Beloved political dramas like The West Wing and Lincoln inspire feelings of star-spangled patriotism. The equally gushed-over House of Cards, which features Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, a ruthless, power-obsessed politician, elicits different emotions. "Last year, we were in D.C. filming our spoof for the White House Correspondents' Dinner," says Beau Willimon, the show's creator. "And [House Majority Whip] Kevin McCarthy told us jokingly, 'If I could just kill one member of Congress, my job would be a whole lot easier.'"
McCarthy was referring to a shocking moment in the show's first season, when Underwood (himself a House Majority Whip) knocks off a fellow congressman standing in the way of his bulldozer career path. The second season of the show – which begins streaming in its entirety on February 14th – doubles down on its pitch-dark vision of D.C. as a curdling cesspool of corrupt deal-making, epic avarice and medieval retribution. Now, Underwood has been elevated to vice president, "one heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name," he says. "Democracy is so overrated."
But as cunning and punishing as Underwood can be, his ability to move the country forward (in Season One, it was getting an education bill passed; this time out, it's entitlement reform) offers its own murkily hopeful vision of post-partisan gridlock-busting in Washington. "He gets things done and lights a fire under people's asses," says Willimon, who cites Lyndon Johnson as one model for Underwood. "A big part of what our show explores is – does Frank have any belief system at all? If he does, what is it? If he does, how is it warped by power, or does Frank develop one because he now has power?"
Willimon's own political education began as an intern on then-congressman Chuck Schumer's successful 1998 run for the Senate ("a real New York brawler campaign," he recalls; "you either won or you lost, and we won, and I wanted more"). He worked on Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign and Howard Dean's fumbling rampage through Iowa in 2004: "My jobs were all low on the totem pole. I was an advance guy. I got an in-the-trenches perspective." His close friend Jay Carson, who persuaded him to work on the Schumer campaign, went on to become a major Democratic strategist and political consultant, giving Willimon surrogate access to "the inner sanctum." He used those insights to write the 2008 play Farragut North, which he adapted for the campaign-scandal drama The Ides of March, starring Ryan Gosling and George Clooney. Willimon, Spacey and director David Fincher brought House of Cards to Netflix, which agreed to buy two seasons of episodes without seeing a pilot.
"When we first started shooting, we weren't sure if half was going to be released on one day, and the other half a few weeks later, or what the plan was," says actress Kate Mara, who plays a talented young journalist who finds herself entangled in Underwood's relentless scheming. "I felt like I was making a really long movie."
House of Cards' distribution model – releasing an entire season of episodes all at once on Netflix – was historic, and Fincher won an Emmy for Best Director. (It's pretty much the Sgt. Pepper of streaming.) As Spacey said, "We've learned the lesson the music industry didn't learn: Give people what they want when they want it in the form they want it in at a reasonable price, and they'll buy it and they won't necessarily steal it."
The relationship between technology and power is a major theme in Season Two, via a tightly wound cyberterrorism subplot. There's a sense of heightened stakes in just about every scene: Robin Wright is even more brilliant as Underwood's icily calculating wife, there are spoiler moments bananas enough to melt the Internet, and Spacey's performance is laugh-out-loud wicked.
For Willimon, Underwood's borderline-evil tactics are nothing more than democracy in action: "When you think about what leaders do – they send people to war, they have blood on their hands, they have to be willing to do the things we ourselves are not willing to do," he says. "That's why we entrust them with that power. They need to be willing to put people in their grave."
This story is from the February 13th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.