House of Cards returned with its second season on Valentine’s Day. The word ‘returned’ is somewhat obsolete when talking about modern programming such as Netflix’s House of Cards though. Unlike television channels which run weekly episodes over an established period of time, taking breaks during major holidays and annual events, Netflix uploaded an entire season onto its system all at once and made that season readily available to be accessed day or night whenever you wanted to view it. House of Cards didn’t return because it never left. It might be more accurate to say that, on Valentine’s Day, Netflix simply released new episodes of House of Cards for public consumption.
For a modern show that was really the first of its kind, House of Cards was a remarkable accomplishment for Netflix. Amateurs and professionals alike have attempted to harness the internet community into tangible viewership. Joss Whedon tried to do so with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along blog and I’ve already expressed my admiration for the Marble Hornet’s horror series before. But House of Cards was something different. This was a rising business taking a big risk from their usual acquisitions of readymade television and films and instead producing their own original content available only on the web.
This wasn’t some kind of small time indie project either. Big names were attached to this, such as Kevin Spacey and David Fincher. If it weren’t for the fact that shows such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad renewed the creative vision of televised programming, I’m not sure that such big names would have be ready to sign on to what was surely seen to be a uncertain venture. Had this not been critically acclaimed, Netflix would have been forced to go back to the drawing board. But it did work, and now many other companies are seeing the power and potential of the online audience.
And here’s where I make an admission; I was not impressed by House of Card’s first season. The acting and direction was brilliant. There’s a growing sense of tension throughout the entire thirteen episodes that makes your breath catch in your throat at times. Kevin Spacey’s ability as an actor works wonders here, demonstrating how a character can be entertaining and alluring while being ruthless and manipulative. Kate Mara’s role as journalist Zoey Barnes was mesmerising as well. In the hands of a less talented actress and director, the character might have come across as ungrateful or unscrupulous but Mara plays her so well that we actively root for the character, even against Spacey’s Frank Underwood.
What left me wanting were the episode to episode stories. The story arc is strong across the entire season but from episode to episode it felt like some characters were treading water until the next big plot event. Obviously, this happens to most shows but it is far more damaging to a Netflix series than a cable or satellite television programme. Person of Interest or The Following can get away with some sleeper stories because they end their episodes with major revelations that make you eager to tune in the following week. The end to an episode is vital to those shows because they have to keep the audience interested for seven days until the next one airs.
However, that isn’t the case for House of Cards. Because they upload all the episodes at once it doesn’t matter if one episode doesn’t end with a big revelation, so long as the story in the episode itself is strong I’ll be anxious to watch the next episode. If they have done their job, the viewer might even choose to watch it right away. And it is much easier to keep someone interested for seven minutes than seven days. A problem arises when the story for a single episode isn’t great or as strong as the others and then I begin to gamble whether I should watch another episode at 3am in the morning or finally get some sleep.
The second season has been a great improvement in this area. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some episodes that are better than others but on the whole the episode to episode story telling has been far more compelling. Part of this is due to delving deeper into character histories but subject matter is also responsible. As Chief Whip some of Frank Underwood’s actions were really politically motivated and without a keen interest in politics, it was harder to follow exactly why one event was happening. As Vice President, Frank deals with larger, more public issues. An argument could be made that one shouldn’t watch a political show if they aren’t interested in politics but while I’m not fascinated by all political matters I do enjoy the intrigue and deception that the programme offers.
Or perhaps it just feels better because of the (SPOILER) death of Kate Mara’s character Zoey Barnes. Not that any character is really safe but I expected her story to draw out further. Yet, I understand why it had to happen. The brutality of her death gave the opening episode the impact that it needed. Brutality which was elevated by the both the suddenness of the attack and the meticulousness by which it was carried out. Throughout the entire scene you can see Frank looking down the tracks and checking his watch. Nothing made my heart sink more than the tiniest whimper of a scream before Zoey collided with the train and the scene cut to the next.
The audience knew Frank was capable of murder, Peter Russo’s arc saw to that, but this added a new level of darkness to the character. Russo was a pawn but Zoey was someone we thought he cared to about. Yet this was, in reality, the fruition of Frank’s warning that he would hurt and discard her. While I understand the need to dispose of Zoey in terms of the story, the show may suffer in the long run from losing her talent. Molly Parker is a good actress but a meagre replacement for Mara.
Perhaps you were like me; on the fence following the first season and uncertain about the second. Well, I’m here to tell you that it gets better and the second season is well worth watching. But, just as with Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, don’t get too invested to individual character. Any one of them could wind up on the chopping block next.