Editor’s Note: Click here for Part 1 in Becky Graebner’s dissection of how Netflix’s House of Cards series compares with real life in the political jungle of Washington D.C. And drop by PJ Lifestyle each Wednesday for new installments in the series.
The topic of infidelity isn’t exactly funny—or a subject that many T.V. producers and writers can write into their plots without making the audience completely hate the characters engaged. House of Cards’ writing involving the marriage and unfaithfulness of Frank and Claire is subtly genius and creepy–because the audience doesn’t necessarily come to completely dislike them for their moral derailment. This might mean that the writing is so genius that the audience is tricked into not judging the cheating characters, or it might simply shed some light on the moral condition of D.C. and greater society. I think it is a little bit of both.
When people gain power, they start to feel untouchable. And when they think they are untouchable, they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors. They are also more likely to become a target for those who also seek fame, power, and wealth. Celebrities and politicians frequently fall prey to a false sense of indestructibility, as well as to power-hungry gremlins…and some are led astray from their marriages.
Infidelity is not a phenomenon specific to Washington, D.C.—it occurs from sea to shining sea–but the sinful game has higher stakes in the District. Due to the nature of the cheating players’ jobs, their environment, and media coverage, unfaithfulness seems to be both concentrated and magnified in D.C. History is full of famous “D.C. wanderings.” It’s pathetic that I have so many to choose from. Let’s start at the top…
President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky! She was the Anne Boleyn of the mid-nineties White House: a young intern gets tangled up with the most powerful man on the planet and he is impeached (and later acquitted). A scandal of this magnitude should be a mortal wound to a politician: he has an inappropriate relationship with a member of his own staff and repeatedly lies to the public. However, despite the affair, Clinton left office with a soaring approval rating and is still revered today. Kind of sick.
John F. Kennedy is also rumored to have carried on affairs while president of the United States of America—the most famous being with Marilyn Monroe. Other rumored liaisons included Jackie Kennedy’s press secretary, two White House secretaries, and a Georgetown socialite. The number of JFK’s alleged affairs reaches two digits. Kennedy’s affairs are fairly public now–interviews and stories about them still pop up in newspapers today. Strangely, people still consider the Kennedy family to be pure and perfect—and something to emulate.
D.C. also has stars like Newt Gingrich, who had two affairs, one of which occurred while his (first) wife battled cancer. Sadly, this situation was repeated with John Edwards and his mistress Rielle Hunter while his wife fought for her life. Elizabeth Edwards passed away from cancer a few years after the affair was uncovered; but not before kindly reaching out to Edwards’ mistress and their love child. Elizabeth Edwards: classy lady with an unclassy husband.
There is also the atomic bomb of the extra-marital affair involving the widely respected General Petraeus,who was then the acting director of the CIA, and Paula Broadwell, his “official biographer.” Petraeus stepped down as director.
I could go on and on. Welcome to Washington, D.C.
And with this primer of real-life Washington, we turn back to House of Cards’ portrayal of marriage and scandal. Although set in D.C., the Underwood affairs were semi-out-of-left-field to me—but I guess that’s how a lot of cheating goes. I’m sure the majority of this country never imagines their perfect president, congressman, governor, or general could ever be capable of unfaithfulness. Well, they were wrong—as I was with the Underwoods.
Frank and Claire are a very strong couple, and it is obvious that they love each other; Claire buys Frank a rowing machine so that he will be healthier and live longer. Frank hates the “monstrosity” but he humors Claire and starts using it anyway. Frank even gives the audience a flash of his humanness: “I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.” The Underwoods are affectionate, open, and honest with each other. When Frank starts his revenge plot, Claire is completely onboard and willing to help. They are the epitome of the word “team”–and it is creepy how well they work together. Despite how strong the Underwoods seem in the beginning, it soon becomes evident that their marriage is also a business transaction where the ultimate payout is power. Frank is willing to cheat on Claire with Zoe as “payment” for her writing Frank’s dictated articles. Claire’s motive for cheating on Frank is a little less certain. Boredom? Or is she really hurt by his relationship with Zoe and wants revenge? Honestly, I think she just wanted a place to go and someone to be with while Frank was with Zoe.
Although they both are aware of the other’s cheating, they return home and pick up where they left off, pretending they are perfect and continuing their plan to dismantle those above them. How is this possible? Well, they are both very committed to their “power plan” and both see their cheating as necessary evils in the quest to achieve their end goal. Frank sees his affair as necessary to secure the cooperation of Zoe — who is key to putting out damning information that will push him further up the ladder.
Like I said earlier, Claire is a little harder to read. It might be the armor-like sheath dresses she wears or her lack of facial expressions, but I think Claire just required affection and human contact while Frank was absent… and resorted to her past photog lover. Claire is a stone-cold character — a far cry from loyal and wholesome Buttercup in Princess Bride — but I did feel a little bad for her during these episodes. She might have some tricks up her sleeve though — especially after making a few deals behind Frank’s back. I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of Claire yet. Nonetheless, despite each person’s shortfalls and their cheating/backstabbing antics, the Underwoods need each other for their plan to succeed — for them both to get ahead. They are like two Dobermans chained to a stake. They can venture independently as far as their chain takes them, but, in the end, they need the other’s strength to pull the stake out of the ground.
In Washington, D.C., not all marriages are as tough and deeply rooted in power grabbing as the Underwoods’ marraige — not many survive lambasting news articles and paparazzi. You have to wonder what holds those that do together. Is it really “till death do us part” or is there another element? Are they willing to overlook transgressions in order to maintain the gilded life that has been attained and to achieve the riches and fame to come? The marriage and cheating of Frank and Claire might all be fiction, but is their story really that crazy compared to the real-life examples above? Yea, that’s what I thought. You got us again, House of Cards. The show is a little too close to D.C. life for comfort.