What drives Frank and Claire Underwood?

This Friday, 27 February, marks the release of the third season of the Netflix drama series House of Cards, in which Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star as a power hungry couple willing to make all kinds of sacrifices on order to tighten their grip on Washington DC’s political landscape.house-of-cards


I have only recently watched, binge style, the first and second season of the series, that see Spacey’s character Frank Underwood progress from an influential politician to a very influential politician, to a very very influential politician. His path to greater power is, to put it mildly, not without collateral damage: the ever growing pile of crimes, lies and scandals are a constant threat to his position, requiring him and his entourage to keep everything in check, by whatever means necessary.

To the viewer all of this is highly attractive. While Underwood keeps pushing the limit, committing acts that we are unlikely to sympathise with or forgive, he retains our loyalty by addressing us directly, putting us in a position of complicity. We too become obsessed with power, Frank Underwood’s struggle for power, and despite everything we want him to succeed.

While the machiavellian scenes in the Capitol and the White House are utterly entertaining, to me the real power of House of Cards lies in the dynamic between Frank and his wife Claire, played by Robin Wright. My favourite scenes are those where the two of them sit in the window of their Washington town house, late at night, smoking or not smoking, and take stock of where their project is at.

Claire Underwood is her husband’s equal, and beyond a doubt the only person in the world that he respects as such; indeed, she may be the only person with lasting power over him. Their marriage is indestructible, because it has become amalgamated with their project. It allows for infidelity on the physical side; fidelity to the project seems to matter a great deal more. The understanding that Claire and Frank have on this is beautifully portrayed, conversations between them often condensed into a few ambiguous phrases accompanied by meaningful regards.

Twenty-six episodes in and I still haven’t caught a glimpse of the Underwoods’ political substance. 

The question that seasons one and two left unanswered, I feel, is the big why? Twenty-six episodes in and I still haven’t caught a glimpse of the Underwoods’ political substance. Where they do take a stance it always seems to be on the grounds of pragmatic opportunism, granting them the easiest path to greater power. While Claire’s efforts for clean water and the persecution of sexual offenders may appear sincere, each time she proved quite ready to let go of her principles if that would give her the upper hand. Frank, meanwhile, only seems to engage in responding to urgent political problems, making him the master plumber of Washington DC.

There have been a few hints with regard to the why-question. Frank Underwood told us why he holds power over money, implying that money doesn’t last, while power “is the old stone building that stands for centuries”. Is that to say that greatness, being remembered as a historical figure, is what drives Frank? What is that worth if not associated with actual accomplishments? Alternatively, could he have become obsessed with power just ‘because he can’?

In another episode, during one of their window scenes of course, Claire wonders what it all is for and the couple seem to contemplate, ever so briefly, whether their quest for power needs deeper justification, with an implicit suggestion that they might consider having a child. Claire’s question, as well as her flirt with procreation, are swiftly brushed aside, like any other obstacle the Underwoods encountered on the way.

I sincerely hope that the third season will at least begin to answer this question by giving us greater insight in Frank and Claire’s pasts, which will no doubt contain some clues as to the origins of their hunger. Similarly, it should be revealing to see how they will deploy the power they currently hold – apart from keeping at bay the enemies they made on the way.

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