Last year, after the first season of House of Cards debuted, showrunner Beau Willimon participated in a Q&A with Vulture readers about the acclaimed Netflix series. Amid the expected questions about plot specifics and the rationale behind releasing all 13 episodes at once, one inquiry stood out: "Why are all the intimate scenes so nauseating?" In response, Willimon referred to a key scene in which Francis "Frank" Underwood (Kevin Spacey), House of Cards' vindictive South Carolina congressman, warns Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a rising hotshot reporter who briefly became his mistress, "Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power."
That line, originally by Oscar Wilde, underlines Frank's unsentimental mindset, but it doesn't fully capture this show's unique treatment of sex. Sex may indeed be about power, but on House of Cards there's no thrill, no turn-on, no warmth, to the act. "Nauseating" isn't the right word to describe it—"chilly" or "empty" would be better. That's why it's teasingly perverse that the acclaimed series returns to Netflix on Valentine's Day: This has to be one of the most unromantic, unsexy shows around.
Don't get me wrong: House of Cards is stacked with alluring women and dashing men. (The series willfully disregards the old adage that politics is show business for ugly people.) And there are several incredibly erotic moments peppered throughout the first season: the hotel seduction of Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) by high-class call girl Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan); the New York fling between Frank's wife Claire (Robin Wright) and her on-again/off-again boy toy Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels).
But for all of House of Cards'bed-hopping, the show (based on the Michael Dobbs novel and subsequent BBC series) thus far has avoided soap-opera juiciness and is surprisingly cold in its handling of sex. Social Network director David Fincher (one of the show's executive producers) set the icy tone early on. Though he only directed the first two episodes, the emotional distance he established between characters continued through the season. People take on lovers, but for the most part there's no pleasure—either for them or us—in the couplings.
Frank and Zoe's affair exemplifies this. She uses him for the scoops he can feed her, and he uses her because he wants a journalist to leak to. Yet there's no connection—no dark sensuality—between them, and beyond his skill at going down on her, there's barely any sense of a physical attraction. Speaking to Vulture, Willimon tried to suggest that their pairing felt so "nauseating" because "their intimate moments are not really about intimacy. Romance is the dissolution of ego—two become one. Sex between Francis and Zoe is a battle of egos. It's about dominance. It's warfare."
In theory, that makes sense, but it fails to put a finger on why their relationship felt so alien-like. There's some warfare between them, yet no sparks fly from their friction. Really, their affair is a chance for them to role-play, and not in a kinky way: They're playing idealized versions of themselves. In Frank's company, the struggling Zoe (desperate to make her name as a reporter) can pretend to be a hip, sexually assertive young flirt—a blossoming D.C. power player rather than the floundering nobody she really is. Likewise, Frank can intimidate the impressionable Zoe with his insider status and preternatural charm and confidence, liberated from the strategizing and finessing he must do on the Hill. Because they know nothing about each other, they can feel safe in this fantasy world they've constructed in her dingy apartment far away from where the real saber rattling happens in Washington. Sex isn't about power for them—it's about satisfying a need to be seen in the way they prefer.
They're not alone in their behavior. Just about every tryst on House of Cards is consumed by neediness or vulnerability—not that these hard-edged characters would ever admit such a thing. Claire's fresh pursuit of Adam, with whom she once had an affair, has a slow-burn sizzle to it. (Unlike the zombie-fied Spacey and Mara, Wright and Daniels display palpable sexual chemistry that's all the more potent for how gradual their rekindled romance takes to ignite.) When Adam finally does get her alone to take off her clothes, the moment is presented with all the sleekness of a perfume ad, shot from behind and at a remove so that there's almost no erotic heat. That's not a creative failing but, rather, a provocative choice—House of Cards illustrating the hollowness of a relationship built on Claire's insecure search for a temporary sympathetic surrogate. The eroticism is muted and clinical, as if the show recognizes the futility of her trying to fill a void in a way that won't work.
To be fair, House of Cards doesn't neuter all sex, but when the show depicts it in softer tones, the series has a dim view of the participants. House of Cards is powered by its intrigue and maneuvering: We relish watching Frank navigate Washington with the same skill he brings to his chess playing, while Claire brilliantly pilots her environmental nonprofit with the pragmatic ruthlessness of a corporate raider. So when a show prizes adrenaline, anger and steeliness, it's not surprising that the most loving couples are the ones who seem the most doomed. Peter's affair with one of his staffers, Christina (Kristen Connolly), isn't tawdry but tender, providing him an outlet to open up about his past alcohol and drug addictions, as well as to express his desire to really help his constituents. Peter and Christina are almost alone on House of Cards in being likeable people—so naturally they're also the weakest, with Peter ending up dead and Christina heartbroken. (Not for nothing is Peter's downfall triggered by a run-in with a coldhearted prostitute. Sex can be a career-killer on House of Cards.) Similarly, when Zoe finally extricates herself from Frank, she falls into the arms of Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus), a sweet newspaper editor who always nursed a crush on her. It's hard to take their affectionate relationship seriously: Can a shark like Zoe really fall for such a wimp? Or is it just a temporary rebound until she discards him for her next prized sexual target?
Love has little place on House of Cards, which might seem strange since the show's two central characters are, in a way, a model of a highly functioning relationship. The long-married Frank and Claire personify stability, commitment and teamwork, even if they're also busy with their own romantic dalliances, which both of them know about. And yet they make it work, sharing a cigarette before bed the same way they share their fiendish plans to gain more and more power and influence in Washington.
Frank and Claire are never shown having sex or even discussing sex, as if they alone have evolved beyond such unpleasant base needs to arrive at a higher state of consciousness. Like a lethal extrapolation of the so-called egalitarian marriage—a 21st-century concept of an equal partnership based on mutual respect, not lust—their bond is based on shared strategies and worldviews, the perfect pairing of two cobras. Claire gets to the heart of their arrangement when she tells their loyal, dying Secret Service agent, "You know what Francis said to me when he proposed? … He said, 'Claire, if all you want is happiness, say 'no.' I'm not going to give you a couple of kids and count the days until retirement. I promise you freedom from that. I promise you you'll never be bored.'" It's a thoroughly unromantic proposal, but it's free of illusion or need. No wonder they're House of Cards' power couple: They understand that sex, emotion and feelings just get in the way. That's why the Vulture questioner found the intimate scenes nauseating—they're an upsetting twist on our preconceived notions of sex as being loving, sensual, kinky, fun. On House of Cards, screwing is an empty pursuit—something to pass the time when you're not focused on screwing over everybody else.
Photo courtesy of Netflix