God Bless the Underwoods: In Praise of Heel Couples

Frank and Claire Underwood on House of Cards. Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

By now, one of the recurring critical takes on the third season of House of Cards is that it simply isn’t as good as the first two. The show has shed lurid sensationalism — not a single dead reporter! — for (semi-) plausible political realism, essentially becoming The West Wing with worse lighting. But where HOC is truly taking chances is with the relationship between Frank and Claire Underwood, who, when the latter realizes that her husband has sucked up all the power in the relationship, appear to be on the outs.

It seems impossible that these two could be more interesting apart than together. The Underwoods are the bedrock on which House of Cards is built, and easily the best part of the show. (What else is there? The shudder-inducing sex? The phony aphorisms?) They’re the latest heel couple to capture our hearts, continuing a dynamic most famously established hundreds of years ago in Macbeth. In House of Cards, the Underwoods followed in the Scots’ scheming footsteps by concocting a seasons-long plan that culminated with the sitting president of the United States resigning in disgrace, with Frank eagerly taking his place.

What’s a heel couple? It’s simple: two villains, mercilessly in love. It is not a relationship where one partner is actively dastardly as the other passively looks on in not-actually-all-that-horrified horror (e.g., Tony and Carmela Soprano or Nucky and Margaret Thompson). No, a heel couple is a relationship where both partners scheme and plot and cheat to benefit themselves and each other. Money is nice, yes. Power is even nicer. Standing over the corpses of your enemies? The nicest! But their machinations are best enjoyed with someone sitting beside you, which suggests the perhaps counterintuitive appeal of the heel couple: the romance. (When I say heel couple, I’m using the terminology of pro wrestling, where “good guys” are called “faces” and “bad guys” are called “heels.” Why? Well, it sounds cooler than “bad-guy couple.”)

Heel couples are differentiated not by the passion of their love, but the depravity that passion inspires them to. Remember Tolstoy’s old adage: “Happy couples are all alike; every heel couple is heelish in its own way.” The culture is filled with examples of heel couples conspiring to benefit at everyone else’s expense. In Natural Born Killers, Mickey and Mallory go on a nationwide killing spree. Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd keep trying to destroy the planet, even if those nasty Power Rangers keep stopping them. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spike and Drusilla enact a plot to bring hell on Earth. On The Office, Dwight Schrute and Angela Kinsey tried to depose Michael Scott as the manager of Dunder-Mifflin — and while Dwight is portrayed on the show as utterly subservient to Michael, it’s alarming how quickly he presents his plot for succession once Angela pushes him. (Another trait of the heel couple: They bring out the best of the worst in each other.) Much of the drama on Game of Thrones is set into motion when Jaime Lannister throws a child out of a tower after he and his sister, Cersei, are spotted having sex. “The things I do for love,” he sighs, before permanently maiming this 8-year-old. Willing to spark an internecine conflict spanning nations to stay together? That’s a heel couple.

A heel couple doesn’t have to be fictional, either. Our closest modern equivalent is Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, whom we can’t fully call villains on account of their living, breathing personhood. (Pure villains don’t post photos of their children on Instagram.) But they’re clearly willing to play the heel: Kanye, with his insouciant dismissiveness of social norms, saying, “Hey, don’t get on that stage and interrupt the white person”; Kim, with her agreeable willingness to show her ass despite how many people get mad about it. Last fall, when Kim posed nude for the cover of Paper magazine, Kanye tweeted a link to the photo with the caption #ALLDAY. Yes, he and his wife were going to provoke your attention all day. Yes, he and his wife were going to have sex — again, all day. That he had a song to promote called “All Day” added another gleeful layer of disdain, practically daring someone to write an angry Facebook status about how classless he and Kim are. This is gloriously unrepentent heel-couple behavior.

I’m probably not alone in finding the Underwoods more thrilling than any couple on television. We have so many examples of happy, admirable couples — Jim and Pam in The Office, Jack and Rose in Titanic, Leslie and Ben on Parks and Recreation. That last couple is particularly instructive. Parks and Recreation was beloved for many reasons, but what really made fans swoon was its generous view of love. By giving to each other and to the world around them, there’s nothing the show’s central couple couldn’t accomplish. The series finale strongly intimated that Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt, the show’s defining twosome, ended up working for the White House because they knew how to do the right thing for the right reasons.

You’d have to be indefatigably cynical to look at these genuinely well-intentioned, well-sketched fictional couples and think, Ugh. But life doesn’t always work this conveniently. While it’s nice to have entertainment that offers a ray of light, sometimes you want to see — and be motivated by — the darkness.

The heel couple takes your hand and says, “Here’s how to get over on everyone when they’re stuck figuring how to be their best selves.” They act out a power fantasy that most people will never experience in their lives. Heels are murderers, supernatural creatures, unrepentant capitalists, heads of state — characters free to act outside of the rules of society that most of us are unfortunately bound by. They get shit done, too. That’s another crucial distinction: Many heel couples believe they’re making the world a better place. They’re just not bound by all the pleasantries. Isn’t it tantalizing to think about what you might accomplish if you weren’t on your best behavior?

I’ve been rooting for the Underwoods ever since, early in the show’s life, Claire antagonistically masturbated a dying security guard arrogant enough to suggest that he might have saved her from Frank. (Heels never, ever want to be saved.) At this point, I’d only be disappointed if the series ended with the Underwoods betraying each other due to their consciences. Nothing would be worse than, say, Claire turning state’s evidence to send Frank to jail; it would be a betrayal of everything that’s captivated us so far.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the Underwoods win or lose. Heel couples have as much right to fail as anyone else. But I hope that before it’s over, Frank and Claire kill one more reporter or depose one more sitting head of state. Hell, torch the Oval Office. Start World War III. I just want these two to burn as loudly and brightly as possible, and dare the world to contain their disdain for everything that isn’t each other. Wouldn’t that be romantic?

In Praise of Heel Couples