Few couples begin their day quite like Congressman Francis Underwood and his nonprofit executive/lobbyist wife, Claire: sipping a cup of black coffee over a cool cost-benefit analysis of who should commit adultery with whom. The power couple at the center of the Emmy-winning Netflix series House of Cards (whose second season premieres February 14) use any means at their disposal to claw their way to the top.

Francis and Claire (a seductive Kevin Spacey and a steely Robin Wright) struck a bargain early on in their relationship, we discover. They would pursue power, defeating by force and fraud anyone who got in their way. They would be absolutely honest with one another. And they would stop at nothing to help the other reach a goal—throwing a fundraiser, talking someone into voting for a bill, or strong-arming a former friend into supporting new legislation.

As the first season opens, it has worked: Francis is the House majority whip and has the ear of the President's top adviser. Claire's environmental nonprofit is influencing corporations and politicians alike.

At first glance, House of Cards seems like the purest Machiavelli. Anyone who wants to succeed, the series seems to say, must free himself from any strict philosophical, let alone biblical, standards of right and wrong. There's just too much distance between how we ought to live and what it takes to live in reality. Instead, all we can do is build our political houses on lower, firmer ground: not on principles or convictions, but on figuring out who gets what, when, in a way that satisfies both the rulers and the ruled. Keep voters happy, keep your own power—no matter the inconvenient morals and people who fall by the wayside.

This is the hand we've been dealt, the show says. This is the way the system works. If you don't like it, stay far away.

Which is exactly what many Christians intuitively want to do. After all, if the City of Man is utterly corrupted by the Fall, the moral thing to do is to abandon it altogether. No more difficult compromises or character-testing temptations—and, for that matter, no more disappointments. Shows like House of Cards seem to confirm every cynic's worst fear and secret hope—that the world really is as corrupt as we think.

A House Divided

Yet behind House of Cards' portrait of marital ambition lies a faint clue to a better way—and a reminder of why Christians shouldn't simply give up on the world. For behind this very modern series are two much older stories: William Shakespeare's most famous plays about political power, Richard III and Macbeth.

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We're not the first to connect House of Cards to the Bard. The New Yorker's Ian Crouch described the series as "a good dose of Richard III spiced with a dash of Macbeth"—but the connection is more than stylistic. Richard and the dastardly Macbeths are indeed tyrants, but they are different types of tyrants. And much of the tension, and (inadvertent) insight, of House of Cards is of the slow unveiling of which type the Underwoods will become.

Richard III, as you may dimly remember from high school English, is a tyrant without a home. A bloody civil war between two great houses in England—Lancaster and York—has produced the ideal political environment through which he ascends.

But to Richard, politics has little to do with houses—lasting legacies of loyalty and service. It is nothing more than blind individual ambition. He literally stands apart from the other characters throughout most of the play. Certainly, he needs political associations, like marriage to Anne. But he loves no one, especially not his wife: "I'll have her; but I will not keep her long."

For a while, it works. Yet by the end of the play, still without a true house of his own and deserted by his allies, Richard is left pleading for a horse. Alone and unrepentant on the battlefield, he is killed by Richmond. And after Richard is slain, "Richmond and Elizabeth, / The true succeeders of each royal house, / By God's fair ordinance conjoin together!" Richard's ambition comes to nothing, and against all odds, the two houses are reconciled so that "peace lives again."

House of Cards is an unlikely call for those claimed by Christ to stay within the messy world of politics.

There is no hope for a house-less Richard, and there never was. This, Shakespeare says, is where individualistic power-grabbing leads: devoid of conscience, powerless, dying friendless and alone.

Macbeth is quite different. The lord is no free agent. He has a king, a wife, and a house at the beginning of his play. Macbeth has earned the title of "Thane of Cawdor" through his loyal service to Duncan. And he and Lady Macbeth (though certainly no model of godly marriage!) love and sacrifice for one another.

But seduced by the tyranny of their desires, the Macbeths kill Duncan and ascend to the throne. This is surely one reason Macbeth is the more familiar of the two plays—it reminds us that tyranny is not just for inhuman nonlovers like Richard III. Men and women, husbands and wives, who were once willing to live faithfully within a good society, can become beasts in aspiring to become gods.

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However, even as they pursue power and kill Duncan—something neither of them could have done alone—Macbeth and his wife act as each other's conscience. There's no leaving the past behind for them. Though Lady Macbeth at first says, "A little water will clear us of this deed," her continued relationship with her husband eventually convinces her—at least subliminally—that she drove him to an act from which they'll never recover. And her suicide changes Macbeth, who attempts a suicide mission of his own.

Certainly, the Macbeths' tale ends badly. Their relationship can't save them; their intentions are evil. But even in the midst of its tale of greed, murder, and punishment, Macbeth reminds us that good marriages and families temper us, challenging and redirecting our Richard-like individual ambitions. And though the Macbeths come to ruin, it's true that some impulse of love and loyalty can make for good houses and politics—something we see in those who take over from both Richard and the Macbeths.

More Than Good Drama

Christians believe that our marriages, those fragile and precarious houses, are meant to point to another family: the house that Christ is building in the church, among his brothers and sisters. The church is—or is meant to be—a place where we learn how to give up our desires for individual power, for more and more, and live for the good of all. It is the one house that can tame our ambition and greed.

House of Cards sets a story of naked political ambition—a Richard-like pursuit of individual power at any cost—in the story of a house. In their ruthless grasp for power, Claire and Francis act together, bound by love and loyalty like the Macbeths. At least at first.

But the show explicitly leads into the second season asking whether this residue of love will ultimately overcome their individual pursuit of power. As the first season ended, it seemed that the Underwoods' house, the last place in the show where someone wasn't trying to usurp something from someone else, was swaying and about to fall. Will their house be restored? Or will they be undone by their own hunger for power?

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In our age of faction, House of Cards is more than a well-made drama. It presents an unlikely call for those claimed by Christ to stay within the messy world of politics. Will we abandon our common life to the Underwoods—the Richards and Macbeths, with all their tragic ambition? Or will we return to the public square armed with a love of God and neighbor?

Of course, doing so would require us to build our house on something solid enough to stand.

David Corbin is a professor of politics at The King's College. Alissa Wilkinson is an assistant professor of English and humanities at King's and chief film critic at Christianity Today.

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House of Cards: Season 1
House of Cards: Season 1
Sony Pictures Entertainment
Buy House of Cards: Season 1 from Amazon