WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS THROUGHOUT! READ AT YOUR OWN PERIL! House of Cards is an amazing piece of work, not only for the high quality acting, writing, and directing, but for how it is able to undermine the moral certainties of the viewers. Our main characters, Washington power couple Francis and Claire Underwood, are objectively evil people, manipulating innocents, destroying careers, and even taking lives for the sole purpose of achieving personal power and taking revenge on those who slighted them in the past. And we freaking love them for it. How the hell does that happen? A large part of the characters’ appeal, I’d posit, is the setting. Politicians are widely considered to be the lowest form of power-grubbing scum on the planet (running neck and neck with CEOs and Industrialists – and oh, yeah, serial killers, rapists, and child molesters), but at the same time, America loves winners, and Frank Underwood is the best there is at what he does. There’s a vicarious thrill in watching a man considered an underdog in the opening episodes of Season One, fight and claw his way to the presidency over two seasons with a calculated coolness that would make the Macbeth family jealous. However, he didn’t do it alone. His two closest allies over the first two seasons are his wife, Claire, and his Chief of Staff Doug Stamper. Doug has worked behind the scenes, organizing support and making sure that political obstacles are swept out of the way, playing a vital role in Francis’s rise to power. But the relationship that grounded the first two seasons and made viewers sit up and take notice, was between Francis and Claire. Their marriage was unlike any on television, with both husband and wife living independently while staying intimately aware of each other’s lives, lovers, schemes, and power plays. Hand-in-hand, they ravaged their opponents, mercilessly sacrificed their allies when necessary, and then shared a cigarette afterward. Their marriage elevated what could have been simple political melodrama into something of virtually Shakespearean proportion. From the very beginning, Claire has been written and portrayed as Francis’s equal partner. Narratively, they both have had setbacks in their attempts to win power at any cost, but by rallying together they ultimately overcome these stumbles, showing enough weakness to engage the audience and then amping up their strengths to thrill us with their victories. They are always weaker when apart and unstoppable when together. Now, with the third season available for binging on Netflix, there has been a change; something fundamental to the series has shifted. With Francis in the White House, the political spotlight is solely on him. Claire has been pushed to the background almost as a matter of policy. As President Underwood bluntly states, “There’s only one chair” behind the President’s desk. Because of this, Claire is essentially relegated to the role of cheerleader, suddenly powerless and adrift, and the series suffers along with her. Desperately scrambling to maintain his own power, Francis is focusing only on his own agenda and his attempt to extend his legacy beyond his role as a fill-in president. The emotional distance between the couple is presented symbolically by Claire’s move to a separate bedroom – initially ostensibly because of a cold – which essentially puts a wall up between them, weakening their power and undermining their trust. By scripting this as a deliberate choice on Claire’s part, the writers place the onus of blame for their fragmentation mostly on Claire. Thematically we can rationalize and understand that both of them are responsible for the growing separation, but since television is a visual medium – along with the fact that we’ve jumped ahead chronologically six months into Francis’s presidency – we don’t witness Francis part in this, and instead are presented immediately with a separation initiated by Claire for reasons not overtly shared with her husband, leaving him in the dark as to her motivations. Season Three’s “Claire Problem” continues when she decides that in order to begin bolstering her own possible political future she wants to become the United States’ UN Ambassador, despite having no real political experience. Francis passively supports her decision but can’t do anything to really help her get the confirmation. And when Republican Congressman Hector Mendoza challenges her, twisting her words against her, instead of demonstrating the strength we’ve come to expect, Claire becomes flustered, panics, and is ultimately not confirmed for the position. Her failure is placed squarely on her own shoulders as a failure of temperament and she is forced to convince her husband to name her the UN Ambassador during recess, bypassing the congressional approval. This character, who has always been able and willing to achieve her goals on her own is forced by the narrative to be gifted a position of political power by her husband. A move that not only places her in a weakened position, but undermines the President’s standing as well. Suddenly Claire is a problem, rather than a partner. Her presence also undermines the authority of Secretary of State Catherine Durant and when Russian president Viktor Petrov uses Claire’s inexperience and naiveté to not only scuttle the Middle East Peacekeeping mission that Claire had championed, but manipulates her into weakening the US’s negotiations for a full Russian pull out. Because of her mishandling of the political situation, Russia ends the day in a much stronger place, with a negotiated stepdown in defensive missile sites throughout Eastern Europe — which was Petrov’s ultimate goal from the beginning. And as part of the deal to pull out of the Middle East, Petrov demands Claire be removed from her position as UN Ambassador. Again, the writers have opted to place her in a position of weakness from which there is no extricating herself. Essentially Claire’s entire time as an Ambassador — a position given to her by her husband — is used as a plot device to undermine her power and authority. Instead of the brilliant, calculating woman she was in the first two seasons, she is at best useless at the UN, and at worse, dangerous to world peace. At this point, Claire is thrust back into her previous support role, essentially playing cheerleader for Francis as he makes a bid to become the Democratic Presidential candidate for the next election. As with previous seasons, we see that she is very good at this, but in those previous seasons, she also maintained her own independence in both her work and personal relationships. This time around, she has nothing else but this. One could argue that the writers had to get her out of the UN position so she could be there for Francis on the campaign trail, but that’s glossing over the fact that they humiliated and depowered her in doing so. But for the sake of argument, let’s put that aside for a moment and take a look at where she ends up at the end of this shift in her position. And to do that we have to take a look at where Doug has ended up. In Season Two it was revealed that Claire had had three abortions — she admitted to having one, claiming it was after her rape, when it wasn’t. The only evidence of this was a journal with all the details. It was a juicy plot point and was used to dramatic effect to place the couple in jeopardy, not to diminish Claire but to threaten the couple’s ascension to the White House. At the end of that storyline, Doug was tasked with destroying the journal. For some reason, he didn’t. Season Three begins with Doug surviving the murder attempt by Rachel Posner and spending an extended time in rehab as he struggles to regain his position in Frank’s cabinet as Chief of Staff. When Frank refuses to bring him back, claiming it is for Doug’s own good, Doug sells his services to Frank’s political rival Heather Dunbar, ultimately showing her the journal and asking for a huge payday to turn it over. He essentially dangles Claire’s abortions under Dunbar’s nose as bait, and when she finally bites, he pulls back, returns the journal to Frank, and uses it as proof of his loyalty and gets himself reinstated. It allows his character to have a redemptive arc where, as in previous seasons, the characters struggle through pitfall after pitfall, both internal and external, to triumph in the end thanks to their own fortitude. But once again, Claire’s is used as a point of vulnerability solely for the purpose of elevating the position of another character. This time, at least, it was for Doug rather than Petrov. Claire is entirely powerless in the situation and isn’t even a part of the discussion to rehire Doug. She is completely shut out of the narrative, except when shown having panic attacks or expressing justified, but pointless, anger at both Doug and Francis. Her position as powerless cheerleader is cemented by her submission to focus groups telling her what hair color and cut to have and by literally going door-to-door to campaign for her husband. It is during one of these campaign stops that she is brought face-to-face with a white trash alternate-reality version of herself who rambles on about her husband’s indiscretions, her own affairs, and then fantasizes about smothering her own baby. It’s about as obvious a slap in the face as you could provide at this point in the story. Then the woman declares that if she were like Claire, she’d start over and leave all of the pain and humiliation and weakness behind. Drawing on this experience, Claire then abandons the campaign – and Francis – as the season draws to a close. This fracturing of the marriage forces the fact that Francis has effectively won the Democratic nomination (after a win in Iowa) into the background, driving home the shift this season from Shakespeare-inspired political epic to simple relationship drama. There’s an argument to be made that this entire season has been devoted to using Claire as an avatar to explore the inherent sexism of American politics, shoving her violently into her place in stark contrast with how the character has been written during the first two seasons; that by ending the season with the collapse of the Underwood marriage, the already promised and planned Fourth Season could be devoted to Claire’s redemption. It’s a theory, but not one we can verify. We can only hope. When we look at the other female characters, though, something a little more distasteful becomes obvious. While one could argue that all of the characters are horrible – falling back on that politician stereotype I mentioned at the start – the male protagonists are, to a man, successful in their plottings and development. Francis loses his wife, but wins the nomination (and establishes a successful jobs program that aims for 100% employment); Doug struggles with alcoholism and his injuries, but overcomes it all to regain his Chief of Staff position at Frank’s right hand; even Remy, after a brush with law enforcement finds within himself the strength to leave politics behind completely. The only men who suffer setbacks are the writer, Thomas Yates, who has his book cancelled – but who has, in the process, found his voice for the first time in years, and the hacker, Gavin Orsay, who suffers a beating at Doug’s hands but is left alive and free in Venezuela. The women of House of Cards don’t fare as well. Jackie Sharp attempts to maintain some semblance of independence, even going so far as to confront Francis about the terms of their working relationship – to which she is shouted into submission, cowed into doing the President’s bidding at the cost of her own political future — and the respect of her family. When she does then ultimately rebel, the cause is already lost. And as if to rub salt in the wounds, the writers then have her cheat on her husband with Remy (Remy is unattached and avoids the stigma of betraying a spouse and children). It’s as though the writers couldn’t quite leave her with even the slightest hint of honor after she abandons Francis and throws in her lot with Dunbar — who began as perhaps the most noble, honorable character to ever be introduced to the show. But once Dunbar gets the scent of the Presidency, she changes; the process of striving for power corrupts her until she is willing to use Clair’s secret abortions as a weapon against Frank. When she earlier refused this option, she swore she wouldn’t do something like that to another woman, but lowers herself into the muck when she becomes desperate for power – becoming as Frank says, “one of the men, smoking cigars in the back rooms.” The only other woman who plays a pivotal role in the story is the ex-prostitute, Rachel. After trying to better herself, helping new friends achieve goals they never thought they could, and raising the money to buy herself a new identity so she can start over fresh, she finds herself tied up in the back of Doug’s van, piss-covered and begging for her life. She ends up buried in an unmarked grave in the desert with nobody the wiser. For me, the relationship between Francis and Claire was the buttress to their political ambitions and revenge. It was what elevated the story into something grander than just watching horrible people do horrible things to each other for horrible reasons. If the tearing down of Claire was done solely for the purpose of creating melodrama before possibly building her back up over Season Four, then this season’s problems might possibly be worth the potential damage to the character. All we have right now, though, is a Claire abused, debased, and alone. Somehow we went from House of Cards giving us a redeemed Lady Macbeth to an ill-suited attempt to force Claire into the role of Nora from A Doll’s House. And spreading this character arc over two seasons is problematic structurally, with the possible value of the fall before the rise only being realized in retrospect. Maybe that’s just one of the hazards of the new Netflix model of dropping an entire season at once. Maybe the coherence of the seasons are not valued as highly since in a year the entire saga will be available to binge through. That still doesn’t alter the ways in which all of the women of Season Three are degraded, sacrificed, and tossed away. I highly doubt that Claire is going to become a Christ-figure falling and rising in the name of all the women in the story. And to be honest, nothing done this season gives me much hope for salvaging the narrative through-line. I’m afraid that the writers’ Claire Problem is really a Woman Problem that House of Cards may not be able to fix. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 3 Responses LauraAkers March 20, 2015 Love. Log in to Reply House of Cards Season 4: Claire Reclaims the Throne - Psycho Drive-In March 12, 2016 […] One brilliant writer explicated this female subjugation in, Does House of Cards S3 have a Claire Problem or a Woman Problem? […] Log in to Reply Hunt or be Hunted: House of Cards Season Five - Psycho Drive-In June 8, 2017 […] were to the show’s characters and plot lines. As one brilliant writer reminded us in this season three review, “As President Underwood bluntly states, ‘There’s only one chair’ behind the President’s […] Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.