Published on February 27th, 2015 | by Tom May


House of Cards – Season 1 & 2 Recap

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With only hours to go until Netflix presses the big red button to premiere Season 3 of their hugely successful House of Cards, what better time is there to take a look back and remind those of us who’ve already seen the first two seasons of the twisted, and often convoluted, journey to the top taken by the fascinating, Machiavellian Frank Underwood? Newcomers to the series are also welcome to get themselves up to speed with this recap in time for the new season, though I would really recommend seeing the entirety of this largely great, occasionally plodding, series for yourself!

Needless to say, there’ll be spoilers for the first two seasons of House of Cards beyond this point. You have been warned.

Season 1

Meet Frank Underwood. Angel of death for dogs, habitual breaker of the fourth wall, and patron of the unsubtle metaphor. (Murder by vehicle I)

Before the opening credits for the first episode even get a chance to roll, we’re quickly brought up to speed on the man that is Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey); a ruthless sociopath with a penchant for monologuing to the audience and who has no qualms about voluntarily euthanizing the neighbour’s dog.

Don’t let the pet death and misanthropic monologuing fool you, though. Today is a good day. Frank’s about to get himself a sizeable promotion from House Whip to Secretary of State from the man he’d just helped get elected as the new President of the United States, and Frank isn’t the only one who will benefit from this rise in rank. His wife and partner-in-crime Claire (Robin Wright) will be reaping the benefits right alongside him. You’ve never seen a more ruthless person in charge of a charity.

It all goes wrong when Frank is ushered into the office of Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey), Chief of Staff and another politician that he helped make, with a curious lack of President to be found.

With Frank proving to be far too good at his job, the President reneges on his promise, preferring to keep Frank exactly where he is and give the job to someone else. Frank doesn’t take the news well, especially when he’s receiving it from Vasquez and not the President himself.

After having himself a good mope, Frank arrives home to find an unsympathetic Lady Macbeth. “I never thought they were capable,” he confides to Claire. You can’t help but agree when she practically rolls her eyes at him in response. Presumably they didn’t get to where they are in the world of politics simply by kissing a whole swarm of babies.

TV’s Most Well-Adjusted Couple for the third year running.

This is where the premise of the show really starts to kick off. Frank begins his ambitious plotting, and the Underwoods embark on a campaign of revenge against everyone in the Democratic party who has wronged them, which happens to include just about everyone. At the same time we’re introduced to Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a congressman whose list of vices would double the length of this recap if included. Then there’s Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a rookie journalist for The Washington Herald stuck reporting on bland human interest stories. Her ambition quickly begins to mirror Frank’s own appetite for advancement.

In Russo’s case it’s a matter of bad luck and poor judgement that he finds himself dragged into the middle of Frank’s schemes as a glorified pawn. His handler is Frank’s own Chief of Staff, the eminently creepy and seedy Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) who covers up Russo’s impending embarrassment by buying the silence of the escort he was discovered with when arrested for drink driving. (Which happens to balloon into one of the most uncomfortable and painfully drawn out plotlines of the series that doesn’t really amount to anything until the end of Season 2. It can easily be summed up as ‘Doug’s a creep’. Let’s move on.)

Contrasting against the eternally unfortunate Peter Russo, Zoe simply sees Frank as an opportunity for her to get a leg up into the world of political journalism. Frank likewise senses a useful mouthpiece in the media to feed the stories that will benefit him. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship that blossoms into some equally delightful Oedipal weirdness, all vetted and approved of by the Lady Underwood. Functional!

With his pieces in play, Frank’s conspiracies begin in earnest; first by publicly shaming the new Administration during their first day on the job by leaking the rather liberally-minded first draft of education reform policies to Zoe. With a bit of skillful manipulation of the bill’s original author Donald Blythe (Reed Birney), Frank ends up as the new man in charge of education reform.

At the same time, he’s getting back at the man who got the position of Secretary of State in his stead: Michael Kern (Kevin Kilner). Sending Russo as his dogsbody to talk with a former friend of Kern’s, now a washed-up, drugged-out conspiracy theorist, Frank manages to turn the previously weak assertion of the new Secretary of State having written some very unwise things about the Israel/Palestine conflict in his younger years into a proper allegation. With Mr. Underwood’s sights suddenly set much higher, he instead maneuvers an old friend into Kern’s soon vacated chair. For the time being both Blythe and Kern are out of the way, but they’ll show up again in Season 2 and through some strange twists of fate end up his reluctant allies by the end.

At the same time the show puts a fair amount of focus on Claire, teetering between her suddenly showing a smidgen of conscience in her more private moments and then her proving to be just as ruthlessly pragmatic as her husband. Though apparently wracked by indecision in the earlier episodes of Season 1, the writers eventually throw up their hands and decide that anyone foolish enough to put any amount of trust in her, perhaps barring Frank, will end up just as mistreated as if they had been dealing with the other Underwood.

Turning our attention back to Frank Underwood’s ever-constant machinations and his wrangling of the education bill isn’t proving to be quite the cinch that dealing with Kern was. Facing enormous resistance from the teaching unions, Frank has to fight tooth and nail to keep his new, far more conservative education reform afloat. Meanwhile Zoe continues to climb her own ladder within the newspaper until she goes a step too far and gets herself fired, but not before dragging her boss with her after recording him calling her a very choice word in the middle of his particularly angry tirade.

And after hitting rock bottom, Peter Russo cleans up his act and approaches Frank about running for Governor of his state. Frank does all he can to stop himself from salivating all over the opportunity being handed to him on a platter and promises to help his poor, hapless minion towards his goal.

Following disaster after disaster for Frank regarding the education reform, he manages to silence the unruly teacher’s union after goading their representative into assaulting him. Never one to pass up a lucky break, Frank blackmails the union into behaving. Back from the brink, Underwood wins himself some major points with the President, getting him close enough to spot his next target: the deeply unhappy, sidelined Vice President Jim Matthews (Dan Ziskie).


It may look like I just got a guy to punch me in the face so I could blackmail him, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

Fortunes change, however, and before long Frank finds that both Russo and Zoe are becoming unruly and too big for their boots, having both grown fed up with his constant manipulation. Frank, the man who told us in the very first episode that he “cannot abide useless things”, decides to go after Russo first. It turns out that acting out against the main benefactor of your grandiose political campaign may not be the best idea. Stamper, ever-reliable skeezy pawn that he is, enlists the help of the prostitute that had landed Russo in Frank’s grasp to begin with and concocts an encounter between the two of them that results in Russo falling off the wagon spectacularly in a drunken bender the night before an important radio interview. The resulting interview is a predictable mess and Russo’s political ambitions are all but destroyed by Frank as a result.

With Russo written off as a lost cause, suddenly there’s an empty spot in the race for the Governor of Pennsylvania, which just so happens to be the former position of the currently dissatisfied Vice President. All it takes is a nudge from Frank and Matthews is already gleefully packing his bags for more welcoming climes, leaving a pressing need for a new Vice President. Guess who’s interested?

Ruined though he is, Russo decides that he still might be able to salvage some of his self-respect by turning himself in for the crime that Frank had previously smoothed over for him. Suddenly he’s a liability, which just so happens to be one of Mr. Underwood’s favourite things. Picking Russo up from jail, they take a nice drive together in order to air their grievances and patch things up. The drunken Russo has passed out by the time they’ve parked in an underground garage, and the ever-thoughtful Frank Underwood can’t bring himself to wake him. Rolling down the window, cleaning up after himself, then shutting the garage door behind him, Frank decides to let Russo get some well-earned rest. What a pal! Hey, wait, you left the engine on, Frank. Frank? Oh.

Frank looks perfectly innocent as he goes to get some fresh air. (Murder by vehicle II)

With his most immediate problem taken care of, Frank is free to selflessly lend his services to the President in selecting a new VP, having conveniently forgotten about the other thorn in his side who has found herself a new home at the online gossip rag Slugline. It doesn’t take long for Zoe to pick up the trail on Russo’s death and to figure out Frank’s possible involvement.

The entirely impartial hunt for the next Vice President of the United States demands Frank’s full attention, however. Apparently, President Garrett Walker (Michael Gill) already has someone else in mind and Frank soon discovers that he’s not the only man with designs on being the operator of Walker’s puppet strings. He’s sent to stay with and personally assess the capability of Walker’s old confidante and backer; an eccentric billionaire called Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney playing a strikingly similar, if marginally less odious, character to his interpretation of George Hearst in Deadwood.)

Setting up the next season’s main and somewhat repetitive conflict, there’s much back and forth between Frank and Tusk before it turns out that Frank is the one being vetted for the position of Vice President. Though Frank detests being “managed”, as he so often reminds us, he’s come too far to throw it all away and reaches an understanding with Tusk before accepting the position.

Season 2

Going from Whip to Vice President is no small feat, but neither his ambition or his lust for revenge has been dampened by assuming his new post and Season 2 launches us straight back into it. Picking up with the most obvious loose thread left dangling at the end of the previous season, Stamper clues Frank in that a certain someone and her gang of intrepid journalist friends having been poking about poor old Peter Russo’s apparent suicide.

After some warm-up verbal sparring between the two, Frank convinces Zoe to meet him at the Metro station for a more proper confrontation. There’s threats from both sides but eventually Zoe seems to capitulate to Underwood’s demands that she hand over all the incriminating evidence she’s gathered thus far. Despite appearances, it’s hard to believe that she’ll go back to being Frank’s personal mouthpiece in the media. This is it, we tell ourselves. This is going to be the main conflict of the season as they both try to one up the respective monster they had a hand in creating. It makes a lot of sense!

And then Frank pushes her into the path of an oncoming train.

Ruining the commute home for hundreds of passengers. Truly, Frank’s evil knows no bounds.                                            (Murder by vehicle III! I think I’m on to something.)

It’s definitely a shocking and memorable start to the second season, especially after almost an entire episode free of soliloquies from Frank. But it also heralds the beginning of a more troubled and uneven season, with a host of new, often extraneous characters that overcomplicate the plot without adding anything particularly meaningful. The likes of Remy, Gavin, Jackie, and Seth all seem to be going… somewhere, but it feels like nothing substantial comes of the time devoted to their storylines. We can only hope that it’ll pan out in the third season.

With so many balls being thrown in the air at once, Frank’s journey hits a bit of speed bump after his ruthless handling of Zoe. With so many things happening at once, his tenure as Vice President looks overly opaque and complicated but can be boiled down pretty simply as a tug-of-war for the President’s favour between Frank and Tusk.

After a few too many episodes of dithering filler, the sprawling plotlines begin to thin down and the show finds its focus once more for an exciting final episode of Season 2. Frank is on the outs with President Walker like never before, having finally seen through that Southern gentleman veneer to see him for the opportunistic and false man that he is. Deciding Tusk to be the slightly lesser of two evils, the President offers him a full pardon for his part in a brazenly corrupt scheme of buying influence in the Senate if he’ll implicate Frank instead.

Frank is meanwhile racing to arrange President Walker’s impeachment, but things are looking bleak. In a last ditch effort of desperation Frank does the unthinkable; he writes Walker a particularly contrite letter where he does his damnedest to paint himself as the man’s closest friend. Ever the dupe, it works and Walker agrees to find it in his heart to forgive him if Frank will help stave off Walker’s impeachment.

Suddenly Tusk is left out in the cold with his potential pardon expired. Furious and betrayed, Tusk turns to the one man who will listen: Frank Underwood. With his arrest all but assured and with nothing to lose, Tusk agrees to implicate Walker in the scandal he was going to set Frank up for until a few minutes before. Frank suddenly finds himself on top again after Tusk is led away in cuffs and Walker’s reputation is flushed down the proverbial toilet.

After two seasons of playing house with Rachel and attempting to control every aspect of her already miserable life, Doug Stamper is forced to take action as the remnants of Zoe’s investigation is championed by put-upon hacktivist Gavin, who might as well be called Not Edward Snowden. Revealing his knowledge of Rachel’s situation, he attempts to blackmail Frank’s slimy Chief of Staff.

His hand forced, Stamper decides it’s time to do something about the object of his weird desire, and while it’s kept deliberately vague as to what exactly he intends to do with her, it’s no surprise that Rachel assumes the worst and interprets their sudden vanishing into the night as her about to get whacked. After a quick chase and scuffle in the woods, she decides that maybe it’d be better if she whacked Stamper first.

Managing to look no less like a creepy sleazebag, even in death. (Murder by… brick. Oh.)

Despite the earlier condition of Walker’s friendship, opinion of the President has become so low that not even Frank can stop the impeachment process from going through. Gathering up the tattered remains of his pride, Walker decides that the only thing left for him to do is to voluntarily resign and hand Frank the reins. Frank manages to bite his tongue long enough for them to part as friends, with Walker none-the-wiser that he has been utterly outmaneuvered by his so-called friend as the final part of Frank Underwood’s political rampage of revenge.

And so after twenty six episodes worth of conniving and backstabbing, Frank takes his place at the top of the pile as the President of an administration that he repeatedly crippled or otherwise compromised through deception, blackmail, and just a little bit of good old-fashioned murder. Clearly it can only be smooth sailing from here and none of it will come back to bite Frank in his Underwood.

Frank’s downfall is almost assured at this point. The only real question that remains is whether Netflix will succumb to the urge to milk House of Cards’ popularity for all its worth and drag a fourth season out of it. You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

Tom May
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