Also gnawing at the periphery of Frank’s swearing in as Vice-President is the little matter of Peter Russo. For those who don’t recall, Russo was a pawn in the Underwoods’ game in Season 1, instrumental (or more accurately, an instrument) to plot points like the teachers’ strike and the Pennsylvania Governor’s race, and when he became a potential liability, he was removed from the chess board, so to speak. Journalists Zoe, Lucas and Janine seem to be on the verge of uncovering the murderous details of Russo’s death, and this has Frank backed into a corner like a wild animal. How close can they get before he’s compelled to strike back?
The surprising thing about this season is how many of these seemingly big questions get dealt with early on. If the previous season seemed to drag at times, this one is in almost constant motion, with several storylines moving along at once, but not so many that it becomes bogged down by having to switch between too many different people and places. The writers seem to have found a way to make the story of the show cohere a little more tightly, even if it may not seem so at first, and that allows them to serve up more savory moments with our main characters.
It’s beyond obvious that House of Cards begins and ends with Frank Underwood and the central performance of Kevin Spacey. Frank is a malicious bastard, a conniving politician with seemingly no morals and no evident concern for other human beings, whom he uses frequently for his own power-hungry ends. So why do we come to kind of like and admire him? At first glance it could seem like it’s an unhealthy relationship in which he treats us like dirt and we keep coming back to him because we can’t help ourselves. The first episode, especially, feels almost like a personal snub when he goes for a long stretch without ever addressing us (they handle this sense that he’s ignoring us brilliantly).
But it’s actually because he has so many intriguing and endearing qualities that we soon forget (though likely never forgive) even his most serious transgressions. He can exploit and manipulate people at will, but occasionally we’ll hear him doubt himself, joking about ending up in prison and having no one to visit him. He can commit actual murder, but it’s easy to get swept up in his fascinating marriage to Claire and bizarrely meaningful relationship with a guy like Freddy, whose ribs hold a special place near Frank’s heart, to the point of forgetting how awful of a person Frank Underwood indeed is.
Kevin Spacey’s importance in this regard can’t be understated. He carries himself with a confidence that is endlessly interesting. He has a way of conveying a host of feelings Frank is having at any given moment to the audience while seeming to believably hide these true feelings from the men and women around him. And this is without his monologues delivered directly to us—those asides and momentary glances are supremely amusing this season. Other little mannerisms are more noticeable this season, like his range of postures depending on the political situation he’s in and his level of confidence, similar to his walk, or little gestures like his intriguing little knock on wood, as though he knows he’s tempting fate in every move he makes. There are few actors more detailed in their performances than Spacey; this is a character that allows him to use every tool in his box, and gives us a close enough look to fully appreciate every nuance.
Even more than last season, the relationship between Frank and Claire is the part of this show that is most supremely fascinating, to me at least. Robin Wright, who directed the excellent tenth episode of this new season, gets even more opportunities to showcase her ability to trade solos, as it were, with Spacey, and exhibits the power that makes her a worthy Golden Globe winner. More clear than ever is the necessity of their partnership, the fact that Frank needs her as much as she needs him, and not in the cliché politician’s wife sense but in the way she actively provides him precisely what he needs to advance in his objectives, whether it’s exercise, tobacco, or very specific sex (you just have to see it to understand. Her line, “You needed that,” may encapsulate her role in this entire season). There is no doubt that Frank’s shrewdest career move was partnering with Claire. It’s a marriage that is extraordinarily unconventional, but in its symbiosis, may be stronger than any other marriage partnership depicted on screen before.