TIME entertainment

Review: House of Cards Returns for Season Two

Nathaniel E. Bell—Netflix

When we met Rep. Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), D-S.C., in the first season of House of Cards, he introduced us to his favorite getaway in Washington, DC, a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint that opens early just for him. In the first episode of season 2, he’s back there, tucking into another rack of ribs, but something tastes different. The pitmaster explains: he went to a new butcher, who slow-bleeds his hogs. The practice, as he describes it, is cruel and disturbing and possibly illegal. He is not sure he wants to go back to his supplier.

The meat, however, is positively succulent.

That’s season 2 of House of Cards on a plate. (At least, the four episodes I’ve seen in advance.) It is the same show you saw last season, the same weaknesses and strengths intact, but, as it makes clear before the first hour is over, every bit as brutal and sanguinary. If you were dubious about the first season, you probably won’t want to go back. If it won you over, round two–the full season of which goes live on Netflix 12:01 a.m. PT on Feb. 14–dishes up more red meat that’s anything but cruelty-free.

There is plenty I can’t tell you about the new season without ruining things. (Well, one warning: if you really care about spoilers, watch episode 1 the first chance you get, and stay off social media until you do.) But it picks up where the first left off, precisely: Underwood and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) are finishing the nighttime jog they set off on. Underwood, having engineered the death of a political pawn to open his path to the vice presidency, is now a heartbeat away from being a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. His biggest concern remains reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), his onetime lover and ally of convenience, who is growing increasingly suspicious of how everything fell into place for Underwood.

Season 2 expands the cast a bit–introducing, for instance, Deadwood’s Molly Parker as an ambitious former military officer who Francis cultivates as a new ally in Congress. But the tone remains the same, glum, serious, and cynical–in a negotiation over Congressional committee chairmanships, one politician says, “All you can offer me is Ethics, which nobody wants.” Message received! The characters are all steel and glass surfaces, having joyless sex and telling laughless jokes. The exception, of course, is Underwood, who may not be lovable but at least is the only one having fun here. (He retains his love for video games as well, this season playing, appropriately, God of War: Ascension.) But even his monologues, lustily delivered as they are, run to cliché–lots of trees bending in the wind and sharpened claws and biting the hand that feeds.

Because of those limits, despite the talent attached and David Fincher’s pedigree, House of Cards never became the Next Great Drama it was hyped as early on. Its Netflix sister, Orange Is the New Black, turned out to be the streaming service’s most distinctive and original voice in 2013. But it was and is a Next Good Enough Drama, damn entertaining on the level of sheer plot, like 24 with political maneuvering instead of bomb-defusing. (When there is a 24-like security threat at one point in the new season, in fact, the main focus is on whether it will derail a legislative coup Underwood needs.) I gladly sped through the four episodes screened in advance, caught up in the ballet of players playing players. I could easily see powering through the season in a free weekend, precisely because no individual episode needs much time to sink in.

It also remains a delight to watch Spacey pump the humid breath of life into House of Cards’ arid Capitol chill. If only his character weren’t so dominant of his surroundings as well. One reason the series’ movements can feel so mechanical is that, so far, no one seems nearly in Underwood’s league: not the adversaries he battles directly, nor the sad sacks that he gulls without their even knowing it. For a little while at the end of season 1, it seemed as if tycoon Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) might be his equal, but even he feels outmatched in the early going this season. Underwood is playing 3-D chess, and everyone else is playing tic-tac-toe with crayons.

Francis needs a stronger nemesis, if not for the sake of justice then for the sake of excitement. And House of Cards would be a greater show if it had characters who were people more than game pieces. Still, on its limited terms, it’s absorbing to watch as a story of, in Underwood’s preferred metaphor, the climb up Washington’s “food chain,” one with two kinds of creature: hogs at the trough, and hogs to the slaughter.

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