When the credits rolled on the House of Cards season 1 finale, I was somewhat relieved to let Francis Underwood and his equally terrifying wife, Claire, suited up in joggers' black, run off into the dark. It had been a stiff 13-episode drink intoxicating, but also emotionally numbing of this shrewd, soulless couple maneuvering themselves up Washington, D.C.'s bleak power ladder. In the end I admired the show more than I enjoyed it, appreciating the smooth performances of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright both of them bringing such magnetic chill and hunger to the Underwoods rather than caring about the fate of their characters. Could season 2 offer something more lasting than the scuzzy buzz of high-quality booze?
In the first of several bold moves in the premiere, the viewer is dropped, literally, right back into the Underwoods' determined path. No time has passed; they're still out on their triumphant run. But back at the town house, Francis' heavy Doug Stamper (the ever-excellent Michael Kelly) waits with news that the Slugline bloggers are hustling to connect dots that link the newly tapped vice president to deceased congressman Peter Russo and the missing call girl Rachel. Meanwhile, Claire must deal with the threat of former CWI employee Gillian Cole's lawsuit, which really brings out the beast in her. ''I'm willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that's required,'' Claire calmly informs a six-months-pregnant Gillian (Sandrine Holt) in one monster of a scene. ''Neither of us wants that. Now tell me, am I really the sort of enemy you want to make?''
No thanks! And therein lies the show's fundamental problem that must be righted: The Underwoods have no worthy opponents. There are only so many scenes of duping, playing, and ruining that one can endure without wanting the tables turned. But after Russo's murder and a truly shocking, borderline-absurd turn of events in the premiere, we need to believe that they are a pair who can be brought low. Kate Mara's Zoe and her more interesting colleague Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) are an okay team, but their muckraking efforts are now led by Washington Herald editor Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus), who unfortunately looks like a boy in need of a nap (or a hug) compared with Francis' commanding menace. The billionaire businessman Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), suddenly an omnipresent figure in the Oval Office, also seems a few steps behind the scheming VP. My money is on rising politico Jacqueline Sharp, played with throbbing edge by Deadwood alum Molly Parker. She's a player too, capable of betrayal and ugly compromise, but more grounded than the other Capitol buffoons on the show. Somebody needs to chop off Francis' head and this season will be an artful failure if no one even comes close. B