A couple of months ago, I complained that all the married couples on Downton Abbey had become stilted and boring. It turns out I was looking for love in the wrong place. The 2013 television season has introduced the two most fascinating couples to ever hit television: the ones at the center of FX's The Americans and Netflix's House of Cards.
Modern television is rife with antihero protagonists. Most of them are male (Walter White, Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan, Vic Mackey), a very few are female (Jackie Peyton, Nancy Botwin), but House of Cards' Claire and Frank Underwood and The Americans' Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings embody a new kind of dynamic: the antihero marriage. Both the power-seeking political couple of Cards and the covert Russian spies of The Americans are equal parts business partners and soulmates. Because of each person's reliance on the other to achieve mutual goals, both couples navigate the marital minefields of betrayal and infidelity in unusual ways. Both are the most fun to watch when they're being bad together.
In a Slate piece, Alyssa Rosenberg noted the backlash against the wives of television antiheroes. I've never understood the vitriol directed at Skyler White on Breaking Bad. I don't see how you can feel anything but sympathy for a woman who spent years married to a docile chemistry teacher and then one day woke up next to a megalomaniacal drug lord. Her efforts to contribute to the family business by laundering Walter's money went horribly wrong, leaving her to slowly unravel in the face of her husband's growing villainy.
For the most part, today's tortured antiheroes wander alone through their existential hells, disconnected from their spouses and most of the people in their lives. Mad Men in particular is thematically focused on loneliness and emotional isolation. First Betty and now Megan Draper are treated as neither equals nor confidantes in their marriage. It's a familiar dynamic—Carmela Soprano knew how her husband earned his living, but remained willfully ignorant of the unsavory details.
By comparison, the Underwoods and the Jennings seem like model unions. In another Slate essay, Hanna Rosin explores the idea that Claire and Frank actually have an ideal marriage, noting the genuine intimacy that underlies their scheming. Anyone who watched the original British miniseries may remember the protagonist's wife as a vaguely Lady Macbeth-like figure, appearing briefly to encourage her husband to greater heights of duplicity before flitting off to the country estate. In this American version, Claire, played with stately and icy reserve by Robin Wright, is a fully engaged partner in her congressman husband's political machinations. They are a complicated, symbiotic, and, at times, deeply loving couple.
In the first episode, when Frank is passed over for secretary of state, Claire refuses to let him wallow, instead telling him, "My husband doesn't apologize. Not even to me." Later in the season, when a fundraiser gala for Claire's environmental nonprofit is threatened by Frank's political foes, he throws his full energy into saving it. (In one of Frank's fourth-wall-breaking asides he sums up their relationship thusly: "I love her more than sharks love blood.") Her organization's support is also the key to Frank getting his watershed bill passed, but Claire is equally committed to her own agenda. When she tanks her husband's bill in order to expand her nonprofit's global reach, the show explores the fallout of these two highly skilled players turning against each other. Claire flees to her ex-lover in New York, but not before striding into reporter Zoe Barnes's apartment and coolly informing the younger woman that she's been a pawn in Claire and Frank's game all along.
The bond between Elizabeth and Phillip on The Americans is even more convoluted because they technically are business partners—or rather Soviet spies playing the parts of an ordinary American husband and wife. The show, which will end its impressive first season on Wednesday night, picks up more than a decade into their arranged union. From the beginning, the show twists expectations, making Elizabeth (Keri Russell, so very far from Felicity) the harder, more determined of the pair. She's the zealot to Phillip's (Matthew Rhys) more relatable pragmatist, and struggles to reconcile her ruthless dedication to the cause with her deepening attachment to her husband.
Making their dynamic even more problematic is that they work in an industry where sex and even love are traded as currency, yet when Phillip falls into bed with an old flame outside of the parameters of his job and then lies about it, Elizabeth feels genuinely betrayed. The couple separates, but not really; they have taken an oath more permanent than marriage, and the mission always comes first.
In the most recent episode, one of Phillip's alter egos, "Clark," married the lovelorn FBI secretary he's been courting all season. We've watched the Jennings kidnap, coerce and murder, but this somehow feels like the couple's cruelest act to date—and one that will have inevitable reverberations in their relationship. After watching her fake husband get really married, Elizabeth wistfully says of the marriage vows, "It's funny. I know they're just words people say. Do you think things would have been different between us if we would have said them?"
The main source of conflict in both relationships is what the partners hold back. Claire doesn't yet know about her husband's most nefarious act, which will surely play a major role in the second season. (Likewise he does not yet know about her trip to a fertility clinic.) Phillip is furious when he discovers that Elizabeth had previously expressed her concerns to KGB higher-ups that he was adapting a little too well to the American lifestyle. Still, despite the rifts in their union, when Elizabeth decides to kill a high-level CIA operative against orders, she seeks out her estranged husband for back-up. When Frank's political protégé turns up dead, Claire immediately leaves New York and shifts into crisis-management mode.
Like marriage in real life, the couples are most effective when they are united in common purpose, even when it's a morally questionable goal. Their extreme take on "for better or for worse" is strangely admirable—and maybe even a little bit enviable. Either way, it's fascinating to watch.