Drama DVD Review

Ruthlessly Pragmatic DVD Review: House of Cards: The Complete Second Season

June 21, 2014Ben MK

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The house always wins

By Ben Mk

The announcement three years ago that David Fincher would be bringing his considerable talent to the small screen — with a series revolving around backroom power plays on Capitol Hill — was a real head-turner. Netflix was attempting to revolutionize the TV show — by creating one never intended to be aired on broadcast television — and with a filmmaker of Fincher's cachet behind it, the possibilities were tantalizing. Needless to say, the experiment paid off in spades, for Netflix, Fincher and the show's lead character, Frank Underwood. And if you thought good old Frank was ruthless in season one, wait till you get a load of him in season two.

Sex. Lies. Murder. If it has anything to do with power — whether it be amassing it or robbing others of it — then it has everything to do with House of Cards. As we learned in season one, House of Representatives majority whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) isn't a man to be trifled with. He's not afraid to get his hands dirty when it comes to getting what he wants, even if that means getting blood on them. And in season two, he continues his ruthless, unstoppable ascension to the top of the political food chain.

After throwing everyone he could under the proverbial bus — most notably, congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) — to secure his shot at the vice presidency, Frank is now eyeing the big prize: the Oval Office. But while he grooms his successor, Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker, one of the new faces this season), he finds himself increasingly under the scrutiny of investigative reporter (and former ally) Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Luckily for Frank (but not so luckily for Zoe), he knows just how to quell a rising storm. In just its first, riveting chapter of its second season, House of Cards covers a lot of ground, effectively tying up the major loose end from season one while triggering a new ripple effect that moves through the remaining twelve chapters like a firestorm through a tinder-dry forest. Because there are no standalone episodes in House of Cards; everything is part of the bigger picture. Though there are multiple, interweaving character arcs and subplots, it all invariably leads back to Frank, who's playing everyone — like a harp from Hell — for his own personal gain and political agenda.

Like season one, there's plenty of political drama on tap. On the show's agenda this season: an entitlement amendment and a military sex abuse bill, with a little scandal involving foreign contributions and money laundering, secret presidential marriage counselling and an impeachment hearing thrown in for good measure. But as much as it's about political maneuvering and public relations spin-doctoring, House of Cards is really all about the underlying drama. In fact, the show can get downright mired in the political rhetoric, but it's at its best when it focuses on the human drama. And with blackmail, entrapment, betrayal and murder all on the table this season, there's no shortage of that either. That goes double for Frank's equally merciless wife, Claire (Robin Wright), who courts some significant controversy of her own, after putting her non-profit foundation, Clear Water Initiative, behind her to help Frank further his political career. All in all, it makes for a compelling thirteen episodes — the only challenge is wrapping your head around all of it, which can be daunting at times.

Anyone who's ever seen a David Fincher film — whether it's Seven, Fight Club or The Social Network — will immediately recognize his signature visual style, and House of Cards has his fingerprints all over it. Although his role as director on the series has been limited to its inaugural two episodes, Fincher set the bar for the visual language of the show. And in conjunction with cinematographer Igor Martinovic, the directors at the helm for season two — James Foley, Carl Franklin, John Coles, Jodie Foster and series star Robin Wright — uphold that established visual motif. Overall, the image is characterized by a cold and clinical veneer (befitting the cold and calculating ways of the show's central character), and it translates well to DVD. Sony's transfer is on par with (if not slightly better than) Netflix's standard definition encoding, with stable fleshtones, strong contrast and no noticeable screen crush or macroblocking. As for the audio portion of the program, it's a mostly dialog-driven affair (with the occasional musical interlude), and the discs' Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack replicates it with ease. From Spacey's expertly-honed southern drawl to composer Jeff Beal's dramatic musical themes, it all comes across loud and clear.

Season one of House of Cards on DVD was woefully bereft of special features, giving fans — especially those with Netflix subscriptions — little reason to seriously consider it. But season two on DVD proves to be quite a value-added proposition in comparison. Though there are no episode commentaries on the set (as Netflix subsequently added to their offering of season one's episodes), Sony has spread 46-minutes-worth of featurettes across the set's four discs.

These featurettes speak to the series in general (instead of being specific to content in season two), and the two briefest of the bunch can be found on disc one: Politics for the Sake of Politics and Direct Address. Clocking in at 4 and 6 minutes, respectively, both feature sound bites from the cast and crew as they voice their opinions on the topic at hand: the themes of the show, for the former, and Spacey's breaking of the fourth wall, for the latter.

Each of the remaining discs houses one featurette each. Disc two contains the 11-minute Two Houses, a comparison between Fincher's version and the original British series, in which Fincher, showrunner Beau Willimon, and various cast and crew (including author Michael Dobbs, who penned the book that formed the basis for the British version) discuss the origins of the American incarnation and place it in context with its predecessor. And on disc three, you'll find an 8-minute-long Table Read, which contains footage culled from a read-through of season one's final pair of episodes (held on September 25th, 2012), intercut with sound bites from Fincher and a few cast members.

But in keeping with the tradition of saving the best for last, the most comprehensive bonus feature — the 18-minute Line of Succession — can be found on disc four. This doc delves into the making of the show and features cast and crew interviews, as well as clips from various episodes. The topics covered include the filmmakers' approach of having the show's directors each helm two consecutive episodes (and the flexibility that entails), the series' cinematography and Spacey's role (as more than just an actor).

You don't have to possess a keen interest in politics to find House of Cards intriguing. The strong suit of the show is really its ability to portray human drama, drawing viewers into the world of its characters and the constant power struggles going on within it. And in that respect, season two excels, proving to be just as addictive as season one. Likewise, Sony's DVD release proves to be an excellent way to enjoy Fincher and company's second run at Capitol Hill, with a solid A/V presentation and bonus features that yield worthwhile insight into the filmmaking process. And that makes House of Cards: The Complete Second Season on DVD easy to vet.

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  ★★★★
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  ★★★★
Special Features  —  ★★★½

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