New secret weapon deployed in 'House of Cards' and 'The Americans'

Two series that utterly transform the term Photo: Netflix/House of Cards

LOUISIANA, February 22, 2013 – In a year free of any breakout network hits, the best new shows of this winter are Netflix’s House of Cards and FX’s The Americans. Their subject matters of Capitol Hill backstabbing and Cold War spying are enticing, and their production values and performances are excellent. But their unconventional marriages are what separate them from anything else currently offered on TV.

In House of Cards Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a shark of a U.S. senator who, after being passed over for Secretary of State, enacts a plan either to take his power back or to bring everyone else down with him. His wife Claire (Robin Wright) helps him, particularly when his machinations will benefit her.

Frank and Claire’s decades-long marriage is both more mysterious and more open than their political underhandedness. The relationship often feels like an impersonation of what a political union is supposed to be. He thanks her in speeches, she heads up a charitable organization, and they both smile for the cameras. But their marriage is devoid of any passion. For example, they have no children, a point that goes largely unmentioned for the entire season but seems like an extension of their airless marital arrangement.

More importantly, they each carry on extra-marital affairs that they discuss openly with each other. When Frank admits that he slept with a reporter, in part to feed her a story, Claire asks, “Just this once?” as if she’s wondering whether or not he washed the dishes. They understand such indiscretions to be part of the job. 

The marriage situation in The Americans is even further off the normal grid. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, a Russian sleeper cell blending in with unsuspecting Americans in the thick of the Cold War. While the House of Cards relationship only seems artificial, The Americans relationship literally is. After Elizabeth and Phillip perfect their accents and manners, the KGB arranges their marriage and plants them in a house together.

Like the Underwoods, Elizabeth and Phillip see extra-marital sex as an occupational hazard, a convenient way to gain information for a mission. That’s just what spies do, and neither party is supposed to get jealous about it, especially since their marriage is a sham anyway. But the most immediate difference separating the couples is the fact that Elizabeth and Phillip have produced two kids.

Originally a part of their cover, the children—growing up happily enjoying the considerable benefits of U.S. capitalism—now threaten their ideals and allegiances. For the first time, Elizabeth and Phillip are seeing something as a shared history that is more important than the motherland. The Underwoods might not need children to validate their marriage, but children are the only thing that makes the Jennnings approach the real.

How well the characters in each series know each other on a deeply personal level influences the power dynamics of each relationship. To the outsiders of House of Cards, Frank is the dominant presence in the marriage. He’s the Majority Whip of Congress, after all. But Claire’s history with Frank allows her to undermine him subtly. Early on in the season, concerned for his health, she buys him a rowing machine, which forces a man whose daily life is in constant motion to stay in place, pushing and pulling on a journey to nowhere.

Because the principals of The Americans are forbidden to speak of their earlier lives, Elizabeth and Phillip don’t have the luxury of using each other in that way. In the pilot, Elizabeth seems like the more aggressive operative (in what looks like a clever inversion of the female wet blankets of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos). But, as she begins to confess key elements of her upbringing, she reveals a softer side of herself that could stabilize their sham relationship. For his part, Phillip begins in the series as the more fickle one of the two, toying as he does with defecting to the West. But, without warning, he then demonstrates surprising assertiveness and a tendency toward violence. That tug-of-war will be interesting to watch as the show goes forward.

A key difference between the two series arises when each one trots out old flames to dangle in front of the wives. In House of Cards, Claire has a fling with an artist for what seems like a week of sleepovers. (This series is never good at conveying the passage of time.) Frank is concerned and sends an underling to discover her whereabouts, but he doesn’t take meaningful action beyond that point. Claire eventually breaks off the relationship, realizing the dangers of actual human emotion. And when she returns home, Frank asks no questions.

Similarly, in the third episode of The Americans, the Jennings duo works with an individual who seems to know Elizabeth even better than Phillip does. When she has trouble resisting this link to her past, he belittles Phillip as her “cover,” and she corrects him with “He’s my husband.” Clearly, marriage is supposed to mean something, even if Elizabeth has no idea what that something is. In this way the marriage at the center of House of Cards comes off as especially cold. As bizarre as The Americans’ play-acting is, at least they’re trying to live up to the false vows that constitute the heart of their cover.

Although the layered deception in each of these relationships is what makes them interesting, each couple is capable of tender moments as well. Frank and Claire end most nights by meeting at their window to share an illicit cigarette, a habit they never indulge in when in public. Even if they’re discussing something duplicitous while sharing a few puffs, these moments feel like the genuine stock-taking that forms a key role in the lives of loving couples.

Elizabeth and Phillip engage in a similar communion at the end of the second episode, when he surprises her late at night with caviar. It’s a moment of relief for them both as well as a tantalizing taste of home. But it’s telling that, just like the Underwoods, they can only be close when they’re being bad boys and girls in secret.

Television has always offered us couples whose love for each other is sorely tested across countless episodes. These new TV offerings are refreshing because a key dilemma in each is whether or not these people love real or alleged significant others at all. They drop us right in the middle of a complex tangle of marital baggage. And then they force us to do all the unpacking.



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Christopher Bowes

Christopher Bowes is a teacher in New Orleans, and he writes about the worlds of film, TV, and music. He has a bachelor’s degree from the Louisiana Scholars’ College and a master’s from the University of Pennsylvania. He also writes for A House of Lies and is preparing a book of short stories.


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