Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright
[WARNING: The following story contains major spoilers from the Season 2 premiere of Netflix's House of Cards. Read at your own risk.]
House of Cards' second season premiere ends with Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood telling viewers, using his trademark direct address to the audience in the most meta way possible, not to spend much time fretting over his most recent deplorable act. "For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy," Frank purrs. "There is but one rule: Hunt or be hunted. Welcome back."
House of Cards creator Beau Willimon on the D.C. thriller's second season
For much of the episode, Frank is the one being hunted. Although Frank is on the brink of being confirmed for the vice presidency, he still has a major problem: His former paramour, reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), is digging into Frank's shady dealings with Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). And although Frank tries during the episode to establish a "clean slate" with Zoe, when she begins to (rightly) assume that Frank killed Russo, Frank commits another murder — by throwing Zoe in front a subway train.
Welcome back, indeed.
Although Zoe's death will no doubt shock many viewers, it is in keeping with the plot of the original British miniseries that inspired the Netflix drama. As such, creator Beau Willimon always knew that Zoe would reach an untimely demise. "That was always in the cards," Willimon tells TVGuide.com. "I always knew what we wanted to do with Zoe's story, and so did Kate. The decisions of where we go with Zoe's story ultimately were made before we even began writing Season 1 in earnest."
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Although Frank has never been the poster boy for morality, it's hard not to view his latest action as a step further into the muck. However, Willimon argues that Frank doesn't view the world as one of ethical blacks and whites. "You have to think about it as Francis would," Willimon says. "[The act] is one of expediency and one of decisiveness. You have to be decisive and ruthless in order to climb the highest summits of power. Francis' evolution is one of climbing higher and confronting the things that he has to do to take the next step."
But with Frank killing off one of his closest confidantes, the question must be asked: Is there anyone in this world that isn't disposable? The answer, Willimon says, is Frank's wife Claire (Robin Wright). "It's absolutely Claire," he says. "Her approval is really the only approval that he truly cares about. And we've seen the price of what happens to the Underwoods when they are not working together. ... Without each other, they are in free-fall. Ultimately the strength of their bond is the key to their mutual success, and that is definitely something we wanted to explore more in Season 2."
However, Frank's corrupt nature seems to be spreading to Claire as well. In the premiere, she made her own strides toward darkness when, in order to stop a lawsuit from former employee Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt), Claire outed Gillian as an adulteress and cut off the insurance coverage Gillian needed as an expectant mother. "I'm willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that's what's required," an icy Claire says at one point.
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Willimon says it was that decision that also leads Claire to abandon her plans to try to have a child of her own. "It's a point of no return," he says of Claire's actions. "How can you possibly pursue [having a baby] when you've said those words? She made the choice to say those words in order to continue her and Francis' mutual ascent, and if she didn't go that far, they were facing a major threat which they couldn't abide. ... Their path is one that incessantly requires very difficult choices. She made a choice, and that choice affects her in an emotional way that she can't deny."
But will those emotions lead Claire to want more out of life than a seemingly unquenchable thirst for power? "Claire says in Season 1 that she fell in love with Francis because he didn't promise her happiness," Willmon says. "She wasn't interested in that. She wanted to be seen, she wanted to be significant. Happiness is not something I think the Underwoods place much stock in in any conventional sense."
So as Frank continues his climb, is there anyone he can't corrupt or destroy? Willimon points to Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), the Congresswoman Frank has hand-picked to be his successor as the majority whip. "What really fascinated us about Jackie Sharp is that [she's] someone who's cut from the same cloth as Francis and yet her sensibility and ethos might be completely different from his," Willimon says. "She has the same thirst and hunger that he does, but she's her own person and she has a relationship with her conscience. It not only makes her an interesting character in her own right, but it allows us to in comparison explore Francis more deeply."
House of Cards renewed for Season 3
Or perhaps she'll end up in front of a train too. In truth, one of House of Cards' first season shortcomings was the lack of an opponent Frank couldn't easily overcome. (Willimon suggests that won't be true in Season 2: "The higher you climb the more people are gunning for you, and the more formidable your adversaries are," he says.) But perhaps Frank's true enemy is himself and his lust for more.
"Francis wants power for power's sake, and he wants that power because power ultimately means possibility," Willimon says. "The more you have, the more you can be the master of your own fate. ... None of us can cheat death, but we can more or less exert control over the path that our life takes, and both Francis and Claire want as much control over that as possible. I am not sure either of them can ever be fully satisfied. I think, for them, satisfaction is a form of complacency. That's what makes them so ruthless, and also so successful."
House of Cards' second season is now available in its entirety on Netflix. What did you think of the first episode's big twists?