Spoiler warning: After the jump, I'm going to be discussing the entirety of the second season of House of Cards. If you haven't watched every episode, you'll be spoiled.
Here come the spoilers:
I loved the first season of House of Cards with the unabashed, uncritical love of a true fan. I was sucked into the whole season, and I loved watching it unfold. My feelings on the second season are much more complicated. I loved the way the season ended, but I was bored and often annoyed by the journey to that closing moment.
Sometimes you can tell when a television show is killing time—as much as I loved Breaking Bad, for instance, I thought the buildup to the Walt-vs-Gus endgame went on a bit too long. This entire season of House of Cards felt like killing time to me. I still gulped the season down in three-to-five episode pieces, and I don't regret putting in that time, but I think the entire season could've been condensed down to seven episodes without losing very much of the plot. (Or, even better, the writers could've added some more great character beats to flesh the thirteen episodes out. I loved Frank "meeting" his Civil War-era grandparent, for instance, but Doug's creepy give-and-take with Rachel stretched on too long.) Part of the problem is that the season lacked a delicious villain. Gerald McRaney's Raymond Tusk didn't feel like a worthy adversary for Frank, and President Walker just felt like a dumb shill. Frank spent most of the season worried that everything was going to collapse out from under him, but none of it felt like the machinations of a worthy opponent. Instead, the ongoing trade of attacks and counter-attacks seemed like a duel with baseball bats in a darkened room, a series of swings and misses and swings and hits, with no real plan behind them.
But then I wonder if I'm being too hard on House of Cards. Robin Wright had a great season. She showed off Claire's many sides—the predator, the Lady MacBeth, the public figure, the human being—and somehow managed to keep her character consistent the whole time. I wish I could say the same for Kevin Spacey, who seemed to hit the same note over and over again this time around. Molly Parker, as new majority whip Jackie Sharp, displayed the kind of character that Frank got to show off last season: She's a human being somewhere deep down, but she'll also crush a mentor if she needs to. Parker did excellent work this season, and she built a character who might become the worthy adversary that Frank deserves in season three. But the show didn't linger long enough on its best characters, instead keeping the plot churning for whole episodes at a time, with very little to show for it. (The confusing scandal that brought President Walker down felt so small-time and unpresidential that it amounted to an anti-climax.)
That said, with the last ten minutes of season two, we're exactly where I'd hoped we'd wind up, with a President Underwood who's finally got everything he ever wanted. Hopefully, season three explains exactly what Frank wanted all that power for; it occurred to me as he kicked the chair away from the desk in the Oval Office that we have no clue what his master plan might be—or even if he has a master plan. Season three has already been greenlit, and the producers have a clear end for the series in sight. I hope Netflix doesn't get too greedy and try to stretch House of Cards out longer than it needs to run. The show stands poised on the cusp of greatness, but it's already shown us the kind of dreck it's capable of when it doesn't have a strong motivation behind it. I want this show to give us the monstrous president we've all been waiting to see.