Detailing Frank and Claire’s unique marriage on House of Cards

Like chocolate and marshmallows, or french fries and ice cream, or piercing sunlight and salty breeze, some things don’t always make sense together on paper, but are perfect when actualized. That’s sort of what transpires onscreen during Netflix’s original series House of Cards, which debuted last Friday. Of all the things we could take note of about the series — the fact that it’s trying to bring back the breaking of the fourth wall, the casualness with which the characters portray their sexual rendezvouses, or even its decisive narrow choice in soundtrack — what’s most striking is the relationship between our two leads.

There’s no denying that House of Cards is Kevin Spacey’s (and therefore Frank’s) show. He speaks to us during each episode, and we’re meant to see the other players in the series as his pawns, pieces he can manipulate at a whim. But even then, even with the breaking of the fourth wall, the story isn’t entirely told through his point of view. In fact, on more than one occasion, he greatly misunderstands his surroundings in ways the show deliberately means him to and goes to great lengths to prove. Thus creating one of the most unique relationships with female lead Robin Wright’s Claire. Frank and Claire: power couple? Definitely. Blissfully in love?

The first episode might have you believe as such. But as we delve deeper — not much deeper, in fact quite quickly — into the first season, we find out that not everything is as it seems in the Underwoods’ home. So let’s talk about how… ahem… unique this relationship is, and what ultimately the Underwoods want. This being a series that’s all up and ready for entire consumption, I’m actually going to stop this assessment up to the end of episode 10 “Chapter 10.” The reason for that is twofold: (1) I haven’t watched the final three episodes; and (2) episode 10 is actually a great shifting episode for this dynamic couple.

Chapter 1 | Right out of the gate, Frank comes home a bit late…which Claire greets with a decidedly firm, “We have never avoided each other.” They talk about his not being put up as Secretary of State, and how this new happenstance also affects Claire… which doesn’t seem anything more than a wife with higher expectations. Frank tells us that he loves her, “more than sharks love blood.” The interesting part about their interactions during episode one, that doesn’t really come up until about nine later, is that there’s a clearly defined sense of camaraderie between them. Claire is afraid of being kept out of the loop, which will eventually be the downfall between them (unless it’s wrapped up in the next three episodes). But it’s also in this episode where Zoe and Frank first meet; she gets through his door by showing him a picture of him checking her backside out. Normal. Even married men’s eyes wander, right? It all seems kosher, even up to the point where Claire asks if push-up bras and v-necks actually work, and Frank shoots it down.

Chapter 2 | In this episode, Claire gets Frank an exercise machine because, in her words, she doesn’t want to outlive him by 25 years. To the observant eye, it almost feels as though Frank and Claire have set up extremely established rules. And sure, any wife might tell her husband that she doesn’t want to outlive him (by that large amount of years, a quarter of a century) and we might treat that as just a normal husband/wife relationship, but it may also have to do with whatever the Master Plan is. Before the credits roll, we see that Frank has taken Claire’s advice and has decided to use the machine. A husband following his wife’s orders? Maybe. But in these first two hours alone, we know that Frank is a bit more detached than that (or at least tries to play off that he is). Frank’s use of the machine and giving in to Claire’s wishes is proof that by this episode, they’re still in cahoots. And more importantly, they’re still both equals.

Chapter 3 | Chapter 3 doesn’t do much for the Frank/Claire relationship, per sé. By association, it has some relevance because of the flirtation between Frank and Zoe. But that’s about it. However, this episode needs to be mentioned because of Claire’s weird insensitivity about recurring in cemeteries  And then the conclusion is her watching a couple make out and it was weird. Check out Claire’s creeper face below:

WHAT? Creepy.

An affair to revisit: Claire (left) greets photographer Adam (right), with whom she has a history.

Chapter 4 | This is the episode where everything begins to shift just a little bit. It is during this episode that Remy tries to partner up with Claire and the Clear Water Initiative, with an investment of $1.5 million. Frank “asks” her to deny the offer. But Claire soon realizes that she had little say in the involvement of this deal. But that’s not the only reason this episode gets interesting. Coming off the heels of her Creeper Face, we also get whiff of a previous extramarital affair, with Adam… one of those photographers-whose-life-is-his-muse-and-he-whisper-talks. One of those guys. He invites her back to his hotel room, and she decides to actually go. But while she’s there she sort of kind of maybe makes up her mind and goes back to her home with Frank. He doesn’t ask where she’s been; she offers up that information. But then he asks her where she’ll be sleeping, and she states she’ll be sleeping at home with Frank. WHAT? So obviously, Frank knows about the previous affair. But what’s surprising about this question isn’t just that — after all, plenty of couples get past cheating — it’s the fact that he just so matter-of-factly asked about what she would be doing presently, and her answer suggests that he would be okay if she did sleep with him. Just an open marriage? We’ll see…

Oh yeah, it’s also the episode where Frank and Zoe begin to get, well, complicated.

Chapter 5 | Uh, yes. We might begin thinking that this is as open a marriage as they come. What’s great about “Chapter 5″ is that what we think Frank and Zoe’s affair will become one secret in the scandalous web that is House of Cards but it turns out to be nothing but a wrench full of naïveté being thrown into the Master Plan. When Frank comes home the morning after, Claire’s first question is “What does she offer us?” And then there’s this short exchange:

“Whenever you want me to end it—”
“I know, Francis.”

The American Dream? Frank’s wife is okay with his mistress.

Well, okay then. This is the first blip in their solid relationship, as later on in the episode, Claire decides to call Adam and leave a sort of desperate voicemail. The message comes right after she has been helping Frank draft a bill until two in the morning, and the same day she found out about her husband’s purported mistress. Is Claire doubting her actions to not sleep with Adam previously? Cracks are appearing on the foundation already. Also in “Chapter 5,” Claire is hosting a fundraising event for CWI which Zoe attends and where they formally meet. It’s a perfect example of the power couple using their shallow image to exert power: Zoe may feel awkward in a space she doesn’t really need to be, and that allows for Frank to make Zoe think she’s in a greater sense of danger than she actually is (for this “access”).

Chapter 6 | Claire still trusts Frank a lot after his confessed affair, obviously. She allows him to let someone throw a brick through their window. And though she’s still reeling, she kind of ends it with Adam then and there, by telling him that the voicemail was stupid of her. But things get a bit weird when Frank’s ex-bodyguard tells Claire that he basically had a huge crush on her. Claire’s response? How can I say this in so many words… she gives him a handy? Does that … cover it? Basically, Claire sexually molests a man on his deathbed. And Creepy Claire continues. And while that was bold, so were the words that came after: she basically tells him that Frank is someone who knows how to take what he wants, and she values that in him. In short, he ups her ability to go farther. And he understands that she doesn’t want to be coddled: she wants to be his equal. Are you paying attention, because “equal” kind of is a running theme here.

Chapter 7 | In this episode, Claire starts making origami. It’s the reaction she has to two random strangers acting quite… well, strange with her. The first is the random lady who yells at her for being insanely insensitive for running in a cemetery, and the second is the homeless man who rejects her $20 bill. Now the origami could just be a well-placed plot point so that she could speak with Russo’s kids about how they’re being treated in school. Or you can over-think it like I do: the idea that paper, which is quite linear, is not exactly using its shape to its full potential. That’s a lot like Claire; she appears to be one person, but from a different perspective you can see an entirely different shape.

Don’t leave the money on the nightstand: The face of someone who turned down a proposition.

Chapter 8 | “Chapter 8″ takes place with Claire and Frank completely isolated from the other events. In fact, Zoe doesn’t even appear. During this installment, Remy asks Claire to go up to his hotel room, which Claire takes as a sign that he is asking for them to do the horizontal tango. In this episode alone, it does appear that way. And sure, Claire could actually not want to do the horizontal tango with Remy, but you gotta love how offended she gets about it, as if there’s some sort of sanctity to marriage when she just finished giving a soon-to-be-dead-guy a hand, if ya know what I mean. So she doesn’t sleep with Remy, but she does decide to call Adam up again. What’s a girl to do when one-half of her power couple is out enjoying the glory for all that Claire thinks they probably built together. It’s a great push into the next couple of episodes, where Claire is already thinking about how put off to the side that she is.

Chapter 9 | After Zoe tells Frank that she wants to end their physical relationship and Claire continues to badger him about Remy’s $1.5 million offer, he begins to feel threatened and goes on a bit of a power rampage, trying to control many of his “pawns.” It backfires in a lot of respects. Claire has a sort of epiphany this episode where she realizes that Frank thinks her goals are secondary to his in his eyes (he won’t admit it until episode 10), and when Remy comes in with an offer once again, she decides to take it. What does he want in return? He wants her to quietly backstab her husband and get the watershed bill to fail — which she has worked on and feels Frank is just exploiting her time and services. After nine episodes of allowing him to sleep around and keeping her at a distance both decision-wise and glory-wise, she’s getting antsy. Claire may not want to be coddled, but she doesn’t want to be controlled either, just like her husband.

Checkmate: Zoe (left) gets told by Claire (right).

Chapter 10 | Also known as when the stuff hits the fan. Once again, something we think would be a secret is revealed in the first act: Claire sabotaged the bill. Frank goes to reprimand her like a child and finally gives up that yes CWI is important, but it comes in second to the bigger picture — whatever that may be. Claire won’t have any of it. She decides to strip Frank from the power he may have over at least one of his pawns, Zoe. She could have theoretically also done so with Russo (and it could have saved him this episode), but there’s a special quality here in that Zoe has information that’s looming over Claire’s head and her charity. Her attack isn’t just from a standpoint of trying to balance out the playing field between Zoe, Frank, and herself, it’s also trying to deny Zoe of any real power in the relationship. The fact that Claire knows sort of drops the curtain of illusion behind it all, and allows Zoe to see that she has been getting played a bit…and not just from Mr. Underwood.

It all ends, this episode, with Frank finding out that she has left to New York to be with Adam… where she can finally breathe and where she can finally let someone know that she wants to be valued, and she has emotions she needs to explore with a significant other. How much of that is Frank’s fault? And how much of it is Claire’s? Judging by the pilot episode, a lot of Claire’s personality had a stone wall exterior, where she was determined to figure out how every piece of the puzzle benefited them and their plan. But as the series moved along, she began to realize that she may be just another chess piece in Frank’s game. Of course, Frank is upset because his power has been stripped away by the end of episode 10, but I’d be remissed if I didn’t say there might actually be a bit of husband jealousy in there as well.

And it’s not even the season finale yet.

So what is it that these two ultimately want? World domination? Well, there are three more episodes to go!

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About the author: Mike
Mike
Mike's a television junkie located in Miami, where he spends all of his time watching TV with his best friends couch and cable access.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/sarahmcculloch Sarah McCulloch

    Without wanting to spoil you, I think your analysis of their relationship is kind of wrecked by the fact that

    a) you haven’t seen the final three episodes and it becomes clear that, while Claire felt devalued by Frank, he *was* entirely right that what he was working towards had a bigger payoff for them both than her work with the CWI, and that her sojourn to New York is accepted by both her and him as a price to be paid for that inequal but unavoidable fact, and

    b) your conception of “ZOMG affair” totally goes out the window when you’re looking at high-flying executive couples for whom their bodies are as much a weapon in their arsenal as their intellect or their rolodexes. While watching, I always imagined that the relationship between Frank and Claire must have been something like what went on between Bill and Hilary Clinton, albeit with less mutual non-monogamy. But Frank makes it clear that his affair with Zoe is not about the sex: “Everything is about sex, but sex. Sex is about power.” He has an affair with Zoe because he can, not because he’s especially interested in her. By contrast, and I think in starker contrast than I think you see on most television shows about ruthless politicians, you see Frank throughout the series doing nice things for his wife unsolicited, and being apologetic, even if not actually apologising, when his career impinges on hers.

    Compare that to all the loveless marriages you see on tv, andI think that Frank and Claire’s relationship is easily the most interesting thing about the show, and it’s really irritating to me that all the reviewers are focussing instead on Peter Russo and gosh, wow, thirteen episodes at once! I hope they’ll get over it by Season 2.

    • http://nowhitenoise.com/ Mike

      I’ve actually finished the first season after this post and I agree that the relationship between Frank and Claire is the most interesting in the series — in fact, that’s why I had to write about it. But you can’t deny that it’s kind of, let’s say, different. And that’s what makes it so interesting.

      There’s love and loyalty here but part of the first season WAS about how they began to doubt each other, and how Claire began thinking that MAYBE Frank was only looking after his own interests. We know that Frank is mostly just sleeping with Zoe to control her, but then she (and Claire) start to go a bit rogue. Claire doesn’t sleep with pretentious-art-guy for any of those reasons; it’s for intimacy. But it’s only for a moment, and after it’s over, she knows that there’s a bigger picture she and her husband are both fighting for.

      That’s how I would interpret the first season, anyway.

  • Berkeley_born

    (I only read through Ch 6 as that’s all I’ve watched thus far.) I don’t know why you call Claire creepy. Clearly they have a solidly open marriage, one with the usual rules of discretion and veto power. I find it refreshing and inspiring to see a healthy marriage with neither secrets nor suppression depicted in a major way. Her grasping of the ill man’s parts was in keeping with her somewhat out of bounds character, and was not a molestation so much as an assertion of self in the interests of truth. I prefer somewhat open relationships myself, and as I know they are more common than many people realize, it’s cool to see one depicted realistically.

  • mims

    As for creepy claire face in the cemetery….I saw that in a totally different way. I thought she was smiling at herself for feeling guilty about running in the cemetery (she has more of conscience than Frank) and when she saw people making out, it gave her a reality check that what she was up to was very innocent. It parallels her and Franks activities: she works at CWI bringing clean water and goes for runs, Frank is busy shafting his opponents and his mistress for power.

    As for the hand job……. yuck! That did seem totally out of character (although still need to see last 4 episodes so matbe it will all become clear) and a very dissonate note. Why did she feel the need to demean Steve? Was it to wound him because he dissed her husband?

    I think the Frank /Claire partnership is the best part of the show……

  • SeaSea

    Who sent the pic of Frank checking out Zoe in the first place?? Was it Claire??