The first time you realize there is something unusual, maybe downright un-American about the marriage of Frank and Claire Underwood in House of Cards is in Episode 4, when Claire returns home from her former lover’s hotel room and tells Frank they’ve just had dinner together. A hot-blooded man like Frank should rage, curse, get in her face, LBJ-style. After all, this is a woman he loves “more than sharks love blood.” But instead we get a dinner theater exchange, understated and mannered. “He’s staying at the Mandarin,” Claire offers. “And you?” Francis asks, and we understand that he knows about the lover, probably has always known, and is at least open to the idea that the affair might still be going on.
Claire, played by Robin Wright, is the most intriguing character on House of Cards, and I have spent long hours contemplating her many mysteries: Why does she get that creepy smile on her face when she’s watching the couple make out in the cemetery? Why does she keep having prophetic encounters with homeless people? Is she a secret Siberian spy? What’s with the origami? But the central question about Claire is what kind of marriage bargain she struck with Frank and, secondarily, whether the rest of us should disdain or envy it.
Were the Underwoods a real political couple in actual Washington and the double-affair scandal broke, news reports would depict theirs as a marriage of cold, calculated convenience—the Clintons but worse. Francis would be revealed as secretly gay, turned on by women only when he can use them for a pure power play. Claire would be a Lady Macbeth figure, orgasmic when mutually scheming but devoid of anything like warm-blooded love. The proof of her ruthlessness would be in her ability to fire dozens of longtime employees without flinching (someone would track down her old loyal office manager and get her to talk). “Friends” would offer that they have no actual proof that the Underwoods ever had sex.
But like most depictions of a couple at the center of a scandal, this one would be crude and unsatisfying because, as with the Clintons, we can sense that the Underwoods’ relationship is more than just instrumental. True, we never see them have sex, but there is an erotic charge between them, or at least a deep intimacy, symbolized by that nightly shared cigarette.
Claire gives her own explanation of the marriage bargain at various points in the first season, perhaps most notably to her husband’s longtime security guard, who has just confessed his love to her on his deathbed. Before engaging in her creepiest act of all—giving this dying man an unwanted hand job—she explains what she gets out of her marriage:
“You know what Francis said to me when he proposed? I remember his exact words. He said, ‘Claire if all you want is happiness, say no. I’m not going to give you a couple of kids and count the days until retirement. I promise you freedom from that. I promise you you’ll never be bored.’ You know, he was the only man—and there were a lot of others who proposed—who understood me.”
What did this promise come to mean in the day-to-day of their marriage? Claire and Francis operate as a single lethal unit, but you can always see the distinct parts of the machine. She schemes, lies, and hustles to help him achieve his political goals; he does the same for her international nonprofit, the Clean Water Initiative. Claire says early on, “We have never avoided each other,” but that is not the same as the more common, “We tell each other everything.” They each know the other has secrets, and that serves as a constant reminder that no one is ever safely counting the days or completely subsumed into the other’s mission. They stand separate, and mutually understood, and the freedom to wander is explicit in the agreement, even if it has limits. “Whenever you want me to end it,” Frank tells her, when he starts his own affair. “I know, Francis,” she says.