*This is your official spoiler warning for seasons one and two of House of Cards!*
Frank Underwood, in season one of Netflix’s hit series House of Cards, quotes Oscar Wilde when he wrote, “Everything in this world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” Neither sex nor power are subjects which Frank and his wife Claire lack an intimate knowledge. Whether it be the congressman-turned-VP’s affair with journalist Zoe Barnes to ensure that he could use her to take his enemies down through the press, or Claire’s use of her artistic ex-lover Adam Galloway as a donation generator for Claire’s non-profit organization. These actions clearly demonstrate calculation, forethought and a tinge of “ruthless pragmatism” that go beyond the traditional marriage trope that we tend to see on television. While Frank and Claire’s relationship certainly is not a billboard for the traditional ideas of domestic bliss, their partnership is one that breeds influence and political capital.
The ruthlessly pragmatic fashion that Frank and Claire weave in and out of the political chaos and the fallout of their sabotaging betrays the extensive intentionality of their actions. It would be silly to argue that same pragmatism would be absent from their more private activities when in respect to their specially-selected Secret Service agent Edward Meechum, Zoe Barnes or Adam Galloway, the Underwoods’ power resides in sexual manipulation. Even then, Claire and Frank have a transcendent understanding, love and respect for each other.
The Zoe-Frank relationship is one of the more interesting pieces of House of Cards, especially considering the terrible end that Zoe Barnes comes to by Frank’s own hands. During season one, in one of the more psychologically twisted moments of the series, Frank enters Zoe’s rundown apartment on Father’s Day and begins to perform oral sex on her while she is on the phone with her father. Their conversation before and during is tinted with incestuous innuendoes that would make Freud’s beard curl. Zoe mistakenly plays into the Freudian foreplay by continually leaking sensitive information that Frank is using to his political advantage in his battle for power in the White House.
While Frank manipulates the press through Zoe Barnes, Claire takes a different route. Her lobbying group, the Clean Water Initiative, suddenly needs to come up with tens of thousands of dollars to use as a seed fund for new water wells in Africa. She contacts Adam Galloway, an incredibly talented photographer and old flame, to donate a handful of photographs to put up for auction. Adam continually tries to break Claire’s hardened resolve about rekindling their old relationship, only to be shot down throughout the remainder of the series.
This manipulation continues well into the second series, when Frank’s primary enemy, nuclear energy CEO Raymond Tusk, outs Claire’s infidelity with Adam in the press. After a drawn out PR battle between Adam and Claire in the press, he is brought into the Underwoods’ home to try and reach some sort of compromise. The scene is brilliantly written and does an excellent job of establishing the relationship between Frank and Claire as something truly beyond the norm. Frank states, after an enraged Adam begins to argue with Claire, “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 had ruthlessly convinced Adam that their relationship was something unique, only to be brought down in an instant by Frank in a moment of true honesty.
This obsession with domination by the Underwoods culminates in the most controversial scene of the series. The couple’s hand-picked Secret Service agent Edward Meechum becomes “like a rock” for the couple, constantly protecting either Frank or Claire at all times. Frank walks in on Claire and Meechum engaged in some relatively heavy drinking, only to initiate a threesome in the middle of their dining room. This relationship is foreshadowed multiple times throughout the series, most obviously when Meechum is “catching” for Frank as Frank practices before his ceremonial first pitch as Vice President. The Meechum threesome stands out above the other two sexual experiences. Earlier in season one, Frank specifically tells Meechum that he will “absorb nothing and repeat nothing,” and seems to make their threesome the ultimate test of that order. Frank and Claire understand that the best way to ensure Meechum is completely loyal to them is for the couple to open themselves up completely to him.
The parallels Machiavellian parallels that the Underwoods illicit are important in understanding why they treat sex so differently than the traditional marriage. As entrenched as they are in the political system, their actions must be analyzed with the same lens. The Underwoods, with full understanding and trust of each other, use sex as a tool of political economy, creating an exchange of goods and services. In Marx’s Capital, we read: “The form of wood…is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness.” The truth of the Underwoods sexual relationship is that for them, sex is too powerful of a trade commodity to reserve for each other.
With the understanding that sex combines some of the most powerful drives of the human condition–“the intensity of mutual attraction, the possibility of generation, necessity of gender division,” as stated by Michel Foucault in the third volume of his The History of Sexuality–the Underwoods create a political economy for themselves using sex as a vice-like tool of submission and domination. The Underwoods are able to remain in tune with each other while preying on the anxieties and insecurities of those they attempt to manipulate, such as Zoe Barnes and Adam Galloway. Frank and Claire’s relationship still requires mutual sexual satisfaction, but they acknowledge that binding themselves only to each other would be an obstacle towards their true goal of maintaining their positions of power.