I got engaged about a month ago. Around the same time, we started watching House of Cards. This is perhaps not the most romantic of gestures, since the relationship between Frank and Claire is hardly the most fairytale-like of marriages. Their connection is one forged on the battleground of politics and power. The show offers up their partnership as a testament to what two people so committed to each other can accomplish. On the flip side–and here is what I’m most interested in–it is also a truly dystopic portrait of marriage.
As individuals, Claire and Frank are powerful; they are equals in intelligence, strength, and determination and most importantly, here, mostly equal partners in their relationship. Thus, each of them is quite possibly the only character who could ruin the other. Together they are vicious, ruthless even, and seemingly unstoppable.
Frank and Claire accept each other in their most savage forms. Is that perhaps what marriage is really about? To find love and be loved even in darkness and in the most unlikely of places, when our makeup and protective gear are off.
But their complete acceptance of and devotion to one another creates an us-against-the-world mentality that allows them to hurt others who get in their way. Everyone else–from the President of the United States to political aides, journalists and many others–winds up as collateral damage in their meteoric rise to power.
For instance, Frank helps a congressman, Peter Russo, get sober, mount a semi-successful governor’s race, only to orchestrate his downfall, help Peter return to drinking, and ultimately Frank kills him, staging his death as a suicide. This pattern of manipulation repeats itself throughout the series, as Frank and Claire help their marks rise in the ranks and then, inevitably crush their hopes and dreams, rendering each victim desperate and dependent on the Underwoods.
Claire even sabotages her own NGO in the name of Frank’s goals and throws her lover Adam under the bus in order to avoid jeopardizing Frank’s reputation in the public eye. If the mark cannot be controlled, like Peter and later Zoe (a young journalist, who was Frank’s lover and then turns to investigating Peter’s death), then Frank kills them, without remorse or concern.
Their marriage also makes it impossible for either of them to form real bonds with other characters. Frank works closely with Doug, his chief of staff, and Jackie, the house Whip, but their relationships are strictly professional. He seems to have real affection for Freddie, who owns his favorite rib joint, but proves willing to sever all ties in order to avoid scandal. Meanwhile, Claire develops a close relationship with the First Lady, which she only forges as part of a scheme to bring the First Family down.
Every relationship they have outside of one another is strategic, enabling them to work toward the ultimate goal of obtaining more power. And, as soon as a character’s use-value runs out or they are no longer controllable, they are ditched, killed, or ruined (or some combination of the three).
What does House of Cards, then, say about marriage–and our culture’s love and fascination with the institution–as it is the very location of Frank and Claire’s lethal power? Within this framework, marriage allows power to grow and be fostered, but it also cuts everyone else down. It is a location of destruction and violence.
Yet for Frank and Claire, their marriage is the most perfect and productive of unions. I do believe, too, that Frank and Claire love each other quite profoundly. We see this perhaps most clearly in Frank’s deep and violent anger when he encounters the man who raped Claire in college. Frank flies into a rage in the privacy of an upscale bathroom and then must return, calmly, to the ceremony and pin commendations on Claire’s rapist, now an army general.
His only act of resistance during the ceremony is to refuse to thank the general for his service–an act he bestows on the other officer receiving medals. It is a restrained gesture, but one that abides by Claire’s wish that he not make a scene. Their love is, I think, quite real.
Even so, their marriage appears primarily asexual. We see them kiss most memorably (and perhaps for the first time) during their threesome with Meechum, Frank’s handsome secret service bodyguard. Meechum’s hand strokes Frank’s and Claire stares at the agent; then in a tight shot, Frank and Claire kiss (an act we see repeated once again when Frank is President). Here, Meechum becomes not only the couples’ protector but their lover and a conduit for their love for each other.
The next morning during breakfast, Claire matter-of-factly tells Frank, “You needed that.” In a relationship built on bringing others down, the threesome serves as a brief respite from the couples’ calculating political game. But it too is a tactical decision: they designed it to relieve stress and embrace sexual passion, but also it is an assertion of their collective power and control over Meechum.
In this portrait of a marriage, then, coupling does not inevitably come with sex between the two parties. Nor does their marriage need to include the production of children, a major topic during the second season. Their primarily asexual relationship and the couple’s the disinterest in having children points to the show’s notion of marriage as an institution, rather than a romantic arrangement.
Marriage is ultimately a legal arrangement, but one that we shroud in the trappings of romance. Indeed, this is what the entirety of the marriage industrial complex is working towards: obscuring an economic and legal arrangement with fluffy dresses, flowers, and big parties (Don’t get me wrong the latter sounds super fun and full disclosure, I’m in the early phase of wedding planning myself.)
House of Cards ultimately unwraps and unravels our fantasies of marriage–fantasies that insist that marriage is crucial to the production of the nation but also that insist that marriage itself is lofty, intrinsically valuable, and the basis of Christian ethics and morality. Heteronormative, conservative culture argues that marriage must be protected at all costs and cordoned off as a sanctuary for those privileged enough to inhabit it. House of Cards renders this romantic myth visible in the most destructive way possible while exposing Frank and Claire’s union as built on, and conferring, privilege and power.
Ultimately, though, the institution of marriage also harms Claire. In the season two finale, she breaks down and cries as on the stairs of the Underwoods’ house after returning from a visit to a young woman who has just attempted suicide. The fit of tears–for it lasts no more than a thirty seconds–seems at once an unusual moment of empathy for Claire. She seems to, at least briefly, reckon with the wreckage she and Frank have left behind.
She later grows angry at the possibility of Frank going to jail, realizing that all their machinations could come to nothing. She might wind up alone with not even his presence to protect her from the knowledge of what they’ve done. Without Frank–and if he fell in disgrace–Claire too would lose her position (she is a this point about to become First Lady) and with it, her power.
While the couple’s incredible ruthlessness aid in Frank’s rise and by proxy Claire’s, ultimately, Claire must subsume her dreams to her husband’s drive towards power. In the season two finale, Frank asks Claire to join him as he enters the Oval Office for the first time, but, she refuses. Instead, Frank takes the office alone, while she waits outside and on the sidelines. It seems, he has mistaken his rise for theirs.
House of Card’s portrait of marriage is nuanced, intriguing, and critical of the notion that marriage is anything other than–at its very base–a legal and economic partnering between two people for their own ends. It is the location of the Underwoods’ power and their safety net, but it is also an arrangement that presumes Claire’s happy compliance in promoting her husband’s success.
My hope for season three is we that begin to see the toll this relationship takes on Claire more clearly and that we will witness Frank’s power demolished from the inside out. Perhaps their marriage will crumble too, freeing Claire from her wifely obligations. (Full disclosure: I’ve been rooting for Frank’s downfall since day one.) As House of Cards makes quite clear, heteronormative marriage only provides Claire with power in relation to Frank–an uncomfortable position for such a strong, smart, and independent character.
Not every married couple is like the Underwoods, and I am pretty grateful for that. But what House of Cards suggests is that once we strip marriage down and pull back the romantic veil, all we are left with is an exclusive relationship that confers power upon its participants. Access to this power remains limited and rooted in discrimination. Against utopic visions of weddings and romantic fairy-tale endings, the Underwoods re-imagine marriage as simply the institution at the core of the couple’s violence. In this way, House of Cards presents an odd corrective to decades of romantic comedies that too often prescribe heteronormative marriage as a–and sometimes the only–means to happiness and fulfillment.