By now, whether having binged or not, you have probably finished watching the second installment of House of Cards and, in the final minutes of the final episode, you have probably also noticed something odd happen between our anti-heroes Francis and Claire Underwood. They hug…
This hug is the first physically intimate moment we see between the couple throughout season two. Sure, they run and smoke cigarettes together. And yes, the Underwoods share a menagé trois with Edward Meechum, their tenderfoot bodyguard, but it’s not the same. As Frank said, in the most memorable aside from last season, “Everything is about sex. Except for sex. Sex is about power.”
The Underwoods, if nothing else, know how to work as a team to exert their power. Taking down Meechum (and while he is wounded no less) is just another example of how the two extend their omnipotence. But power is a far cry from intimacy in this case. In fact, the three most powerful characters in House of Cards–Raymond Tusk, Garrett Walker, and Francis Underwood–are also portrayed as the most celibate. All three men ultimately work in tandem with their wives, on equal footing, while also seemingly restraining themselves. Tusk, before exposing Claire’s extramarital affair, asks his wife for the greenlight and thereby illustrates their partnership. And Walker, in reaction to the rocky spell in his marriage, fires his assistant, Christina, and agrees to couples counselling–both on the suggestion of his wife, Patricia. We never see these three men establishing a dominant or subordinate sexual relationship with their wives. What we see is them reading and texting next to their significant others, in their pajamas and on their beds, close to their wives but never touching. In the case with Meechum, the Underwoods create a binary control dynamic, themselves as the seniors–in prominence, wealth, and number–while Meechum–the injured lackey–is cast as the junior.
In a similar fashion the Underwoods exert their authority together over Adam Galloway, Claire’s former lover from last season, when they besmirch his character on television. The Galloway sex scandal in one way typifies the Underwood’s ability to work in partnership but in another exhibits a larger theme: the vilification of sex in House of Cards.
Throughout season two we are shown few moments of honest copulation. Instead, we are given scenes that are graphic, perverted, fetishistic, and debased. The first depicts Xander Feng, bound and asphyxiated with a plastic bag, as a western couple fellates him for cold, hard cash. The second depicts Remy Danton as he forces himself inside congresswoman Jackie Sharp, thereby learning that Sharp embraces physical pain as a means to mollify the emotional pain from her military service. And finally, the third depicts Douglas Stamper voyeuristically observing ex-call girl Rachel Posner as she rolls around with do-gooder Lisa Williams from the fellowship. All three of these scenes include very specific power dynamics but it’s also important to note that all three of the sexual deviants depicted here, eventually, are met with downfall.
Xander Feng’s Asylum is revoked and he is deported to China, where he almost certainly faces the death penalty. Remy Danton is forced to capitulate to the demands of his enemies–Underwood, Sharp, and the rest of the administration–and finally agrees to turn on his old employer, Raymond Tusk. And Douglas Stamper, after having an unrelenting penchant for dictating the life of Rachel Posner, is killed by the sharp stone in her hands, in the woods, in a crime of passion. Also of relevance is the punishment of Claire’s rapist,General Dalton McGuinness, as he is publicly put on military trial.
The closest thing we see to a healthy sexual relationship (though stopped before climax) is between Zoe Barnes and Lucas Goodwin in episode one. However, to that point, it also poignantly dies in the first episode when Zoe is pushed onto the subway tracks by Frank. This isn’t by accident. It sets the ethos of season two. It also then doesn’t seem like an accident that Lucas Goodwin, the only character that shows perfect and unabated compassion (other than Cashew the guinea pig of course), is abandoned in prison, as his co-worker and fellow journalist Janine Skorsky rolls on him.
In the end, it would be a lot to ask of creator Beau Willimon to include a scene of love making without hauling some sort of irreverent load behind it. Regular, by-the-book sex, just doesn’t seem to fit into this duplicitous world of Tusks and Underwoods. Remember, to its characters, sex is about power and such a statement doesn’t lend itself to compromise, nor should it. At its core, House of Cards is an unapologetically dark dark show and we only understand this, in part, because its sex is no light subject.