Netflix has officially released their original series, “House of Cards.” The entire first season is comprised of 13 one-hour episodes and has been available in full since Feb. 1. The decision to release the season in its entirety is an interesting strategy by a company that has dominated the movie rental business for years, and I plan to review each episode on a weekly basis. I’ll continue with Chapters 2 and 3.

Francis Underwood is determined to crush anyone who gets in his way, and within the first quarter of “Chapter Two” he has already managed to destroy the new secretary of state’s career. Once again, Kevin Spacey’s acting is superb, as well as Michael Kelly’s performance as Doug Stamper, Underwood’s right-hand man and very effective browbeater. The two have hit the bull’s-eye with their plan to weasel their way up the food chain. They were already a force to be reckoned with, but they are now working every crooked angle possible with friendly smiles and firm handshakes.

In the meantime, Congressman Peter Russo is sent on his own side mission to ensure that Secretary of State Michael Kern stays down a peg. Russo can be charismatic, but ultimately continues to resort to persuasion through drugs and alcohol. Corey Stoll does fine work as Russo as he familiarizes himself with the role. Unfortunately, Russo has a multitude of vices. One significant instance involves paying off a prostitute, but this is easily handled by the wonderfully intimidating Doug Stamper. As one of my favorite characters, Stamper maintains a deviously straight face and serious tone similar to some of the once-beloved mob lackeys on “The Sopranos.”

Underwood’s wife, Claire, also has her own manipulative tasks to complete, which she carries out in an unnecessarily sadistic manner. She has her immediate inferior let go of half their staff, and then fires her directly afterwards. Robin Wright is perfect for this role. This becomes more apparent as she delivers motivational speeches in between tugging on the biased strings of some political figureheads in order to gain full control of her charity organization. How this relates to her husband’s political game still requires a clearer explanation.

Compelling up-and-coming reporter Zoe Barnes is starting to gain more attention, and she loves it. Her likely career climb must be the only reason that she has allowed Underwood to control her article content. However, this makes Chief White House Correspondent Janine Skorsky and boss Tom Hammerschmidt suspicious of who her source(s) may be. Nevertheless, this makes the newspaper storyline increasingly entertaining and predictably relevant to Barnes’ and Underwood’s treachery.

House of Cards
“Chapter 3” begins after Underwood takes credit for an education bill he had drafted by six interns. He attempts to push the bill through the House so that he can shine while the president struggles to uphold his reputation. However, Underwood has a hard time getting the unions to accept the bill as-is, even with his friend and teacher union head Marty Spinella (Al Sapienza) acting as a mediator. Underwood has to present his cards carefully, but he runs into trouble; he fears losing his footing in his home district after an accident involving a girl’s life and a landmark he once strongly defended keeping in town.

Luckily for his employees, Underwood is unstoppably clever and knows how to utilize his devilish charm. Spacey once said, “The less you know about me, the easier it is to convince you that I am that character on screen,” and he has fully convinced me that he is Frank Underwood. No matter how much I am supposed to despise his selfish manipulations, I find myself cheering him on. On the other hand, I am not a very big fan of his wife. Wright is good in her role as Claire Underwood, but she cannot live up to the stature of Spacey’s character and is mainly compelling because of her unique relationship with him–but not due to her own merit.

I am a bigger admirer of Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes, who is equally as sharp as she is sexy. Underwood recognizes this and the two have a developing flirtatious relationship, which is satisfyingly gripping. However, her boss, Tom, cannot stand her and is understandably firm but unnecessarily rude. “The Washington Herald” should be grateful for Barnes’ stories and ideas. Tom’s world seems to be slipping through his fingers as his debates with Zoe, and audiences cringe while hoping he can maintain a grasp.

I also hope that Peter Russo can maintain a grasp on his integrity, seeing that he has fluctuated between addiction and sobriety. But “House of Cards” is an unapologetic series, and when audiences assume all will go well, they should expect to see their happy ending ripped out from under them when they least expect it. For now, Russo is a sensible man and I see his character becoming a key part of Underwood’s plan in future episodes, but I do not know how well their scheme will bode over time. I can only say that I would like Russo to provide more depth to the show in order to compete with Stamper, Underwood and a variety of supporting cast members, like Marty.

“Chapter 3” was mainly a lead into bigger and better things for Underwood, or so he hopes. It was a good introduction to the inevitable hullabaloo to come and provided wonderful performances and intriguing symbolism along the way, including some interesting graveyard scenes Claire finds herself in at the end of the episode.  “House of Cards” is getting progressively thrilling, and Underwood is becoming increasingly conspiratorial and cunning.

Rating: “Chapter 2” 4.5 stars; “Chapter 3” 4 stars