Warning: This post contains spoilers about season three of House of Cards.
One of the biggest complaints about the third season of House of Cards is the slow build up to real drama. This is a reasonable concern to have; Frank is now President, and he can’t run freely around Washington to pit people against each other or push people in front of trains. While we can’t make the claim that the presidency pushes him in a more moral direction, his more malicious actions are definitely hindered by his title.While this makes for a slow start to the series, it isn’t necessarily unexpected. He’s President of the United States. After all of his scheming, he will eventually have to govern.
But my confusion with this season wasn’t really with the slow development of the storylines and the somewhat muddled plot. My confusion settled on the shoulders of Claire Underwood and the development of her character.
The impression we’re supposed to get after the first season is that Claire was politically savvy and loves her husband, though their relationship appeares to be more out of an agreed partnership and mutual affection rather than a deep and abiding love. She was cut-throat if she needed to be, but it appeared that there was something deeper lurking beneath the surface, though viewers could never tell if it was remorse or something more dangerous like the vengeance that drove Frank. The question of the true nature of her character continued into season two, where we continued to get more glimpses about her past, and more instances of something darker began to surface. For example, I remember my jaw dropping when she told Gillian Cole that she would “let her child wither and die inside her” if it was what the situation required. It became immediately clear that Claire had a bite to her, and her teeth were razor sharp.
While season two did give us a better understanding of Claire’s character, it also confused me about the true depth of her ambition and cold nature. We start to see that past events, like a sexual assault and numerous abortions, may have helped mold her into the cool and conniving woman that she is, but the show went beyond that, trying to balance the view of the calculated, devoted political wife with the vengeful liar and manipulator.
That’s where things start to get muddled.
In season two, Claire’s main political focus involves a bill regarding sexual assault in the military. It’s a hot-button issue that the show tried to address in broad strokes, not-so-subtly referencing the very real issue in the U.S. military. For Claire, the matter was slightly more personal, as she had been a victim of sexual assault. While normally this would have been an automatic way to make the character more endearing and understandable to us, the topic was quickly mutated, expanding into series of lies about Claire’s abortions in an effort to throw off an interview. While the sexual assault is later addressed in a more private moment that does make Claire more likable, the audience is still kept at arms length, knowing that the event is being used as political fodder for the Underwoods.
Knowing that, it makes Claire’s breakdown on the stairs at the end of the season seem somewhat out of character, as if the visage of the cold, heartless women was breaking in front of us, making her seem like a different character. We don’t get a distinct explanation for what truly upset Claire, beyond her seeing Megan in her depressed state. But because Claire doesn’t stop in the middle of the action and address the audience like her husband does, we are left wondering what she is thinking and what her true motivations are.
But then starting the third season, the event is never mentioned. Towards the end of second season, I got the impression that the Underwoods were drifting apart, and that Claire was beginning to resent Frank because of the issues she faced after the failure of the sexual assault bill. Instead, the Underwoods appeared to be united until the issue of Claire’s role as an ambassador in the U.N. came up.
We know that Claire is driven. That’s been clear from the beginning. We know that she is cutthroat, and the first season showed us that, while the Underwoods may not have been romantically linked, they were a united front and helped each other in their political aims.
But all of that was thrown out the window in the third season.
I never viewed the Underwoods as being physically intimate, seeing as Frank had an affair with Zoe, and had expressed homosexual tendencies with his college friend. Claire ran away to New York to be with Adam Galloway, a man she truly seemed to care about. The closest we got to addressing their marital situation as the threesome with Meechum (rolls right off the tongue), the Secret Service Agent. So it was strange seeing them having sex in the first episode of the season. In greater terms, it seemed to address a bigger power play, where Claire was taking care of Frank when he needed her help, showing us that Claire was firmly in control of the situation and of her husband, regardless of his political power.
Claire’s control seemed to be the theme of the third season, and it eventually leads to her undoing. She starts the season with a bid to become a U.N. Ambassador, which falls through due to an outburst during the hearing. However, when she asks Frank for help, he makes her an ambassador anyway, and after expressing her gratitude, she immediately vomits in the kitchen sink, making the viewer wonder what the hell is going on inside her head.
Later in the season it becomes clear that Claire’s vomiting spree was brought on by her disgust in asking her husband for help, which seems completely out of character for her. Since the beginning, the Underwoods were a united team. Yes, Frank had the title and the office, but he worked with Claire every step of the way, and she appeared to do the same for him. In the third season, they alter the dynamic, where it appears that Claire thought she had really been holding the reins, but she still gave Frank the impression that he was in charge. When the roles were reversed, she was physically sick when she needed to ask for help. It was a dramatic and, for me, uncharacteristic change.
The thing is, her behavior doesn’t fit with the other two seasons, seeing as she’d asked for help previous times and didn’t seem to have too much trouble dealing with the repercussions. Plus, her qualms about Frank’s presidency don’t seem very valid, considering she’s still plenty powerful with her husband running the country. She went from being ambitious to being completely power hungry, and in doing so she turned against one of her strongest allies. Forget feminism and equal footing; Claire wanted complete control of everything. Sure, the marital issues were valid, but beyond that, Claire’s actions seem rash and out of character for her, based on the previous seasons. After all, she was fine working in jobs that were drastically less important than her husbands up until this point.
I understand that House of Cards is about Frank Underwood, but this season, Claire was undeniably the most interesting character on the screen. Because of that, it was very frustrating to see her character go through such drastic and unreasonable changes, transforming her from Frank’s ambitious counterpart into his worst enemy over the course of a few episodes.
Of course there is an overarching point to the rift between Claire and Frank, and if the American version of House of Cards is anything like its British counterpart, then Frank’s meticulously crafted house of cards is about to come crumbling down, and it might be all Claire’s doing, whether it makes sense for her character or not.