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. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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