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.

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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution