Now that season 2 of House of Cards has existed in its entirety for a full week, chances are most viewers (other than those who binged the whole season over the first weekend) have had the time to move well past the season premiere, and perhaps even witness Frank Underwood’s swift and decisive rise to becoming the 46th president of the United States.
It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that the final image of season 2 is that of Frank Underwood resolutely knocking his class ring (a replacement one, given to him by Claire (Robin Wright), after he ceremoniously buried the original mid-season) on the desk of the Oval Office before the screen cuts to black. Unless House of Cards was going to somehow venture into a discussion on the penal system, via a crossover with Orange is the New Black, the early announcement that the series had been renewed for season 3 took some tension out of the finale’s climax. That is to say, it seemed unlikely that Frank Underwood was in any real danger, and that his efforts to clutch the highest office in the land would be anything less than fruitful. Perhaps there was some middle ground there, and Frank’s attempt to see President Walker impeached and subsequently removed from office (through his own resignation, of course) could have fallen flat, leaving Vice President Underwood to roam the halls of the White House as persona non grata for the rest of Walker’s term.
As interesting as that might have been, it was never going to happen; and had the series ended with ‘Chapter 26′ (as many initially believed when House of Cards was first announced), a few unresolved plot threads aside, there was no more indelible moment to conclude on than that of President Underwood’s aforementioned desk knock. In order to get there, though, the episode had to generate some tension between the president, Frank, and Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), while also offering up the predictable sacrificial lamb of the season – which, in this case, appears to have been Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly).
After being spooked by hacker activist (hacktivist?) Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson), Doug scrambled to move Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), his unrequited love interest and one of two people capable of linking Underwood to Peter Russo’s murder way back in ‘Chapter 11,’ to another location. Understandably thinking she was about to be done in Adriana-style, Rachel turned the tables on Doug in the woods, brained him with a rock and left him to die. With season 3 now in the works, perhaps we can expect Rachel and Jimmi to become D.C.’s newest power couple – considering they could topple a standing president with charges far more deliciously sinister than being linked to a money laundering operation being run by a corrupt Chinese businessman, funneled through a Native American casino, and ostensibly spearheaded by a billionaire with the ear of President Garrett Walker.
But if that last scenario is any indication, the citizens in the world of House of Cards take such financial matters very seriously, as demonstrated by President Walker’s approval ratings dropping into the single digits (well below what Nixon’s rating was just before he resigned). So, if Frank just continues killing young, influential journalists and South Philadelphia congressmen in the most conspicuous manner possible, he’ll likely hold on to his presidency for a second term. And that’s as easy as it was for Frank. For all the supposed tension and bold power plays there were between President Walker, Vice President Underwood, and blandly villainous Raymond Tusk, the pinnacle of the season boiled down to a soupy and earnest multi-page letter, written on the old Underwood family typewriter, in which Frank solemnly recounted his father’s history of drunken abuse, and lack of conviction in taking his own life. After that sorrowful account, Frank offered, in the form of a signed confession, to take the fall for Walker, thereby regaining the president’s confidence and ensuring that Raymond Tusk would not be afforded the presidential pardon, he’d hedged all his bets upon.
As the audience has already witnessed the extreme lengths Frank is willing to go to achieve his single-minded goal of attaining power, having a letter read by an embattled president who is hiding out at Camp David, become the impetus for him to bring a venomous snake he’d rightly seen as duplicitous back into the circle of trust is about as dramatically inert as things can possibly get. Not only does it not require Frank and Garrett to meet face-to-face and have, you know, an actual dialogue, the best the audience can hope for from the president is a series of vaguely dissimilar facial expressions in which he appears to be struck by the awe and wonder that is Frank’s heartfelt letter written on a typewriter that may as well have been enchanted, since it apparently wields more power than the president’s wife, his advisors, or members of staff.
It’s easy to understand Frank’s manipulation of others around him based on their fear or avarice – Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson), Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), and even Jaqueline Sharp (Molly Parker) among them – but when the manipulation is of an entirely emotional kind – especially of someone with an established reason not to trust him – the payoff and, more importantly, the credibility of such a thing becomes far more tenuous. Most egregiously, though, it makes President Walker possibly the most feckless, susceptible individual on television (Netflix or not) today. And that spineless incompetence, in turn, makes Frank’s dual conquests of a sitting president, and, in essence, the construct that is democracy (considering he rose to the highest office without winning a single vote to do so) resonate with the authoritative timbre of a stifled cough.
If a hero is only as good as the villain he faces, then what is the standard of measurement for the anti-hero? Does he not require an adversary or obstacle of considerable power through which he can test his mettle? Many would argue that he does, and in the case of House of Cards, such an entity wound up being woefully absent. In the end, neither President Walker, nor Raymond Tusk afforded the narrative the kind of adversarial component that would have brought weight to Frank’s accomplishment. As a season finale, ‘Chapter 26′ wound up being so focused on the foregone conclusion that Frank would wind up looking the audience in the eye from behind the ultimate seat of power to literally become The One Who Knocks that it infrequently stopped to make it feel as though he’d earned the right (underhandedly or not) to do so.