The second season of Netflix’s House of Cards introduces a new aide for Vice President Frank Underwood, who seems to have a puppyish enthusiasm for intrigue. Seth Grayson, trying to prove his sneaky bona fides, applies for a job as press secretary by digging up damaging information on the Underwoods and goes on to have the kind of stealthy park bench meetings in which envelopes stuffed with money are exchanged.
Someone so clearly desirous of a trenchcoat and a fedora could usually be written off as campy, but here, the aide is rewarded by a show that seems to have read too much of its own press and is enamored of its own evil.
Although characters keep describing the Underwoods as a ruthless power couple, they seem more invested in aesthetics than efficacy. In this season, Frank makes a show of handing off a burner phone, but it’s to make a completely innocuous, on-the-record call. In the previous season, Claire spent so much time machinating for her Clean Water Initiative that it was a shock to find out her non-profit wasn’t a front for something more sinister.
Underwood’s major antagonist in the new season is Raymond Tusk, a wealthy businessman. But that’s mostly irrelevant. Although the first season made some gestures to West Wingstyle policy debate (a major education bill was the focus of many of Frank’s scheme, with attendant discussion of testing and tenure), Underwood and Tusk lock horns over a vague trade war and increasing tensions with China.
It’s hard-to-impossible for the viewer to translate the hushed discussion about whether or not the Chinese will pull out of the talks into actual policy stakes, and the characters aren’t particularly interested either. The trade disagreements are just a way of keeping score.
It doesn’t feel like either Tusk or Underwood have any goals they’re serving besides demonstrating their own dominance. We never see these two men working out compromises or balancing their conflicting interests, because they can’t be happy as long as their opponent is secure.
The audience might be satisfied, even as the characters spin their wheels; there’s a certain, Mousetrap-like pleasure in watching Underwood set up and execute his plans, but the maneuvers strain plausibility. Many of Underwood’s ploys work only because he’s the protagonist, so the politically informed viewer must suspend her disbelief. Luckily, the show is beautifully cast. The talented actors manage to bring more humanity and depth to the characters than their actions reveal.
Ultimately, the characters in House of Cards are like people who want to be seen as ambitious, but have never been told that ambitious people are advancing toward a goal. Zoe Barnes, a sometimes ally, sometimes antagonist, sometimes partner in adultery with Underwood, is ostensibly an ambitious reporter, but she does almost no reporting and turns down a prestigious job to continue on as Underwood’s mouthpiece.
By the time one of the characters, who is ostensibly a bird lover, has wrung the neck of one of his pets for interrupting him on a phone call, it’s obvious that, although the characters are torn over which is preferable, money or power, they have no idea what to do with either. These characters are never at rest.
There’s an absence of joy in Underwood’s Washington. The lives of the characters have the savor of what Screwtape prescribed in C. S. Lewis’ collection of that devil’s letters:
All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” The Christians describe the Enemy as one “without whom Nothing is strong.” And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why.
By the end of the season, Underwood has carried the day and, in the final shot, is ensconced in the Oval Office, staring down the camera aggressively. But it would ring truer if that last image resembled the final moments of The Graduatean awkwardly long pause as the protagonist notices that he has fed his hunger with dust.
Leah Libresco is an editorial assistant at the American Conservative and blogs about religion at Unequally Yoked.