'House of Cards' and the perversion of friendship

April 23rd, 2015

"You know what Francis said to me when he proposed? I remember his exact words. He said, 'Claire, if all you want is happiness, say no. I'm not gonna give you a couple of kids and count the days until retirement. I promise you freedom from that. I promise you'll never be bored.'"

With these words we are initiated into the dark and deformed reality at the center of the Netflix series "House of Cards." Remembering her husband’s proposal to her, Claire Underwood wields these words anew against a former bodyguard who admits his love for her as he lies dying of cancer.

By this time, with the third season’s release on the streaming site, it has become apparent that this friendship is the story’s arc. The audience members find themselves drawn into the life of Francis and Claire, as the viewer finds herself rooting for these two characters even as she feels a bit sullied along the way. The Underwoods’ story has all the terrible beauty of a disaster just before it happens, and that beauty is gathered up in their friendship. Their friendship and marriage is one arranged toward those greater heights of political power, a carefully constructed means by which they might become world-makers and shakers. Claire’s quote, and the effect that its remembrance has on her, indicates what constitutes just such a friendship.

Francis describes their relationship as one of freedom: the freedom from the boredom of a ‘normal’ life, the freedom from mediocrity and the middle ground, the freedom to become truly self-made and self-determined. Perhaps the dark beauty that finds so many marathoning episode after episode comes in how well these two epitomize the darkest edges of desire we find in ourselves as we speak of things like “freedom,” “the pursuit of happiness” and “self-determination.” Their friendship is solely a means to that end of greatest possible freedom.

As the show has progressed, however, the title’s appropriateness becomes more apparent. This friendship of freedom is building a house of cards around these two, and each episode leaves us wondering if this will be the one where it all comes tumbling down (even as we know there are at least four more episodes left in our marathon). Indeed, for all our fascination with the amorality presented in their relationship, we can also sense its demonic actuality.

Their friendship is a source of bondage by which these two figures are ensnared in an increasingly faster descent toward annihilation. If we are honest, those who are watching the show are still watching at this point because we want to see the disaster actually happen. We want to see the surely catastrophic eschatological end of this friendship in all of its terrible glory.

This vision of friendship, while certainly exaggerated, nonetheless has great force in the public sphere. So often friendship is viewed with a utilitarian bent — “what will our friendship gain me?” Through workplace competition or neighborhood maneuvering, we find ourselves caught in systems that make friendship a means toward the freedom that Francis and Claire imagine, albeit on somewhat different scales.

Friendships are made and ended because the usefulness ends, or because the friendship becomes a barrier to the perceived telos of a “happy” life. Oftentimes friendships are composed of intrigue, backbiting, social maneuvering and advantageousness that lead toward bondage no less extreme than that of the Underwoods.

A friend with whom I share both a love for the church and for "House of Cards" recently noted that we have another Francis and Clare who can offer an alternative vision of friendship. St. Francis of Assisi and his relationship with St. Clare of Assisi imagines a friendship between members of different sexes that wonderfully counters the Underwoods’ demonic vision. These saints’ friendship offers a space of mutuality and benevolence, where both want the other to flourish and be happy. Their friendship stands within the church’s story as one of the best places to see the friendship made possible by Christ and his gospel. Indeed, the relationship between Francis and Claire becomes a source of illumination on the sanctifying work of love, spoken of by Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and so many others others.

At least two significant differences worth noting exist between these saints and the Underwoods. Unlike the "House of Cards" stars, Francis and Clare have a friendship sustained by a liturgical life that includes rhythms of confession, repentance and forgiveness. When fault lines occur, such rhythms make it possible for truth to be spoken in such a way that reconciliation and forgiveness are truly possible. Any harm done by one to the other can be named and repaired, rather than becoming another link in the chains binding them together.

The friendship between Francis and Clare is also a profoundly missional relationship. While the partnership between the Underwoods serves to promote their own self-interests, Francis and Clare share in a rapport that directs each toward the greater wholeness of the Lord’s kingdom. Their ends define these friendships. One seeks the happiness found in the Beatitudes’ blessings and the obedience toward holiness in Christ, while the other seeks only after the gratification of personal desire, ambition and individual choice.

We would do well to look to Francis and Clare to see how friendship might indeed be a school of love and not death. With them, we see something of how the Gospel calls us into relationship with the other, with the stranger who becomes brother or sister in Christ, with the outsider who becomes companion in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. With Francis and Clare, we see how liturgical rhythms of confession and repentance can sustain a truth-telling that makes our friendships places where mutual growth in holiness is in fact possible.

Sharing in their “simple” intention to live life according to the Gospel, Francis and Clare moved beyond expected boundaries and norms to develop a relationship that has sustained the church itself. Their friendship is devoid of sentimentality, superficiality or the destructive utility that we find with the Underwoods. Instead, it is sustained by the Spirit’s power that makes it possible for them, and for us, to befriend the poor as Christ himself has befriended us.

comments powered by Disqus