Warning: Includes major plot spoiler from the first episode of “House of Cards” season two.
In the weeks leading up two the season two premiere of “House of Cards”—posted to Netflix today at midnight PST—a curious hush surrounded the show. There's a reason for this cone of critical silence: Netflix imposed it by force of non-disclosure agreement, requiring early viewers to sign a draconian contract barring them from sharing plot points (“You will not, directly or indirectly, disclose, disseminate, duplicate, publish, including, without limitation, blogging, tweeting, texting, and posting to message boards, IMDB, fansites…”) and then agree to further caveats before watching each screener episode online. But these fearmongering measures seem justified when, one episode into the second season, the show delivers a plot development so explosive that it is an impressive feat of the Netflix p.r. apparatus that no details were leaked at all.
At first, season two seems poised to deliver the same slow narrative burn and atmospheric gloom as season one. It picks up exactly where the previous season left off: Congressman Frank Underwood and his wife Claire jog together at night, moving through the shadowy park dressed all in black. Arriving home, they’re greeted by Underwood’s chief of staff, Doug Stamper, who informs the congressman that cub-reporter-turned-Internet-journo-phenom Zoe Barnes and her lackeys (editor-boyfriend Lucas and fellow reporter Janine) have tracked down Rachel Posner, the former call girl who seduced Congressman Peter Russo as part of Underwood's sinister plan. “What do you want me to do about Zoe?” Stamper asks. “I’ll handle Zoe,” Underwood replies. Soon the story swerves to Zoe and her aggressively unethical journalism—for instance, attempting to track down Rachel by telling the woman’s employer that she is mentally ill and considering suicide. And then, major spoiler alert, comes the show’s biggest shock thus far: By the 35-minute mark, Zoe Barnes is dead.
The actual moment when it happens is thrilling, after a quiet confrontation between Zoe and Frank at the Cathedral Heights metro station. But most frustrating is the aftermath of the murder—which is to say, the lack thereof. There’s one dutiful scene in which Lucas sinks to the floor of his office in anguish. A few grave TV news dispatches announce Zoe's death. But by the end of the fourth episode (Netflix only released the first four episodes to critics), there has been no funeral, no sign that the murder has been a major event for the media world, no particular reason to care that she is gone. Other characters mention the death only in passing. Lucas has taken up the mantle of Zoe’s obsession with Underwood, forsaking his editorial duties as he attempts to hack the congressman’s phone. We see Zoe flung off a subway platform, then the plot trundles on. In one disturbing moment, Lucas watches security footage of Zoe’s death and sees what appears to be a dark pool of blood, but could easily just be a shadow.
Of course, from a storytelling perspective, it’s not easy to kill off a major character. Matthew Crawley’s death in “Downton Abbey” felt like a jarring plot contortion to allow Dan Stevens to leave the show, but it was wrenching because we were so invested in his character. “Game of Thrones” excels at this in part because its whole universe is always teetering the brink of cataclysm; in a landscape in which every idle move is a matter of life and death, Ned Stark’s beheading or the carnage at the Red Wedding can seem at once shocking and tragic and inevitable. Zoe’s murder should have been similarly dramatically satisfying. In the toxic power structure of the Washington of “House of Cards,” her reckless, youthful ambition was the counterpoint to Underwood’s calculated, veteran gamesmanship. She was at once dangerous and valuable to him, in some ways more his equal than anyone else on the show. But her death—in its bloodlessness, its icy unreality—captures a central problem with the series overall: For all the suspense and the melodrama, the stakes still feel too low, the emotional devastation oddly free of consequences.
The murder of Congressman Russo in season was a true culmination, the fruit of hours of subtle plot development. It was hard not to root for him as he struggled with addiction and suffered through Underwood's manipulations. His death was disappointing because Corey Stoll’s performance was a highlight of the show and because Russo provided some rare humanity amid all the machine-like striving, but it still made dramatic sense. Now, without Russo, the mercilessness of the show’s moral universe can be numbing. “I should have thought of this before,” Underwood says to the camera at one point, in the midst of persuading another politican to support his bill. “Appeal to the heart, not the brain.” It's advice that “House of Cards” itself might, at times, be wise to take.