We gave it an A-
Ever since it began, House of Cards has been a Greek tragedy masquerading as an American one. A darkly comic allegory about fate, hubris, and abuse of power in Washington, D.C., it finds its hero, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), making supremely arrogant moves that should leave his empire in ruins, yet he never gets punished. Now that he’s commandeered the presidency, though, the only way to go is down. The Democrats don’t want him on the ballot next election. Tension over the Middle East is straining his relationship with the Russian president, Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), who’s a dead ringer for Putin. A former confidant whom Frank has ignored starts working for an Underwood rival. (Netflix has asked that critics not spoil this character’s identity—though if you watched any of the leaked episodes, you surely know whom I’m talking about.) Whether that person wants revenge or just inside intel to help Frank remains to be seen. Either way, the gods will surely punish Frank soon: One hilariously over-the-top scene finds him in church, accidentally knocking over a Jesus statue.
Thanks to frequent backstabbing, heavy-handed symbolism, and Spacey’s deliciously hammy performance, House of Cards works best as a mordantly funny melodrama. The form is fitting—as creator/executive producer Beau Willimon once said, “Politics is theater. It is all about perception.” But Frank’s wife, Claire (Robin Wright), also gives it a conscience this season, as she works to free a gay rights activist who’s imprisoned by Petrov’s regime. She’s still a manipulator like Frank, and watching her under-mine her enemies is thrilling: Check the scene where she humiliates a man in the ladies’ room. But she’s also a good foil for her husband, earning more allies with diplomacy than brute force. Her face-off with Frank over the protester is a highlight of the first six episodes, raising the question of whether it’s best to speak up for what you believe or shut your mouth for the greater good. Both are trying to square their ideals with their self-interest.
If House of Cards were a true Greek tragedy, this season would end with Frank getting karmic retribution, whether it’s from Claire, his former associate, or a new political reporter (Kim Dickens) who’s bent on exposing corruption. But at a time when the real-life government is so often gridlocked, it’s still satisfying to watch him make power moves and actually get what he wants. He might be evil, but he’s very effective. Besides, this is Washington. If his downfall comes, he’ll just wait four years and rise again. A–