President, First Lady, and aide begin poly relationship in House of Cards
(Warning, spoilers.) The hit Netflix series House of Cards, about fictional U.S. President Frank Underwood and first lady Claire, takes an unexpected poly turn near the end of its fourth season, which was released two weeks ago.
The Underwoods are ruthless schemers who can't always trust even each other. So I was surprised to hear that the current season (all episodes of a "season" are released at once) includes a plot development that definitely seems like polyamory. As Bustle summarizes:
'House Of Cards' Humanizes Consensual Non-Monogamy In The Fourth Season
The actors (looking not so ruthless) at a Netflix event.
By Kristen Sollee
House of Cards may celebrate greed, corruption, and the dark side of human nature, but its depiction of consensual non-monogamy is revelatory. The power-hungry power couple of Claire and Frank Underwood are guilty of murder, treason, and fraud many times over — which not-so-subtly reinforces the idea that only "bad people" stray from traditional relationships — but somehow this fact doesn't diminish the way the show humanizes and de-stigmatizes an often misunderstood relationship practice.
While House of Cards' first season delves into the sexual side of non-monogamy in a steamy threesome between Claire, Frank, and their head of security, the fourth season explores the romantic side, with Claire beginning an intimate relationship with a presidential speechwriter. When Frank discovers that his wife has strong feelings for another man, he isn't enraged — as traditional Hollywood films would have him be — but instead delivers a monologue that is sure to bring a tear to many a non-monogamous person's eye. Kevin Spacey's character says:
He can give you things that I can't. Look, Claire, we've been a great team, but one person, one person cannot give everything to another person... I don't see you the way he sees you. It's not my permission to give, but you'll do what's right for you. I want you to know if you want it, I know you'll be careful, and I'll be fine. I mean, if we're gonna go beyond marriage, let's go beyond it.
The reason this swoon-worthy speech is so revolutionary for mainstream TV is because non-monogamy is too often portrayed as shameful and immoral and all about hitting it and quitting it. Instead, Underwood's monologue focuses on an underrepresented side of the practice, one which is based in love that transcends labels.
It's a shame that such a sweet moment has to be situated in a series about corruption, because there is nothing corrupt about love that doesn't need to be locked down to thrive. As more and more people test the waters of this completely healthy arrangement, however, perhaps we'll see even more nuanced representations of consensual non-monogamy like this one.
The original article (March 11, 2016).
Scott in Portland writes us,
In [season 4] episode 11, the President and First Lady negotiate a (discreet) polyamorous arrangement with their speechwriter. The negotiation begins around the 34:00 mark, continues at 43:00, and culminates at 47:00.
It seems the writers went out of their way to make a statement about polyamory, although it's a somewhat ambiguous statement given that, on the one hand, the two main characters are certifiably despicable as politicians, and on the other hand, there seems to be genuine love and/or respect between the three characters.
Katie Klabusich goes into much more depth, movingly, at The Establishment:
What ‘House Of Cards’ Can Teach Us About Polyamory
...I first saw myself in Claire [earlier] when her reaction to husband Frank possibly stepping out on their marriage was underwhelming by cultural and Hollywood standards. The depiction of her own on-again, off-again affair with a photographer led to the revelation that she and Frank clearly had an unconventional marriage. The audience was left with the distinct impression that they might even be open about being open — or at least unconcerned about hiding — if they weren’t in the politics business.
...Yes, she’s conniving and vindictive and conspiring with her husband in power-grab schemes while screwing over long-time employees at her non-profit and threatening anyone who can’t get on board with what she wants . . . and yet, I became hooked to this character, fully invested in seeing things work out for her. We watch because of the inherent suspense in risky, evil plan-making, and the complex feelings we have rooting for characters who do very bad things.
Conniving aside, Claire is decidedly likable — as is nearly every recurring character on the show, save maybe the Russian president. Which is why it matters that she is so unconventional. It is always easier to accept norm-challenging ideas and choices when they are exhibited by people we are invested in.
...Their decision not to have children helped bring them to a place where they could go “beyond marriage.” The final three episodes of season four pull together all the choices they’ve made over the course of their 30-year partnership, both together and individually. We hear Claire first use that phrase at a campaign stop in South Dakota as she delivers a speech written by Thomas Yates — a best-selling author turned Underwood staffer. Claire asks two supporters why they are outspoken despite being surrounded by Conway’s base in the heart of solid red country. Why aren’t they voting for the veteran who is married with two small children? The wife responds:
“When we saw you two at the convention, I don’t know — it just seemed like a real partnership.”
As Claire stands in their front yard explaining to the cameras that, of course, she and Frank would be on the ticket together — that she and her husband had been partners in policy and campaigning and life since they met, she owned the uniqueness of their relationship and unconventional life.
“We’re not just president and first lady or husband and wife; we have made a choice to tackle everything together,” she said. “We go beyond what’s pretty and perfect, beyond what’s scary, difficult and unknown. We’re not just partners on the ticket; we’re partners in life.”
...Here was a First Lady and vice-presidential nominee declaring that their being “beyond marriage” was not something to overlook; it was, in fact, a reason to vote for them.
The most exciting thing about their marriage for me also happens to be the most unconventional, an element that largely remains hidden from public view: they have long been open with each other about having outside sexual partners. They even had a spontaneous threesome with Edward Meechum one evening after his shift protecting the Underwoods had ended. So when Thomas Yates accompanies Claire to Texas where her estranged mother was about to die, the audience isn’t surprised to see them spend the night together.
Claire and Tom only got together one more time (on camera, at least) before he tells her he should leave the campaign. When she begins to protest, he says tells her she doesn’t have to say anything.
...And so, because of all the understandable assumptions and cultural norms, Tom leaves. Then, something remarkable happens. (Queue my tears of joy.) Claire calls Frank to let him know that Tom has left the campaign and Frank seems surprised and concerned about whether or not she’s alright.
When Tom is shown pacing in Frank’s office (in the residence, not the Oval), I was anticipating what came next in a way that most of the audience likely wasn’t. As someone in a polyamorous relationship with a married man, I’m analogous to Tom in this scene — though I knew my partner was poly when we met....
...Tom doesn’t know he’s about to have a meeting with a metamour, so when Frank asks “It was more than just a fling, wasn’t it?” he is, understandably, expecting anger to follow. Instead, Frank seems to be inquiring about Tom’s intentions towards his wife. Satisfied that they had a real connection — “Do you make Claire laugh?” he asks — Frank sends his former speechwriter home. The next day in the Oval Office — the symbol of their partnership and everything they’ve achieved together as a couple — Frank asks Claire if the South Dakota “beyond marriage” speech was Tom’s. My polyamorous heart skipped a beat. I couldn’t believe I was watching this conversation being depicted on such a stage.
“He should stay on — not as your speech writer,” Frank says. “Well, I mean, yes, for the rest of the world he could be our speech writer. But that’s not why he should stay on. He should stay on because he can give you things that I can’t.”
Right there, on the couch in the Oval Office, the president and the first lady decide to go full poly. Their conversation is perfect. They affirm their love for each other. Frank says that this isn’t about his permission — that isn’t his to give. He simply knows that she respects his feelings (at least when it comes to the romantic aspect of their marriage) and he wants her to know he more than understands; he wants her to be happy and fulfilled.
...Ideally, poly connections are all about added value, not about conceding time or emotion to someone else. Sitting next to his wife holding her hands, Frank makes a proposal that shows just how much he understands how poly families work.
“Look, Claire, we’ve been a great team. But one person—one person cannot give everything to another person . . . I don’t see you the way he sees you,” he says. “I mean, if we’re gonna go beyond marriage, let’s go beyond it.”
Once they decide to truly go beyond marriage, the poly aspects of their life are depicted in the deliciously mundane way most ethically non-monogamous households work.... The writers avoid sensationalism and conflict when most viewers are anticipating emotional drama. I know people were expecting drama because this is the exact sort of moment on the minds of those who ask me, “Yeah, but how does it work?” From now on, I’m just going to send them this perfectly-crafted scene:
We see the three of them at their first breakfast together following Tom’s first night in the White House. No one speaks (typical in many homes, poly or no); but no one avoids eye contact. Tom graciously watches where Frank and Claire sit to see which chair isn’t claimed. Claire smiles appreciatively at Frank after he passes the apples he’s sliced to Tom who has set plates in front of everyone. Frank delves into the newspaper as the scene fades to black.
As the theme music and credits started, I felt the warm calm of validation. I’d just seen my ideal life on screen — without sensationalism. Here’s hoping the plot continues.
Read her whole article (March 17, 2016).
Then again, a commenter elsewhere says, "It's clear it's a manipulative weird thing in this show, as most things are in this show."
Update March 21: Slate posts a thoughtful article, with videos of key scenes.