Fair warning: this article contains both spoilers and opinions.
Just as Kevin Spacey predicted, I watched season 2 of House of Cards the same way I read most novels: from cover to cover, as rapidly as possible, and at the expense of most other activities. The Valentine’s Day release, which happened to fall on a Friday, was actually liberating in that way. Since we (the ‘significant other’ and I) mostly only know other couples, there was no competition for our time. After work, we were free to drink wine and binge into the wee hours of the morning. After about 12 hours of R&R, we said goodnight to President Underwood on Saturday night. It was a pretty good couple of days.
According to Procera Networks, a broadband technology firm hired by Variety to to get a ballpark of day-one viewership, over six million people watched at least some of the second season of House of Cards within the first 24 hours, about 15 percent of all Netflix subscribers. This compares against just 2 percent of Netflix subscribers who watched at least one episode of the first season when it premiered last year. That’s a huge, but unsurprising, increase in audience. Season one was good and hooked a lot of viewers over the course of the year.
However, whether or not season 2 was any better than season one is another question entirely. I thought it was okay — good but not great, worth the watch but probably not worth re-watching. I hope the team racks up some nominations but there are only a few I would argue that they should win right now.
Here’s why: much of the season felt like it had been processed by a focus group and any compelling eccentricities were sandpapered down to smooth but mild features. Some of the writing felt melodramatic, not dramatic. Some of it felt like a tired script being read by tired actors. Some of the characters felt flat. Some of the story arcs felt shallow and insincere. It felt like the show’s creators designed what they deemed to be a sufficiently interesting story, and then executed on it with a sort of industry that left a mark.
These are pretty nebulous complaints, but in the spirit of time, space, and sanity I won’t be auditing the entire season, scene-by-scene. In a broad stroke, though, I think the show took few risks and followed a lot of formula. Most of the main characters (characters, not actors) are so emotionally dead they can do nothing better than offer hollow comments in intimacy and wear a mask in public, which the viewer has been primed to see through. In this way, the characters lose some dimensionality and simply become characters. We know the role they are playing, we know what to expect of them, and very rarely do they break those expectations. For lack of a better word, they’re zombies.
One exclusion to this that I have to mention is the murder of Zoe Barnes. I did not expect it and it re-shaped how I thought about Frank Underwood. This is the kind of thing that I actually think made the season good, despite some complaints that the murder was more about shock value than narrative. What made the season as good as it was was the ability of Frank and Claire Underwood to do something unexpected, to be fundamentally interesting as characters. This happened when Claire revealed her abortion on a live interview, with the threesome, and in many of the little moments where Frank and Claire were alone together.
However, most minor characters lacked this feature — it felt sanded away. Rachel Posner was the saving grace of her story arc with Doug Stamper, a character who managed to be strange but uninteresting. Gavin Orsay, the hacker, was much the same. Once set, Lucas Goodwin’s trajectory was unwavering, and watching him sail through his narrative to completion was somewhat unsatisfying.
There are a thousand disclaimers to add to this analysis. For one, it’s thin. This is not a critique as much as it is an impression, but I still hope it adds some flavor to the show no matter how you feel about it. It’s also entirely possible that I was disenchanted by circumstance. If I had watched the series in a different mood, maybe I would feel differently about it. According to Rotten Tomatoes, most people thought season two was way better than I did. The season had a 96 percent audience rating as of Sunday.