Full disclosure: I thought the first season of “House of Cards” was just okay. Kind of addicting and fun to watch at times. But also slow and confusing, especially Majority Whip Frank Underwood’s convoluted revenge plot set into motion after he was passed over for secretary of state. Turns out, it was all a ruse to become vice president. What’s that going to do besides feed Frank’s power-obsessed ego? I guess Season 2 will tell us.
Re-watching the last few episodes of Season 1 was extremely helpful, though. There was one exposition-heavy exchange between reporters Zoe, Janine and Lucas – as they start to figure out the link between Frank and the murdered Rep. Peter Russo – where they finally crack Frank’s plan, so here it is for clarity/reminder’s sake:
Lucas: “He [Frank] could be after the VP nomination.”
Janine: “That doesn’t make sense, though. The VP slot is on the table because Russo tanked. Underwood wanted him to win.”
Zoe: “Unless he didn’t. Maybe he wanted Russo to self-destruct.”
Lucas: “To force [former VP] Matthews to run [for Russo’s now-empty Pennsylvania governor seat].”
Zoe: “Exactly. And then next week, when Matthews wins –“
Lucas: “The president taps Underwood.”
Ding ding ding! Go Team Maybe-About-To-Be-Killed Journalists. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
(Note: We know not everyone likes “House of Cards,” but in D.C., it seems like you have to at least pretend. Scroll down to the end of the recap for our new weekly feature, Three Things to Say in Conversation to Make It Seem Like You Actually Watched This Episode.)
Indeed, the president has tapped Frank as his new VP. The first scene of Season 2 picks up right where Season 1 left off, as Frank is out on a victory run with his wife, Claire. That torture chamber-esque rowing machine in the basement is so last season.
Frank’s right-hand man, Doug Stamper, is waiting with Frank’s bodyguard, Ed Meechum, who has proven his loyalty by never asking about Frank’s shady behavior. Meechum is adorably psyched to give his boss personalized cufflinks for his upcoming birthday, but Stamper kills the enthusiasm by telling him, “We don’t talk about birthdays and we don’t do gifts.” Figures Frank is one of those people who hates birthdays and celebrations and cake and general happiness.
There’s a reason Stamper is all-business. When Frank returns home after the run with Claire – where they take a moment to stop and glare into the darkness together, as any political power couple should – he tells Frank that Zoe/Janine are on to Frank’s involvement with Rep. Russo’s murder. The reporters found the prostitute, Rachel, who was hired to help Russo fall off the wagon, which led to his death (later assisted by Frank, who turned on the car engine while Russo was passed out in his garage). Frank tells Stamper he’ll handle Zoe, as they formed quite the reporter-source relationship last season, one that involved lots of sex and even more threats.
Then, in direct defiance of all those bloggers who talked about how much they loved Claire and Frank sharing a nightly cigarette at the window to counteract their physically loveless marriage, the “House of Cards” writers take that away from us. “You’re another year older on Tuesday,” Claire chides him, handing Frank a glass of water when he reaches for an empty cigarette box. “And we can’t have a vice president who smokes.”
Speaking of disconcerting scenes, oh, here’s Zoe and Lucas in bed, because that’s still a thing. They are having some relationship issues – Zoe randomly jumps out of bed, spooked, and practically runs into the shower. “This is safe, Zoe,” Lucas calls out. “I’m not him.” Lucas, who has always been way too needy, looks even more insecure with a blatant shout-out to Frank, who might be pure evil but at least is confident.
Meanwhile, Frank is up to his old tricks in Congress. He makes a new friend in Rep. Jackie Sharp, a young congresswoman who has military service, a proven track record and is very, very pretty. Naturally, Frank wants her to take his place as majority whip. She thinks it would never work because she’s not senior enough. Frank says he can give her ammunition to win, and then leaves her with damning files on her competitors, two of the longest-serving members of Congress. To her credit, she waits a full two seconds before eagerly starting to read the files.
Did we mention the political plots are some of the most boring on the show? To sum up: Frank assures the president (the dumbest TV president in an impressive history of dumb TV presidents) and his colleagues that he won’t endorse anyone for his whip replacement, and goes out of his way to encourage some other names. But he really wants Jackie, because she showed no mercy while serving overseas, and he likes that. To cement his evilness, Frank declines all security as the incoming VP because he needs his privacy for the next few days.
Privacy for what, you ask? Well, for murdering. Poor Zoe never sees that Metro train coming, on so many levels. First, she meets with Frank at Rock Creek Park, just as Lucas texts her that one of his sources showed him the police report from Russo’s death: And Russo died in the passenger seat. Zoe lobs dicey question after question at Frank, who deftly knocks them all away with the skill of a seasoned sociopath. “You’re connecting dots that don’t exist,” Frank tells her, just as she connects all of the dots. Still, you can see the fear in his eyes as Zoe realizes that he definitely had something sinister to do with Russo’s disastrous run for governor and then sudden death.
Zoe and friends try to track down Rachel, the prostitute who was with Russo the night he died. But Stamper’s on it, and swiftly makes Rachel get the heck out of town. So Zoe makes the fatal mistake of meeting Frank again at a Metro station (Cathedral Heights, the stop where everyone does their evil bidding) under the guise of starting a “clean slate.” But really, she wants more answers. Though she deletes his text messages and contact info on her phone, Frank is Officially Freaked Out when she starts asking about Rachel and pressing for details about Russo’s death. “I want to believe you, Francis,” she begins, when he denies he had anything to do with a murder. That’s not enough. When Zoe tries to follow him, he reaches out and pushes her directly into an oncoming train with a horrific “thump.”
Frank leaves as people start screaming, and since he has a fancy hat and glasses on, no one could possibly recognize him. We see Lucas break down when receiving the news of Zoe’s death and then he hightails it to Janine’s house, where she’s packing to flee D.C. as fast as humanly possible. “I have always chosen the tough stories, I have been fearless,” Janine tells Lucas tearfully. “But you know what? I’m really scared this time.”
At Casa Underwood, Claire sees a story about Zoe’s death on the news. She gives nothing away and has no facial expression as she goes about putting on her makeup. Is it because she knows Zoe had an affair with her husband? Or is she truly as diabolical as Frank?
We’re leaning toward the second option, as Claire tries to settle a wrongful termination lawsuit by her pregnant former employee, Gillian Cole, the old-fashioned way: Spilling Gillian’s affair with a married man to the jilted wife, and then cutting off Gillian’s health insurance. Gillian desperately needs her medication for her unborn baby, but Claire tells her, “I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s required, but neither of us wants that.” Not surprisingly, Gillian is ready settle on Claire’s terms, which includes Gillian taking over for Claire as head of the Clean Water Initiative nonprofit.
Questions left: Was there more to Claire’s scheduled visit to the fertility doctor — which she canceled after settling with Gillian — than simply gathering info to use against Gillian? She never brings up the possibility of having a baby to Frank, but maybe that’s for the best. Now Frank is officially a cold-blooded killer, and the episode wraps with him refusing all mentions of his birthday except for the initialed cufflinks from Meechum (now a member of his Secret Service detail), which delight him to no end. (Probably because of the initials on them: F.U.)
“Did you think I’d forgotten you?” Underwood says suddenly to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, as is his tradition established in the show’s first season. He tells us, the audience, to not waste our breath mourning Zoe. Because she’s a kitten who grew up to be a cat and then scratched him too hard and drew blood from the hand that fed her. Or something like that.
“There is but one rule, hunt or be hunted,” says Frank, looking like he’s enjoying this a little too much. “Welcome back.”
Three Things to Say in Conversation to Make It Seem Like You Actually Watched This Episode:
“Can you believe they killed off Zoe? I did not see that coming.”
“What was UP with that creeptastic scene at Freddy’s BBQ about the best way to kill a hog?”
“I have my theories, but do you think Claire really wanted to get pregnant?”