Natalia Naman Temesgen: Learning from the Underwoods

March 8, 2014 

I don't know any real people named Underwood, so rest assured this is a column about the Netflix original series "House of Cards." Hands up if you watched season two of "House of Cards" in under a week. Yeah, me too.

There's something undeniably seductive about Francis and Claire Underwood. Since season one, I've wondered what it is: their looks, power, glamour, pure evil? Ultimately, I settled on something else. The most addictive quality the Underwoods possess is their ability to get away with it all. How calculating they are. How buttoned-up. How together in their plots.

When I was studying dramatic writing in graduate school, one of my professors gave us a 10-point list of qualities Westerners value in a character. No. 1 on that list is intelligence. Surprised? Frank Underwood isn't the first smart, morally deviant protagonist we've followed. Remember Dexter? Don Draper? Walter White? Macbeth? But this isn't just about Frank. It's about Frank and Claire. And if I'm honest, I've learned a few things about marriage from these two.

As bright as they each are and as different as their career trajectories have been, they share the same dream and support each other in actively pursuing that. What is that dream? Probably world domination. But remember when Claire had to make some sacrifices at her job to help Frank with his? I didn't see that as Frank disrespecting Claire's dreams. I saw it as Claire wanting Frank's success on Capitol Hill more than her own at Clean Water Initiative. I saw it as unity, shared vision. That seems like a valuable thing to have in a marriage, no?

The Underwoods also have a great respect for and commitment to their union. Before you go off the rails, let me say: it's obvious they don't play by the same marital rules most of us do. I think of them as a more put-together George and Martha from Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" They may seem wholly dysfunctional, with their extramarital affairs and all, but there are rules set up in the Underwood household and these two always play by them.

So many times, I've yelled at the screen, "But he's cheating on you!" "But she's coming on to your former employee in your house!" "But he KILLED SOMEONE." I have a feeling the response to any of my protests would be: "Do not mistake any history you have shared for the slightest understanding of what our marriage is or how insignificant you are in comparison." (A Frank line from season two, episode nine.)

Claire encourages Frank to exercise and ditch his violent video games; Frank shields Claire from fall-out and (sort of) tries to help her quit smoking. It's a bit much to suggest that the Underwoods have an "ideal" marriage, but watching the show I'm astounded again and again at how they will turn on anyone in an instant … except each other. They have a loyalty that surpasses my sense of the norm, and I think there's something to glean from it. Even something as small as refusing to binge-watch season two without my husband alongside me. Shared vision, indeed.

Natalia Naman Temesgen is an independent correspondent. Contact her at nataliadian1@gmail.com or on Twitter @cafeaulazy.

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