds in his goal. And, for that matter, that that rhythm includes Frank always beating everyone else.
This, obviously, is setting us up for a third season where Frank fails through overconfidence/overreach/whatever. The problem is, that’s just not going to be vaguely believable at this point because the House of Cards universe is apparently one in which Frank can steamroller over everyone with the arguable exception of Claire. The conflict from British original collapses in the American version because of the lack of power struggle the latter had between Francis Urquhart and the King — a powerful thorn in his side that Urquhart couldn’t replace. Instead, to watch Frank fall, we’re either going to have to go through an increasingly convoluted series of plot twists to power up an existing character, or wait for the introduction of some kind of crusading Mary Sue to save the day.
I enjoyed the second season, don’t get me wrong — but when The West Wing feels more realistic as a political drama, I can’t help but feel that something’s gone wrong in House of Cards-land somewhere along the way. Third season, do your thing and prove me wrong.