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Has House of Cards’ Claire Underwood Always Been a Sociopath?

on November 06, 2018, 12:29pm

A friend commented on my Facebook page last week: “I will be impressed if they can pull off Season 6 without the main man.”

But Kevin Spacey’s unceremonious ouster from Netflix’s flagship show elicited nothing more than a shrug from me. Let’s be honest: Frank Underwood’s shock value wore off shortly after reporter Zoe Barnes fell under a subway car. He hasn’t been interesting for years. Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), though…

[Read: Season 6 of House of Cards Hinges on Claire Underwoods’ Approval Ratings]

In Season 6, Seth Grayson, the Underwoods’ former press secretary, says you always knew where you stood with Frank — but not with Claire. That’s exactly why she’s fascinating. We always knew Frank was remorseless, but Claire, until recently, always had these hints of humanity poking through her frosty exterior.

House of Cards, Netflix

House of Cards, Netflix

I’ve been fixated on Claire since a very specific episode: Season 3, Episode 6. Claire, in her new role as UN Ambassador, is trying to get Michael Corrigan, a gay-rights activist being held in a Russian prison, to take a plea that will ensure his freedom. Corrigan, however, is unwilling to sign a statement that relieves Russia of any responsibility in how it treats the LGBT community. Instead, he hangs himself in his cell. In response, Claire Underwood hijacks the mic at a press conference and condemns Russian President Viktor Petrov for the activist’s death. She had had some intimate conversations about values and relationships with Corrigan. She respected him. As she tells Frank in a heated squabble later, “He had more courage than you’ll ever have.” How do we reconcile this Claire with the ruthless killer of Seasons 5 and 6? Well, let’s start from the beginning.

Season 1: A Primer in Suppressing Emotion

House of Cards, Netflix

House of Cards, Netflix

Claire’s Notable Cutthroat Accomplishments:

— Forces her office manager, Evelyn, to fire 18 of her nonprofit’s employees, then letting Evelyn know she’s being let go as well.
— Breaks up with photographer and longtime fling Adam Galloway oh so delicately: “No. What I chose was a man I could love for more than a week.”
— Cuts off former employee Gillian Cole’s health insurance, despite knowing that she’s pregnant and can’t afford private insurance.

Despite the aforementioned list of accomplishments, Season 1 Claire could in no way be deemed a sociopath. There are too many moments when the veneer breaks. Instead, we find a woman who seems relatively new to the big leagues (while she’s the director of the growing nonprofit The Clean Water Initiative, one gets the impression that the Underwoods are new to this game of having Claire’s work feel at times as important as Frank’s). She’s learning what kind of leader she wants to be — and for the most part that means focusing on the bottom line, even if that means firing half her staff to even the books.

Fair enough. Plenty of male execs act the same way. But to a degree, she’s faking it until she makes it. When she orders a coffee from Starbucks, she’s clearly reflecting on how her former employee Evelyn is probably doomed to this kind of mundane work. Who hires a 59-year-old? She gives money to a homeless guy. And she actually cries (!) when she thinks about Peter Russo’s orphaned kids. But she knows emotion is a hindrance, not a virtue, so when push comes to shove, she fires her staff and returns from her fling with Adam Galloway when Frank needs her by his side to maneuver the tricky cover-up of Peter Russo’s murder. And no one can forget the line she spouts out at former employee Gillian Cole when she cuts off the soon-to-be mom’s healthcare: “I am willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required. Now tell me, am I the sort of enemy you want to make?”

Season 2: A Primer in Manipulation

House of Cards, Netflix

House of Cards, Netflix

Claire’s Notable Cutthroat Accomplishments:

— Outs General Dalton McGinnis as a rapist on national TV. It’s unclear if he actually got her pregnant or if she’s using him as a scapegoat to rationalize her abortion (it’s usually political suicide for the wife of a Southern Congressman to get an abortion).
— Encourages rape survivor Private Megan Hennessey to go public about her own sexual assault, even though the young woman is clearly not emotionally stable enough to be doing so. But Claire has a cause now, and people are just pawns.
— Backstabs ex-boyfriend Adam Galloway by asking him to say he didn’t take a nude picture of her that surfaces (he did), without telling him she plans to say he did take it (the story would be too clean otherwise, she explains). His career and privacy are placed into jeopardy as the Underwoods make him out to be an attention-seeking opportunist.

The stakes are higher for the Underwoods in Season 2. Frank ascends first to the vice presidency and then to the presidency. Claire still occasionally lets our glimpses of emotion (in Episode 2, at a ceremony for General Dalton McGinnis, a man who raped Claire in high school, she retreats to the bathroom to cry), but for the most part she’s focused on the same goal as her husband: getting to the Oval Office — and any person in the way can be damned.

A few other strong female characters arise this season, notably Congresswoman Jackie Sharpe, who replaces Frank as House Whip, and Special Prosecutor Heather Dunbar. Sharpe is an interesting counterpoint to Claire because she demonstrates what a cutthroat businesswoman sans sociopathic tendencies might actually look like. While Jackie’s acceptance of House Whip hinges on her willingness to tell her mentor/father-figure, Ted Havermeyer, he must resign (which she does without shedding a tear), that’s not exactly the same as wishing death to a soon-to-be mother’s unborn fetus. Both women are willing to stand up to disrespectful men, but only one is willing to destroy the life of anyone in her way.

Most notably, however, Season 2 is flooded with examples of Claire manipulating everyone around her: a rape survivor, President Walker’s wife (“Why not get counseling? No one would ever find out.”), ex-boyfriend Adam Galloway (can you tell the media you didn’t take this damning photo of me, so I can turn around and make you look like a money-hungry liar), and even an impressionable, young rape victim. But it works. Frank does knock his knuckles on the Oval Office desk by the end of the season — it’s now his desk.

Season 3: A Primer in Power

House of Cards, Netflix

House of Cards, Netflix

Claire’s Notable Cutthroat Accomplishments:

–Jeopardizes a nuclear deal between Frank and Russian President Viktor Petrov by condemning the Russian leader to his face on national TV.
— Uses her mom’s cancer as an excuse for why she’s not on the campaign trail with Frank. In truth, she had previously been estranged from her mom and is just in Texas because she wants to run for Congress.

Now the comparisons to Hillary Clinton begin, if they hadn’t already — not because HRC is a sociopath, but because she, like Claire Underwood, started as First Lady then demonstrated loftier political ambitions. Shortly after Frank takes the oath of office for the presidency, Claire expresses interest (more like demands) in becoming UN Ambassador. Not unlike recent Supreme Court nominee (and now sitting justice) Brett Kavanaugh, Claire loses her cool in her nomination hearings. Sure, basically everything either Underwood says in public is a lie, but apparently Claire’s ability to feign patience still has a threshold. One can only imagine how well she’d fair at the Benghazi hearings.

This is also the season, as discussed in this article’s intro, where she learns to empathize with LGBT activist Michael Corrigan. Empathy is sort of the antithesis of sociopathy, so our fair-haired protagonist can’t be too far gone yet. But there’s something telling about the argument that erupts out of the whole Russian fiasco (Claire telling off the Russian president isn’t necessarily good for international affairs). Frank yells. Claire yells. And then Frank more or less lays out the Underwood moral philosophy for us:

Frank: He (activist Michael Corrigan) was a coward, and I’m glad he’s dead.
Claire: He had more courage than you’ll ever have.
Frank: Do you want to discuss courage, Claire? Because anyone can commit suicide or spout their mouth in front of a camera. But you want to know what takes real courage? Keeping your mouth shut, no matter what you might be feeling. Holding it all together when the stakes are this high.

She never makes the same “mistake” again.

Season 4: A Primer in Self-Reliance

House of Cards, Netflix

House of Cards, Netflix

Claire’s Notable Cutthroat Accomplishments:

— Tells an elderly Black Congresswoman that her daughter, who has been waiting a decade for her seat, can wait — Claire is going to be taking her seat, thank you.
— Sabotages Frank’s primary in Iowa by leaking a photograph of his father with the KKK.
— Lets Frank’s VP, Donald Blythe, think she’s helping him handle Petrov when he has to takeover after Frank is shot. But really we know she’s just too happy to be pulling the strings.

It’s in Season 5 that the idea of Claire Underwood as president first gets planted in our minds. Frank, perhaps like the Clintons, has the disadvantage of being in politics for decades. In that time, his corruption has been fodder for the media — well those journalists Frank hasn’t pushed off a subway platform. But Claire is fresh-faced and new to politics. Her popularity is much higher. And she seems agile and capable: When Frank takes a bullet (an assassination attempt by another one of those pesky journalists), she more or less becomes Dick Cheney and runs the White House by whispering her wishes into acting-President Donald Blythe’s ear.

In the B plot to the season, acclaimed author Tom Yates has been brought on to write a celebratory book about Frank’s hallmark presidential achievement, the jobs program America Works. But Yates knows the American people don’t want to read about issues — they want to see their leaders as people. He starts to chip away at Claire’s hard exterior. He’s not always successful, however. When he writes a convention speech for her, she leaves out the part about love. “Why?” he asks. “That’s the best part.” Claire is honest for maybe the last time:

Claire: Saying that paragraph about love made me uncomfortable.
Tom: Saying you love Francis?
Claire: I do love him.
Tom: Then what made you uncomfortable?
Claire: Saying it in front of you.

After an impressively cutthroat Season 3, it looked like Tom Yates just might remind Claire what it feels like to be human. He reminded her that she had her own dreams separate from Frank. He called her out when she was giving a canned response. Maybe it was all too little too late. Or maybe a deadlock election — one that Frank eventually needs to rig — is enough to refocus her attention on what really matters: staying on top.

Season 5: A Primer in Ruthlessness

House of Cards, Netflix

House of Cards, Netflix

Claire’s Notable Cutthroat Accomplishments:
— RIP Tom Yates.
— She lets VP Donald Blythe know what she really thinks: “You’re a fool, Donald. You always were. You and your dumb dead wife that you never, ever shut up about.”
— After becoming acting president, she dodges Frank’s pleas for a presidential pardon. She’s clearly less interesting in saving his skin than embracing her newfound power. The season ends with her turning to the camera and deadpanning, “My turn.”

The glimpses of humanity found in the former seasons are now left in the past. Her surrounding colleagues are just as surprised as we are. Doug Stamper expects an ally in Claire and learns they may not necessarily share the same allegiances. And when ex-boyfriend Tom Yates refuses to back down from his no-secrets-withheld biography on the Underwoods, she knows what needs to be done. Frank’s no longer the only murderer.

What’s particularly sick about Tom Yates’ murder, is while cause of death is technically poison, she then proceeds to have sex with him, almost as if she’d like nothing more to stare directly into his eyes as it dawns on him that he’s asphyxiating. That’s some fucked-up shit, Claire. But still, one can sort-of kind-of rationalize the inevitability of Tom’s death. After all she’s put up with. After all of her and Frank’s work. Is she going to let a novelist-turned-essayist expose their carefully built house of cards? Hell no. Her murder of Tom Yates is still a little more rational than the reasoning of Frank’s long list of victims. Zoe Barnes? She wasn’t going to expose everything (yet); she was just annoying him. Peter Russo? Not a good gubernatorial candidate, but not necessarily a threat. Rachel Posner? For the love of God, the girl just wanted to be left alone. Tom Yates was actually someone who could put the Underwoods behind bars. And so we start season 6 with a weighty question: Does Tom Yates’ murder prove Claire’s conscience is gone?

Season 6: A Primer in Hollowness

House of Cards, Netflix

House of Cards, Netflix

Claire’s Notable Cutthroat Accomplishments:
— One … two … three … four dead bodies?

I’m going to give it to you straight: I was disappointed with Season 6. Last fall when Kevin Spacey was outed as a sexual predator and axed from the show, many online commentators shrugged. “Is that show still on” was a refrain from some. “How will they finish the show without him?” others asked. But for avid viewers, it was obvious that Robin Wright was almost perfectly primed to take over anyway. Hell, in the Season 5 finale, Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade (wow that’s a mouthful) Jane Davis even suggests to Claire there may be ways to off Frank. She says it casually, like it’s just a thing to keep in mind. I wanted to see how Claire would ascend to power. Her character was so complex, and Robin Wright’s performance was so masterful that the dedicated viewer knew Claire Underwood deserved to be the centerpiece of Season 6.

Unfortunately, what we get (and I’m purposefully trying to keep things vague for late viewers) is a one-dimensional Claire Underwood for the first time. She tells the camera in the season premiere that she’s going to be honest, but one gets the feeling the last time she was ever honest was in that Season 4 dialogue with Tom Yates — the one where she hinted that she loved him. The writers give us this archetype, an older version of the woman Taylor Swift plays in her video for “Look What You Made Me Do”. She will do anything to be the last (wo)man standing. But while Zoe Barnes’ death in Season 2 was shocking (gasp! Remember when it was surprising for a show to kill off a main character), when the corpses stack up, each death means less and less. And it becomes less and less interesting to try to understand the mind behind the violence.

Season 6 Claire is ruthless but predictable — and that makes her less enjoyable to watch. Despite the feeling of being let down (I kind of always expected her humanity to ultimately win), maybe this is the real natural progression of things. I’m reminded of something the political commentators at Pod Save America say every single time Trump or his family tell another lie. “They’ve lied so much they’ve started to believe their own lies.” Maybe that was Claire Hale Underwood’s fate. She was so good at faking the role of a sociopath that she ultimately became one.

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