House of Cards Has a Frank-and-Claire Problem

Trouble in paradise? Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

I enjoyed aspects of House of Cards’ third season. I liked Claire’s hair transformations, I was thrilled by the brief return of Cashew, and I’m a real sucker for moments of, Wait a second … are these people gonna bone? But holy Moses, did I ever hate the finale. Don’t do this to me, House of Cards. Don’t do this to yourself.

[Spoilers for all of season three from here on out.]

I don’t want to watch Claire and Frank separate, or divorce, or continue to turn against each other. It’s an arc we’ve seen on hundreds of other shows, in so many other ways, and the tug against that cliché was one of the things that made HOC stand out. These people — these monstrous, frequently cruel people — have each other, confide in each other, love each other. House of Cards can be pretty shallow, and moments of intimacy between Frank and Claire, like them sharing a cigarette, or Frank dutifully zipping her into a dress, add depth, add texture, add something other than quips that sound fancy but are actually just fluff. (“I’ve always said that power is more important than money. But when it comes to elections, money gives power … well, a run for its money.” Spare me.) What kind of love is that love?

While I hesitate to call any marriage between one man and one woman nontraditional, the Underwoods’ understanding of their relationship is different from most people’s, as far as I can tell. (Maybe all of you are just keeping tons of secrets?) They’ve both been pretty open with their affairs, and they’ve also both been strategic about deploying emotional intimacy as part of a larger plan. Claire arranged a threesome for them. Watching the two of them be evil and menacing — eh, okay. Watching the two of them be evil and menacing and then come home to each other and be all, “How was your evil, menacing day?” — now we’re cooking. Frank talks right to the camera, so we’re never at a loss for what he’s thinking, but Claire is more reserved (to say nothing of the differences between Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright’s performances), and she’s a little harder to read in general. Those moments of repose are our insight into her character, and if season four turns the Frank/Claire scenes into acrimonious divorce proceedings, we’ll have even less insight into the character.

There are so many stories about the power-hungry, and how everyone, lovers and children alike, gets left behind, all in the quest for that perch atop the pyramid. Tony needs Carmela on a practical level, but it’s not like his soul aches for her. Annalise Keating is pretty sad that her husband was murdered … but not that sad, ultimately. If Walt really just wanted to protect Skyler and his children, he could have gotten out of the game. House of Cards’, er, calling card was the centrality of this marriage, and all the ways it flies in the face of convention, both in the world of the show (most politicians are parents, but the Underwoods are not) and in the regular world itself.

It’s not as if we’ve run out of Frank-and-Claire stories, either. Their sexual relationship remains a gray area. We’ve only seen them have sex once, and that was the weep-bone in this season’s second episode. Bleehhghghgh. Later this season, we saw Claire slap Francis a few times and demand rough sex, and when Frank balked, her dejection was overwhelming. But what, exactly, is at the root of it? Are we supposed to interpret it as a lack of sexual attraction? Or is this the power dynamic in play — when Frank was supposed to dominate her, he was game, but when he was supposed to dominate her and look her in the eyes, he wasn’t into it anymore. Is Frank gay? I’m inclined to identify him as bi, but sexuality is complex, and he wouldn’t be the first person who identifies as straight but has also had gay sex, nor would he be the first person who identifies as gay but has had straight sex. (He’d still be the First Person, though, ha ha, Mr. President.) There’s still story here, there are still uninvestigated ideas, and problems I’d rather see solved in the context of a collaboration rather than rancor.

The Underwoods have so much dirt on each other. Using that dirt against one another — probably with the help of an unscrupulous journalist? — will just exacerbate one of the show’s ongoing problems: Everyone sounds the same. Everyone’s got vague koans about power, about violence, about America. Everyone’s shockingly comfortable threatening one another, or mentioning all the ways they’re not like everyone else. Everyone wants to be president, everyone wants to cover up a murder, everyone wants the trust of the American people, etc., etc., etc. Turning Frank and Claire against one another just makes them more like everyone else on a show already struggling with repetitive character traits. Their love makes them special! A show this bleak needs just a little light once in a while.