Strong, interesting female characters are the secret of House of Cards’ success

Unusually for a political drama, Netflix's remake of House of Cards has a brilliant and independent political wife its heart, and is all the better for it.

Warning: this blog contains spoilers for the first series of House of Cards

The first series of Netflix’s House of Cards is full of motifs, of threads that run through the thirteen episodes if you care to look for them. For instance, Kevin Spacey’s character, the calculating and Machiavellian politician Frank Underwood, has a habit of rapping twice on a table top or car door when he’s come to a decision, which acts as a kind of aural punctuation echoing through the series. More obvious, perhaps, is Underwood’s habit of turning his head to speak directly to the viewer, usually with a pithy aside or epigram (a trick borrowed straight from the original 1990 UK series). But my favourite recurring scene is also where you find some of the drama’s most genuinely intimate moments – when Frank and his wife Claire share a cigarette by the window of their immaculate DC townhouse. The smoking itself is important, as it signals transgression and trust. Their conversation as they pass the cigarette to each other is even more important, though. This is when they plot.

The Underwoods’ marriage is a rare thing in a political drama: it is an equal partnership, even if it doesn’t seem so on first glance. On the surface, it looks as if his is the career that matters: he is the Democratic Majority Whip in the House of Representatives, a power broker who has the ear of the President. Yet Claire is a professional success in her own right, the founder of an NGO who raises millions of dollars and writes bills for Congress. The way the show is structured reflects this – unlike in the original UK series, where Elizabeth Uruquart had a lot of the ideas and very little of the agency, Claire Underwood has her own storylines. She isn’t just Lady Macbeth, pacing the floor while her husband does the deed. She gets in her own tangles with lobbyists, has her own extra-marital affair, and formulates her own strategies for seizing power.

Above all, though, the Underwoods are a team. The success of their quest for power and revenge relies on them both, in keeping everything in balance. As Nancy Dewolf Smith puts it in the Wall Street Journal: “This is a power couple with the same malignant chemistry as pairs of serial killers, where each needs the other in order to become lethal.” Even the way Claire addresses her husband is calculated to demonstrate how closely entwined they are: she’s the only one who calls him by his full name, Francis. At first this sounds stilted and strange when everyone else calls him Frank, but then you realise why she does it. It’s a kind of possession, a reminder that he isn’t acting for himself alone. Their relationship may be twisted and dark – Frank declares early on that he loves his wife “more than sharks love blood” – but it is essential to what they achieve.

United we stand: Frank and Claire Underwood are
literally partners in crime

It’s a symbiotic relationship. Robin Wright, who plays Claire in the series, told the Radio Times: “I feel like [Claire] has the levers, the sound board in the music room. She’s operating the operational modes and in contrast, Frank is very impulsive.” Claire needs her husband’s contacts and position to raise money for her NGO and to curry favour with the Washington elite. Frank needs Claire’s professional independence from partisan politics as a way of introducing controversial ideas at arm’s length and safely securing favours from lobbyists and industry. Above all, with her cool charm and elegance, she makes him seem more rounded, less monomaniacal. Their policy of ruthless honesty with each other preserves their unity, and it is only when they start concealing things from each other that their pursuit of power is thrown off course.

Since this relationship is the driving force behind the drama, it is fundamental to the success of House of Cards. Both in real life and in other shows (like The West Wing, say, or Scandal) politicians’ wives are tools to be deployed on the campaign trail, or else end up beating their fists fruitlessly against the closed door of power. It’s no accident that Robin Wright’s portrayal of Claire won the show’s only Golden Globe this year (also the first major acting award for an online-only series). Her incredible poise rivals Kevin Spacey’s intoxicating southern drawl for the prime spot in my affections. It’s brilliantly refreshing to see her make such a success of the role – these days, it’s becoming less and less plausible that any woman would aspire to a full-time job that consists almost entirely of standing next to her husband and waving graciously. House of Cards is a far better drama because it has independent female characters and an equal partnership at its heart. As we watch the Underwoods’ inexorable rise continue into the second series (which is released on Netflix today) it’s difficult not to wonder – if politics is more interesting on television when women can occupy positions of power and influence, how much longer can we ignore that fact in real life?


Robin Wright, who won a Golden Globe for her performance as Claire Underwood in House of Cards. Photo: Netflix

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood