Although they may be everybody’s favorite sociopaths, Claire and Frank Underwood have the best romantic relationship I’ve ever seen on television. Other Western television shows and stories often depict the same relationship stereotypes ad nauseum, rather than showing the reality of an everyday healthy relationship, let alone one that’s some 30 years old. So, buckle in for a discussion. In case you haven’t figured, there are spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the show, stop reading and start watching House of Cards.
The Problem with TV Relationships
If you don’t see a problem with the way romantic relationships are portrayed in film and television, I’ll do my best to convince you. Generally, we see three types of relationships in shows: 1) The Romeo and Juliet Complex; 2) The Lucy and Ricky Dynamic; or 3) The Background Relationship. Here’s what they entail:
Relationship Type 1: The Romeo and Juliet Complex
With The Romeo and Juliet Complex, the audience roots for two star-crossed lovers to get together. Examples of this type of relationship include Ross and Rachel from Friends, Penny and Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, Sookie Stackhouse and any of her man crushes, Buffy and Angel, Jim and Maggie from The Newsroom, etc. Nothing’s wrong with this type of relationship dynamic. It’s common because it works—audiences keep watching because they want to see the characters end up together. However, it becomes a problem when we don’t have many other relationship examples in media. None of these Romeo and Juliet relationships become fleshed out as an actual relationship—often when the two characters finally get together it means credits. However, there are a couple of exceptions when couples move from relationship type 1 to relationship type 2.
Relationship Type 2: The Lucy and Ricky Dynamic
Like Lucille Ball and Ricky Ricardo, this second type of relationship hinges on arguing, failing to communicate, trying to change each other, threatening to break up with one another, becoming jealous, etc. Often, in this type of relationship one character is portrayed as even-keeled and the other is portrayed as a buffoon, or just not as smart as their partner. The effect is comedic, but it doesn’t portray an evenly-matched relationship. Sometimes characters are forever in this phase, like Paul and Jamie from Mad About You, Doug and Carrie from King of Queens, Ray and Debra from Everybody Loves Raymond, Dharma and Greg, and the list goes on. Other couples start out in the Romeo and Juliet Complex and move on to The Lucy and Ricky Dynamic, often skipping a stable relationship phase. Examples include Jim and Pam from The Office, all the couples on The Big Bang Theory, Chandler and Monica from Friends, and more.
Relationship Type 3: The Background Relationship
The third type of relationship is one that is just not fleshed out. Nothing is wrong with The Background Relationship—some shows simply do not focus on relationships, and that’s fine. But it usually means that the small glimpses that we see of couples don’t seem realistic. In House of Cards, Frank and Claire’s relationship is not the center of the show, but the depth of their relationship is evident in the show’s details.
Why Frank and Claire Underwood Stand Out
Okay, enough chit-chat. So, even though Claire and Frank Underwood might give you nightmares, they are light-years ahead of other relationships portrayed on television—or even most media. Here’s why:
They spend quality time together everyday.
This may seem simple, but they spend real time together every day. By that, I don’t just mean they share scenes. They conspire alone, talking or not talking, and discussing their day with one another. Every night, they sit in the quiet, away from work and other distractions and they give each other their full attention, sharing thoughts, feelings, and fears . In many shows, a couple’s conversations are a vehicle to drive drama on the show, to create friction between the two characters, to incite disagreements, but that is not the case with Claire and Frank. On top of that, they even workout together, sharing a physical routine, encouraging one another, supporting one another, and pushing each other to do better.
They have open conversations.
Not only do Frank and Claire share quiet moments everyday, but they’re actually open and honest with one another. In other shows, often there’s a lot of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and manipulation between people in relationships because it creates drama. With Claire and Frank, they’ve only manipulated each other once (the debacle with Claire taking money from Remy for her non-profit). Other than that, their conversations are frank. In fact, while their sex life may be unconventional, they openly discuss it and ask each other if they’re satisfied—something every good relationship needs. In other shows, it’s common for one partner to complain about their sex life to their friends, but it’s not common to see honest sexual communication that’s neither teasing nor the catalyst for a punchline.
They don’t hold grudges.
Both Claire and Frank have made some little mistakes here and there. The amazing part is that neither of them hold grudges against each other. When a scandalous picture of Claire becomes public, Frank isn’t angry. He doesn’t even show frustration with Claire. Instead, he supports her and works with her to resolve the issue. Inversely, when Claire becomes angry with Frank for meddling in her affairs with her non-profit, she forgives him. She doesn’t bring it up later, and she doesn’t hold it over his head. Instead of using each other’s mistakes as ammunition for later arguments, they forgive each other and move on.
They are true partners.
It seems that Frank and Claire manipulate everyone in their lives, except each other. At the end of season two, when Frank finally steps into the Oval Office and says, “Come on. We’ve earned this together,” he seems sincere. In fact, when Claire and Frank are talking to each other, it’s the only time that they seem sincere. Earlier in the show, when Frank and Adam finally have a showdown, Frank says, “Do not mistake any history you have shared for the slightest understanding of what our marriage is, or how insignificant you are in comparison.” Claire tried to explain this to Adam in season one, and Frank’s statement is consistent with the couple’s loving actions. Claire and Frank are fiercely loyal to each other, working as equal partners in their relationship.
This is all to say, I hope to see more relationships on television that exude the equality, sincerity, and depth of Frank and Claire’s relationship. It’s rare to see happy, long-term relationships portrayed in popular media, and it’s even more rare to see relationships that feel real and show a history and understanding through subtle glances, gestures, and dialogue. What do you guys think?
*Side note: the release date of season 2 made for the most romantic Valentine’s Day ever. Thanks, Netflix!