What 'House Of Cards' Gets About Modern Love

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards

Break out your bottles of Bourbon and Seamless in a side of ribs, it's officially House of Cards season. Though House of Cards many not be an obvious choice for Valentine’s Day viewing, February 14 is the day that the Netflix powers-that-be have decided to premiere the new season. For a show whose relationships are brash, bold declarations of anything but the traditional trappings of love, the February 14 premiere feels both pointed and brilliant. While the show's relationships, particularly Francis and Claire Underwood's marriage, won't give you the fuzzy feeling of watching Love Actually, they portray complicated and modern partnerships, and a range of power dynamics too rarely seen in the media. 

Frank and Claire's marriage is particularly thought-provoking for its complicated look at equality of power. Frank Underwood is far from the type of man you'd want to cuddle up with on animal furs by the fireplace, and quite honestly Claire feels the same way. There are no Jungian archetypes here — the relationships on the show, especially the Underwoods, go beyond the two-dimensional. They explore the many different reasons people seek out partnerships, and certainly don’t end at happily ever after. Power, desire, adultery, ambition, even fertility and menopause are explored on House of Cards, making the show a lot more indicative of what relationships mean in a modern era than the recycled plot points of romcoms.

Let's focus on Claire. While giving a very inopportune hand job to her husband’s former security guard, Claire explains she married Frank because he said to her: "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’ll never be bored." His proposal may not be flowers, chocolates and diamonds, but Frank and Claire’s relationship explores an emerging form of "romance."

"We live in an age when the marriages of educated elites operate like close, successful partnerships of equals — the Obamas, the Bidens, lately the Sandberg/Goldbergs" writes Slate’s Hanna Rosin, in an article contemplating whether Frank and Claire have an ideal marriage. "The technical term is 'companionate marriages,' and they are on paper the most stable, prosperous marriages the Western world has seen in decades." 

Image courtesy of the AP.  

The Underwoods fit this bill of companionate marriage. "He didn’t put me on some pedestal." Claire says, "He knew I didn’t want to be adored or coddled." Claire is complex. We see her helping her husband achieve his goals and then back-stabbing him when he doesn't do the same for her. We see her private struggles with fertility and career, and unlike the women of romantic comedy lore Claire doesn't prioritize Frank — she sees them as a unit. She may not be Anne Marie Slaughter, but she’s not Pretty Woman either. 

Female leads in recent romantic comedies also have high-powered careers. They’re lawyers, publishers, doctors, but we don’t see them juggling their romantic and professional lives — or the power politics of romance between two successful professionals. Prince Charming rescues Cinderella, a pauper — le fin. But in House of Cards, we discover the Underwoods 20 years post meet-cute. Cinderella has a pixie cut, Prince Charming is saving his charm to bed young journalists and the glass slipper has been replaced by a nightly shared cigarette. Yet their union still works. 

By the end of the first season it’s evident that modern as it may be, the Underwoods do not have the "ideal marriage." In the trailer for the second season, there are hints that others on the outside are cluing in to the complexity of their relationship. But what Frank and Claire do have comes a lot closer to equality, partnership and even friendship than any of the dozens of empty relationships in the A-list packed Valentine’s Day movie, or any iteration thereof. February 14 is a holiday to commemorate unions — and no one can deny that’s what Frank and Claire have, just a modern one.