*** NOTE: Contains spoilers. Do not read on unless you've seen Season 2, Episode 1 of "House Of Cards," or don't mind finding out what happens.***
I'll be honest right out of the gate: I thought the latter half of "House Of Cards" Season 1 was weak, filled with too many extraneous characters I had no investment in. I also felt that Kevin Spacey's Frank had way too much power for a Whip. He not only out-manoeuvred the vice-president and president, but he swayed so many opinions across the government it made the rest of the politicians seem like complete morons. Frank is good, but not that good. So when I turned on the Season 2 premiere, I was fully expecting to fast-forward some of it. Imagine my surprise when I not only enjoyed the first episode, I absolutely loved it. I'll go a few steps further: the "House Of Cards" Season 2 premiere is one of the best hours of TV I've watched in recent memory.
It held my attention, rapt, for the full hour. The dialogue, which was sometimes clumsy and often dull in the first season, is spot-on and clever here. The acting, as usual, is superb, led by powerhouses Spacey and Robin Wright (who's more steely than ever, wholly deserving of her Golden Globe). The powers-that-be have streamlined the cast, so we spend less time dealing with yet another grey-haired white guy in a blue suit. We know the people we see in the premiere, and we care about what happens to them.
The show pretty much starts where we left off, with Frank finally achieving what he spent all of Season 1 aiming for: the vice-presidency. He and Claire left for a jog at the end of the last episode, and we begin the second season as they run through a dark, misty park. I couldn't help but think of a two-member wolf pack as Frank and Claire emerge around the bend in the fog, their silhouettes moving soundlessly. They're dangerous, and even when they don't speak you can sense it coming from them. Just like predators, now that they have what they want within their reach, they are remorseless, and fiercely focused on their prey.
There's only one little annoying thing standing in their way: Zoe (Kate Mara). I say "they" because, let's face it, Frank and Claire are a team -- one without the other is impotent. Zoe and her journalist buddies, Janine and Lucas, are hot on the trail and oh so close to exposing Frank's murderous, conniving, vindictive plot for power. Frank knows it, so he requests an old-fashioned meet-up with Zoe in the subway station. (Zoe's poker face is the worst, by the way.) It's pretty obvious that something's going to happen to Zoe, since all of a sudden every other character is expressing concern for her well-being. But you probably didn't see it coming so brutally, and so quickly.
Cold, Frank. With a simple push, Zoe's obliterated by a subway train, easy to pass off as a suicide. In terms of jaw-dropping TV moments, this was a doozy. I don't know if "House Of Cards" has ever succeeded in elevating my heart rate, but bravo, it certainly did with this scene. Overall, I think it was a good move on the showrunners' part. In Season 1, Zoe grated on my nerves from start to finish, with her ridiculous rise to the top of the journalist ranks with one rather insignificant story, and her constant meddling with just about everyone. Sometimes she'd pop up like a jack-in-the-box and scare the hell out of me. The original British version of "House Of Cards" killed their Zoe off in the fourth episode of Season 1, so she was really more of an appendage rather than a crucial character. So long, Zoe. Can't say I'll miss you. Janine (rightly) skips town, and Lucas looks like the crazy widowed boyfriend, grasping at any paranoid theory that says Zoe didn't kill herself. He's right, of course, and I bet down the line he'll re-emerge with new evidence against Frank.
Claire learns of Zoe's death while she's getting dressed and watching the news. She stops in front of the TV, tilts her head sideways, and then walks away. This is the Season 2 Claire, absolutely bad-ass, heartless and out for power; she's fully aware that Frank killed Zoe, but says nothing and does nothing. What is it but another secret she has to keep? While she's not committing murder like her husband, Claire is blackmailing and cornering pregnant Gillian into dropping her lawsuit by essentially promising her Clearwater. Seeing Robin Wright's icy face, still and fierce as she threatens Gillian, gives Cersei from "Game Of Thrones" (Lena Headey) a run for her money. Straight-up, I would never, ever mess with her. Claire uses -- what else? -- information against Gillian, turning her pregnancy into a liability. Claire wins, for now. Rachel the escort/prostitute/server is still a fly in the ointment, too, but Frank (with the help of Stamper) has expertly silenced her, at least for now.
This Season 2 premiere is a lovely harbinger of things to come. If the show maintains its present track, it's on-par for a truly great sophomore season. I hope it avoids last season's pitfalls -- far-fetched storytelling and too much miscellany -- which really bogged down the middle episodes. Season 1 has established the foundation for Season 2, so now that we've gotten all of the clutter out of the way, and we don't need to waste time with backstories and other political nonsense, we can finally get to the story itself. The premiere is so electric because things are finally happening; we're no longer just waiting for them to happen, which is basically how we spent the entire first season (with the exception of Peter's death, which was another jaw-dropper). There's so much more Frank and Claire can do now.
And that's the funny thing about power: the more you get, the more you want, and the more you have. Frank and Claire are at the top of their game, but where do they go from here? There's only one position above vice-president, and we all know what that is. Would he ever make a run for the presidency? Could he? Will Frank and Claire inevitably turn on each other, as most duos in power do? These are questions I'm sure we'll see answered in Season 2. I personally cannot wait. F.U. too, Frank. F.U. too.
- Frank: "Did you think I'd forgotten about you?" -- and then, monologue. So great.
- Thank goodness we don't have to visit that insufferable Slugline "newsroom" anymore. At least I hope we don't. Ugh, the beanbags.
- Stamper's back, and still awesome. Am I wrong to think he's totally in love with Rachel now?
- Molly Parker has joined the cast as Jackie Sharp, and I bet she's going to turn into quite the thorn in Frank's side. That, or they'll hop in the sack. In any case, FIREWORKS.
- Claire wanted children, and now she doesn't. And she just gave up Clearwater?! What is going on with her? Surely she's not going to sacrifice everything she's worked for just because Frank is VP now. She's hatching something. We'll just have to wait and see. Not long, though. Who isn't binge-watching this?
- No more smoking for Frank, which is too bad. Claire and Frank sharing a cigarette by the window was always fascinating to watch.
- I want a pair of F.U. cufflinks so bad.
- Major plus to the death of Zoe: no more creepy, awkward Frank-Zoe sexual encounters.
Follow Chris Jancelewicz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CJancelewicz