The Underwoods: A Less Perfect Union

8 minute read

(Note: This contains House of Cards Season 3 spoilers.)

The third season of the award-winning drama ‘House of Cards’ once again delivers an addictive dose of intrigue and brinkmanship, but the latest 13 episodes also dissect the anatomy of a marriage, as Frank and Claire Underwood are battle-tested in new ways that would easily break lesser couples trying to survive the crucible of Washington.

The Underwood union is a central theme of ‘House of Cards,’ and is among its most compelling, as it gives us as viewers a cultural lens through which to explore the show’s broader questions about the acquisition and exercise of power. For Frank and Claire, marriage and politics are tightly intertwined; one does not exist without the other. This seemingly unlikely combination is what makes this couple’s relationship unique, but what also threatens to prove its undoing.

For my part, I engage with the thematic sway of marriage in the show from a personal perspective. The show debuted a month before my own wedding, in February 2013, and being married—even more so than living in Washington, DC constantly surrounded by the trappings of other institutions of power—has definitely informed how I experience the House of Cards. Over the past three seasons, I have gleaned what wisdom I could from the Underwoods and have seen the advantages and the pitfalls of a political approach to marriage.

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Though they may not seem a likely pair, marriage and politics need some of the same ingredients to work. Some elements—like respect, diplomacy and pragmatism—are more readily acknowledged, while others—like strategy, bargaining and persuasion—we might be less willing to admit are necessary. And connotation matters: compromise and manipulation are two sides of the same coin, viewed from different perspectives.

Frank and Claire Underwood bring new meaning to Otto von Bismarck’s famous definition of politics as “the art of the possible.”

In Claire, Frank has his main advisor, chief strategist, and biggest champion. Her charm is deployed with world leaders and on the campaign trail, she helps him plot political moves from the safety of their home, and she bolsters his confidence in the private moments when he falters.

In Frank, Claire has found adoration, affirmation, and a partner with ambitions she helps him realize, even as she works towards her own goals. His love of his wife is apparent in the spoken and unspoken, he encourages her political aspirations – at times, at his own expense. As a unit, they work their way to the highest office in the land through unconventional (read: unscrupulous) means.

Though diabolical, the Underwoods are also devoted, loving and, in their own way, affectionate. After two seasons, the couple long managed to come off as somehow aspirational, with a twisted take on many of the ideals married couples hold dear.

Frank and Claire have reinforced the notion that marriage is something to be protected through an unbreakable code that must be adhered to at all times and costs. Chief among those previously unbroken rules: The inner circle is sacrosanct, and loyalty is paramount. Now, in the third season, seeing these sacred tenets crumble – especially after their nearly three decades of marriage and its attendant murder and mayhem – is both foreign and jarring.

This sense of loyalty has never included sexual fidelity, which is clearly a vow that has been broken by both Underwoods. But the idea of one’s spouse as their top priority without exception has been demonstrated again and again in this show. They are the keepers of each other’s secrets, and each knows the other better than anyone else. Early on, the couple makes the decision to forgo having children, choosing instead to raise their political fortunes – a difficult and rare decision. And this season, despite his misgivings, Frank appoints Claire as to the high-profile and high stakes position of U.N. ambassador, not because of her expertise, but out of love.

For their kind of closeness, caring too much about others or allowing too much influence from outside of the marriage are liabilities neither Frank nor Claire can afford. And any action at the expense of one’s spouse – as is the case this season, when Frank and Claire’s emotions cause professional and personal damage – is an unforgivable betrayal.

These rules are the foundation for the next tier of laws, important in both matrimony and politics: Control the narrative and stay on message. As important as how people relate to each other is how those on the outside looking in would describe their relationship. In the first two seasons, with their backs against the wall, Frank and Claire turn to each other, not on each other. They strategize solutions, together. And in scene after scene, they are a team, moving in unison – a formidable image, and one that creates the kind of marriage others envy and admire.

But this season, we see daylight breaking through between the Underwoods and corrupting what they’ve built. As president, Frank makes choices at odds with Claire’s thinking. Her unusual absence is notable on the re-election campaign trail. They literally invite someone else – a presidential biographer – to come in and evaluate them. He comes away assessing not Frank’s first term, but their union.

At one point during a heated argument over their competing ambitions and priorities, a disgusted Claire utters, “I can’t believe we’ve become this.”

“Become what?” Frank asks. “Like everyone else,” Claire responds.

What does it mean to be “like everyone else”? Petty. Easily affected. Needy. Not a team.

How did this happen? In part because Frank and Claire violated another political must: believe in yourself at all costs. Fear and doubt are not an option. They are the dark clouds that block otherwise reasoned focus and judgment and expose our vulnerabilities.

Key to keeping these twin liabilities at bay is the final principle: People must feel valued – which is different from feeling like equals – and be acknowledged as an essential part of the team. In Episode Six, the Underwoods apply a dual approach to negotiate the release of hostage Michael Corrigan, who is being held by the Russians for his stance on gay rights. While Frank tries to reason with Russian President Viktor Petrov, Claire attempts to coax Corrigan into a compromise to secure his release and a diplomatic victory for her husband’s administration.

In an exchange she has with Corrigan in his jail cell, we get insight into Claire’s view of marriage:

Michael Corrigan: Isn’t that what marriage is about? Accepting people’s selfishness? You, of all people, should understand –

Claire: You know nothing about marriage…

Michael Corrigan: You think it’s about sacrifice?

Claire: I think it’s about respect.

By the end of the episode, Claire has publicly disrespected Frank by disrupting his televised news conference and derailing his tenuous diplomatic deal with Petrov. Her betrayal of the law of staying on message in favor of her own feelings foreshadows her climatic divergence with Frank at the end of the season, which leaves their impenetrable façade seemingly irrevocably cracked and an audience heartbroken.

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Season Three ends with a marital cliffhanger, leaving Frank and Claire’s future hanging in the balance only months after the couple lovingly renewed their vows in the South Carolina church where they were wed nearly three decades prior. We’re left to wait until next season to discover whether their marriage or Frank’s presidency will survive.

As difficult as it was for me to watch Frank and Claire unravel this season, considering marriage as politics leaves me encouraged. Both ebb and flow in cycles. Spouses, like incumbents, must sometimes work to maintain their positions. And in a two-party system, compromise is truly the only way forward.

Though the Underwoods’ marriage may have looked like matrimony’s version of American exceptionalism, they share the same flaw as all politicians: They’re human.

Errin Whack is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about culture and politics. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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