Frank and Claire
Why the Underwoods rule.
Is this the most interesting relationship on TV? House of Cards‘ intrigue doesn’t just rest on the Machiavellian Frank Underwood, or the depiction of Washington as a cardboard corrupt city open to manipulation by one figure. It’s all about Frank and Claire.
Relationships on TV – especially marriages – are depicted in an overwhelmingly two dimensional manner. The contradiction of Washington relationships – conservative and sordid – is given another layer in House of Cards that’s actually quite scandalous. Their non-monogamous but loving, polyamorous but mutually respectful, tense but gentle relationship, is a new model for a TV marriage.
In modern TV, stories are more expansive and multi-threaded than ever. But while individual characters might be drawn to be layered and complex, relationships themselves aren’t. House Of Cards suffered in its first season with the less than believable relationship between Zoe and Frank, not to mention the blasé attitude of female journalists when it came to sleeping their way to scoops. But lurking in the foreground was Claire and Frank’s relationship. What’s going on with them? Are they cool about the cheating? Is it cheating? Do they have an arrangement? What’s the arrangement? Underwood’s bisexuality, hinted at during his drunken night with old college pals in season one, and reenforced with a threesome in season two is also a departure for mainstream television, given that bisexuality is generally depicted as the preserve of women.
A lot of how their relationship succeeds as both believable and fascinating is about the equal footing given to Wright alongside Spacey. The strength of Claire Underwood’s character isn’t just about casting, although Robin Wright is perfect. You can’t imagine anyone else in that role. So, sure, her haircut is fantastic, and Tom Broeker and Gersha Phillips deserve all the kudos available to them for the near perfect costume design in the series, but it’s actually about how her character is drawn. She’s on a par with Frank: as vindictive, as morally ambiguous, and occasionally as fragile. Claire is not just The Wife. And she’s also not just Lady Macbeth. Claire’s character, like Frank, like Washington, like politics, like the show itself, is about the grey areas. It’s about complexity.
Quality female characters do exist on TV, but when matched with men, they generally fall into weak roles or characters that are sketchily drawn and feel bald next to the attention given to the intricacies of the other (generally main, generally male) characters. In Breaking Bad, Skyler, seemingly a smart woman, failed to notice her husband was becoming a meth lord, and despite her strong moral compass ended up going along with it, laundering his money and contradicting herself every step of the way. In The Sopranos, Edie Falco’s brilliantly executed Carmela, knowingly fooled herself into thinking she controlled Tony, and occasionally did, admonishing him through gritted teeth, but was ultimately sidelined as The Wife.
Both David Hare and Helen Mirren have spoken out against the body count that’s clocking up on screen these days, frequently positioning women as corpses while the complex yet dithering men figure things out. But The Underwoods soaring as a duo shows that if TV-makers actually write complex female characters, the roles will come to life. The female actors are there to fill them. And like Robin Wright, can do so in a way that makes a show brilliant.
*knocks on table*