Warning: Spoilers for House of Cards follow. If you’re not caught up you might want to turn back before it’s too late!
Second Warning: This article briefly discusses rape and domestic abuse.
During the first season of House of Cards, Claire Underwood – the wife of the main character, Frank Underwood – is the CEO of a non-profit called the Clean Water Initiative. She is forced to fire an insubordinate employee named Gillian who turns out to be pregnant. Gillian comes after the CWI, falsely claiming she was fired because she was pregnant, smearing Claire in the process. In the first episode of the second season, this comes to a boil, as Claire finally reveals just how vicious she is in the short scene below:
House of Cards is a political drama that centers on the power hungry Frank Underwood and his vicious schemes to weasel his way into the White House, eventually managing to capture the presidency itself. While one might be forgiven for thinking that he was the most powerful character on the show (he is the main character, after all), I would like to argue in favor of his wife – Claire Underwood – being the show’s residential powerhouse.
Threatening to kill a woman’s child while it’s still in the womb is brutal, to be sure, but Claire was clearly making an empty threat. Her true intention was to place a worthy successor in her stead as she left the CWI to join Frank in the White House when he became vice president. In this moment she simultaneously subdues and empowers Gillian. She had no real desire to harm her, and instead sought to leave a capable woman with a dream job. This is a brilliant move and it reveals that Claire isn’t as unfeeling as some of her other actions might suggest. She has the capacity to care for her fellow woman, but at the same time she allows no one to make her weak.
Claire was never a minor character in the first season, but as the second season went on her significance grew even more. Her major goal became spreading rape awareness, which she initiated live on national television by outing a man who raped her in college, after first admitting to having had an abortion from said rape. It’s worth noting that the pregnancy she aborted was actually the result of consensual sex with Frank, but the lie she told was done in service of punishing a man who was a lifelong serial rapist.
After standing tall in the second season and campaigning for stricter anti-rape laws, it seemed that Claire was only going to become more of a power player in the series, but the third season did something unexpected: it made her dependent upon Frank, who was finally the president after he manipulated the sitting president into resigning. She practically has to beg Frank to help her become the United States’ ambassador to the UN, and Frank eventually forces her to resign at the behest of the President of Russia. Claire loses everything and Frank barely bothers to talk to her about it.
But Frank still needs Claire because his constituents love her, so Claire stumps for him, going from speech to speech endorsing her husband for a second term. In the season finale, it all becomes too much as Claire no longer wants to campaign for someone who doesn’t care about her aspirations in life. Frank responds by grabbing her by the jaw and telling her that she is nothing without him, ordering her to fall in line and do as told.
What Claire does next is inspiring, as when Frank comes to collect her the following morning, she confidently strides out the door and says that she’s leaving him.
In the end, Frank needed Claire more than Claire needed him—which was not at all. The second he became abusive she walked away. She gave up her life in the White House and left it all behind because she knew that nothing was worth allowing someone to control her and abuse her. Without her, Frank has no hope of winning a second term in office, and everything he’s ever worked for falls apart.
We need more characters like Claire Underwood; more strong women who won’t take crap from anyone, even if that person is both their husband and the president of the United States of America. Sure, not everything she does is admirable, and she can be ruthless at times, but – as is often the case with House of Cards – it is hard not to admire the power she wields.