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.
We live in an age when the marriages of the educated elites operate like close, successful partnerships of equals—the Obamas, the Bidens, lately the Sandberg/Goldbergs. The technical term is “companionate marriages,” and they are on paper the most stable, prosperous marriages the Western world has seen in decades. The men and women both work in fulfilling careers, raise children together, keep house together. But along the way there have been prophets who have warned of the price we might pay for such cozy partnerships. Cristina Nehring, in her book A Vindication of Love, argues that between shared kitchen duties and pick-up schedules and preplanned date nights we have domesticated romance into a “poor and shrunken thing,” a chubby house cat, as Meghan O’Rourke memorably put it, and forgotten all about the messy, destructive, leonine force romance is meant to command.
Psychologist Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, is a believer in long-term marriage, so she frames the problem somewhat differently. “In the course of establishing security, many couples confuse love with merging,” she writes. Perel argues that intimacy of the kind we now demand from our spouses—perfect transparency and loyalty, absolute security and connection—kills desire. A spouse is expected to give you what an entire village once did—a sense of belonging, continuity, identity, anchoring, stability, predictability. But this is too much weight on a marriage. A more enlightened couple, says Perel, would “recognize each other’s separate interests and desires and figure out a way to integrate them into the marriage.”
Perel is a citizen-of-the-world type who claims allegiance to many countries and continents; I reached her when she was skiing in Switzerland. Her practice is filled with people who have all kinds of unusual arrangements—a third partner, a polyamorous household, gay and straight alike. She herself has been married for decades and fully believes that preserving distance, even with deep intimacy, is possible, although she is sometimes a little vague on the details. (“In the words of Proust,” she writes, “ ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.’ ”) But even couples with unusual arrangements have implicit rules, as she also knows from her practice, and things can fall apart when one person breaks them.
Under the terms of the Underwood marriage, an affair does not count as the ultimate betrayal, but upsetting their delicate balance between separate and apart does. Frank needs Claire’s help to get his Watershed Act passed, but helping him do that would mean sacrificing the top priority of her nonprofit, which is getting a shipment of water filters out of Sudan. As political plot twists go, this one is a little forced, but as a crisis for their marriage, it feels organic—one spouse’s goals are often at odds with the other’s. Claire pushes back— “So what you’re saying is that my goals are secondary?”— and Frank loses his temper: “I will not be lectured to the moment I walk in the door!” His critical mistake here is to assume that his crisis supersedes hers, that when things get serious she will become an extension of him, be subsumed willingly into his urgent needs, that she will revert to being a political wife.
Claire retaliates by committing an even bigger Underwood marital sin, which is to violate the presumption of shared interests by stabbing Frank in the back. At his request, she agrees to meet with a pair of wavering liberal congressmen to get their support for the watershed bill—and then encourages them to vote against it. She saw Francis as placing his goal above hers, so she did the same to him—only she was craftier.
After that, it all falls apart. She disappears to be with her lover for a few days and does what she says they should never do as a couple—she avoids Frank. And then she begins to contemplate the unmentionable, the thing that was explicitly written out of their mutual agreement—those “couple of kids” Frank said he would never give her. They have thus far avoided the trap Cristina Nehring describes because there are no kids and therefore no breakfast duty or shared pick-ups. (Not only that, but we know from the final episode that Claire has had three abortions, which strongly suggests she has taken active steps to preserve this powerful partnership of two.) How mini Claires and Francises might fit into this unusual arrangement is hard to imagine. In the best-case scenario they probably turn out a little weird, something like Mad Men’s Sally and Glen. Worst case, well, we already know what Frank does to the young protégés he considers his substitute children.