‘House of Cards’ Season 2: The Mystery of Claire Underwood

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Warning: this post is lousy with House of Cards Season 2 spoilers.

Francis Underwood is the scheming, amoral Richard III character at the center of House of Cards, and Kevin Spacey is the actor who has garnered the lion’s share of the show’s glory for playing him. And I will always enjoy Spacey’s performance for the unapologetic camp of it, but Frank ceased to fascinate me in Season 2. The problem is that nothing he does is surprising anymore. We have known since last season that he’ll do anything, even kill, to gain political power. Although we may not anticipate each strategic move he makes or setback he faces, his motivation never wavers, and his endgame doesn’t change.

Instead, it’s Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood who propels the show through its second season — perhaps partially because, as Michelle Dean suggested earlier this week, Wright has so gracefully molded an inconsistently written role into a complex, conflicted character. In many senses, Claire is painted as Frank’s willing partner in crime, her coldly formidable yet also seemingly earnest exterior complementing his exaggerated Southern gregariousness. (The fact that Claire cast off her Texas accent years ago underlines the artifice behind both spouses’ public image.) If we didn’t grasp her ruthlessness when she fired an entire staff without blinking an eye last season, round two kicked off with Claire blackmailing poor, pregnant Gillian into dropping her wrongful termination lawsuit and taking over as head of the Clean Water Initiative.

And while Season 1 highlighted the inevitable problems with the Underwoods’ marriage, this year hinged on a much richer exploration of how it functions at its most effective. With the couple trading mutual infidelity for intra-marital freakiness and Claire’s secret visit to the fertility clinic revealed to be a (pretty stupid) red herring, we come to understand the support and encouragement these Machiavellian schemers offer each other. Although Frank is the less conflicted of the two, it’s Claire who forces him to keep going at his most embattled moments of the season: when his loyalty tempts him to defend Freddy, when he all but gives up on regaining the president’s trust. At that moment in particular, Claire delivers a speech straight out of Lady Macbeth’s greatest hits: “Trying’s not enough, Francis,” she says. “I’ve done what I had to do. Now you do what you have to do. Seduce him. Give him your heart. Cut it out and put it in his fucking hands.”

There has been plenty of debate among critics this week over how viewers should see Claire Underwood. Is she a “feminist warrior,” as Jezebel’s Tracie Egan Morrissey writes, massaging the story of her own rape and abortion (three abortions, actually) to expose a predator and fight sexual assault in the military? Does her storyline make the show as a whole “really, refreshingly feminist,” as Amanda Marcotte argues at Slate? (“Interestingly, no anti-choicers protest or threaten Claire until after the tabloid press starts a rumor that she is an adulteress. This decision on the part of the show ends up driving home the idea that anti-abortion sentiment stems mainly from a desire to control female sexuality,” Marcotte writes. I find that theory to be quite a stretch; to me, the wingnuts’ delayed reaction seems more likely to reflect one of the House of Cards writing staff’s many oversights than some unprecedented example of subtlety on their part.) Or is The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf correct to chide feminist critics for embracing Claire, who he groups with Frank as “sociopathic” and “evil”?

As is almost always the case with “Is she/he/it feminist/good for the feminists?” arguments, both sides leave something to be desired. It’s certainly possible to be a feminist and a rotten person at the same time, and you don’t have to look far in Washington to find politicians who could fairly be both praised as the former and loathed (perhaps even incarcerated) for being the latter. A sociopath could presumably achieve great things politically, even if creating positive change is far less important to her than maintaining power. The question is, really, how important are the principles she espouses to Claire? Is she here to fight rape and defend abortion at any cost? Did her work at the Clean Water Initiative mean more to her than just the power and prestige it brought? And if all of her machinations are in the service of public aims, how can she bear to spend her life with a man who believes only in his own ambitions — one she may even realize is a murderer?

(Some critics are arguing that Claire not only knows about Zoe Barnes’ murder but encouraged it. Personally, I think the scene where she hears about it on the TV news suggests that she assumes Frank was involved and doesn’t want to think too much about it. After all, that’s how their marriage works: each protects the other, sometimes from the truth, so they can both keep pushing forward.)

What we know for sure is that Claire isn’t just a mirror image of Frank. As driven as she typically is, and as brutal as she can be, she’s more conflicted than he is. In the show’s first season, we watched her run to her old lover, Adam Galloway, temporarily recapturing the more permissive lifestyle she gave up to become one-half of a Washington power couple. And though she often comes off as even tougher than Frank in Season 2, House of Cards provides occasional proof that Claire experiences genuine emotions. We see them in her face when Jackie Sharp refuses to support her sexual assault bill. It’s clear she’s torn up about Megan’s suicide attempt. But her lowest moment comes close to the end of this season, when she’s trying to smooth things over with First Lady Patricia Walker so Frank can continue to manipulate her husband out of the presidency. “You’re a good person, Claire,” Tricia tells her. Instead of celebrating her successful deception, Claire puts down the phone and cries.

Based on two seasons of watching this character — whose trajectory doesn’t always make sense, even in the exaggerated terms of the House of Cards universe — here’s my take: Decades of marriage to Frank Underwood have made her almost as obsessed with power as he is. Certainly this says something about her natural inclinations, but I think she’s also been so close to him for so long that she’s not even conscious of the extent to which his amoral ambitiousness has rubbed off on her. Claire, I think, is deluding herself. She won’t admit to herself that enhancing her own position has become her foremost goal. Even as she’s throwing a rape survivor under the bus and backing down on the most important provisions of her sexual assault bill for political reasons, she’s telling herself that she’s working for justice.

And why has this beautiful, intelligent, capable woman let such a terrible man influence her so much? Well, because she loves him, of course. They’re not just allies or partners in crime; they really do care for each other. When Frank finds out that he’s about to pin stars on a general who raped his wife in college, he’s ready to tear that man apart. There must be something alluring for Claire in knowing that the only person Frank cares about, besides himself, is her. While it apparently takes a loyal young bodyguard to bring any physical heat to the marriage, there’s constant exhilaration in all the competition and complicity between them. In a telling moment, Claire is smoking and encourages Frank to take a puff. “It’s no fun doing it alone,” she says. That pretty much sums up their entire relationship.

Well, for now, at least. There’s a curious exchange just before Frank enters the Oval Office at the very end of the season and becomes the most powerful man in the world. He wants her to walk in with him, but she doesn’t. Perhaps Claire really does want to let him savor his achievement alone, but she also hasn’t quite been the same since that phone call with Tricia. What could be more unsettling than being called a good person by the woman whose husband’s downfall you’ve been plotting? Claire couldn’t follow Frank into the Oval Office, I think, because she’s doubting how much lower she can go with him. This is what I imagine we’ll see her struggling with in Season 3, the power and the influence and the man she loves battling her shrinking core of values and need to see herself as that “good person.” Here’s hoping it turns out better for Claire than it did for Lady Macbeth.