The Reign of Claire Hale Underwood

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in Season 6 of House of Cards.

Claire Hale Underwood. Despite her defining flaws, she is utterly and gloriously powerful and, to be quite frank, it is beautiful. Her cold, absolutely terrifying, deeply penetrative gazes stare straight through the screen and into the soul. Her measured and assured manner of speaking leaves no room for questions. Her viper-like perceptiveness strikes in any given situation. All of it advantageously making her a dynamic, effective, authoritative, and compelling character and leader. Since the beginning of House of Cards, I have been enthralled by Claire (Robin Wright). She is so unbelievably complex and so unique from pretty much any other female character I have seen in film or television. Thus, I have studied her. Every episode, my attention has been immediately and totally drawn to her and nearly only her; she is absolutely fascinating. I would like to say at this point Claire, and I know each other fairly well, so let us begin.

Season 5 left us with maybe my favorite moment in television history. Claire stands in a dimly lit oval office as Francis looks down on the White House from his room at the Hay-Adams. Claire’s phone rings, it reads ‘Francis Underwood’. She declines and, breaking the 4th wall, says in perfect Claire Underwood fashion “my turn.” It is indeed her turn, and President Claire Hale Underwood is a sight to behold, not just because she is a remarkable character, but because she is a woman. Women inherently understand and interact with the world differently. Her womanhood brings me to my point of discussion in this piece: House of Cards through a female perspective. The female perspective here is both Claire as sitting President of the United States and the lens through which I view House of Cards. As Claire so eloquently states: “the reign of the middle-aged white man is over.”

Wright as Claire Underwood

This season—I am definitely biased—is the best season of House of Cards yet and the perfect way to sign off the show. The unique struggles that a woman in the position of President faces; the primary conflict between three powerful women: Claire, Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson), and Annette Shepherd (Diane Lane); the unresolved death of former President Francis Underwood; and our average day-to-day political drama including murder, Russian politics, assassination attempts, threats, thinly veiled hatred, lying and the works. Wright is a pure masterclass in acting as usual, and both Clarkson and Lane add their incredible talent to the mix. Such powerful and instinctively good performances from such wonderful women only serve to enhance this final season.

“I’m not trying to do anything except be the sitting President of the United States.”

Back to Claire herself. Thus far she has primarily pulled the strings from behind the wings. Now she is front and center, although that certainly does not mean every move she makes is suddenly revealed to the public eye. Claire rarely shows emotion; she is incredibly restrained and guarded. You can see her thinking about everything she says or does before she does it. She is meticulous, calculating and manipulative, so much so that she uses her own acting ability against those around her. Faking emotions and panic to set them on the course she wants—we know it isn’t real because she breaks the 4th wall to tell us as much. She pulls the façade of a mental breakdown to throw off her Vice President Mark Usher as well as the Shepherd family and general public. We see her process in creating this image—eye drops and mascara, curling up on the couch, making her voice shaky and composure weak. It works like a charm, and she gets exactly what she desires.

Regardless of how much most of the other characters despise her, they respect her strength, composure, and sharp intellect. She commands honor and reverence in any room she steps into, even if the other players in her political game have no qualms against trashing her behind her back. Even when Francis was President, Claire gained more respect from other leaders and the general public than Francis ever truly had. Russian President Petrov—who always prefers to make deals with her, even when Francis was sitting president—says to her, “maybe you are a gangster.”

Claire in the Oval Office.

The most interesting relationship on the show this season was that of Claire Underwood and Annette Shepherd. Their twisted friendship runs deep and far back. Schoolgirls together, they share a multitude of teenage memories and experiences, ones which ultimately shaped their lives. Yet, they fight on opposing sides of the political war. Absolute and total enemies. Polar opposites. They grasp hands and mutter threats through gritted teeth and faux smiles. Every move they make is subtle and bathed in a layer of false pretenses to present to the public eye. The volume of their interactions toward each other very plainly reflects the historical silencing of women. Even while threatening each other with political destruction, they do it quietly and almost eerily politely. Another interesting point to mention is Annette’s adamant unwillingness to weaponize Claire’s three past abortions against her, despite being encouraged to do so by the men around her. Annette sees an un-crossable line which the men do not; she sees this because as a woman she understands that is not something to throw in Claire’s face as a tool of her destruction. 

The other fascinating relationship of this season is that of Claire and Jane Davis. The quick-witted, genius-minded Davis in herself is a vastly captivating character; pair her with Claire and you have the duo of a lifetime. They both have some similar understanding of what it means for them to be women in positions of great power and communicate that joint understanding multiple times. Additionally, they share a distaste for the way their male counterparts, and society as a whole, view women. This frustration is displayed when Jane says, “I’m tired of the disposable girl story.” I am in no way saying that House of Cards is an intentionally feminist piece of media; however, it becomes such inherently in this final season by telling the story through the eyes of these women. And perhaps not ironically, this season is telling a disposable male story by moving on from Francis. I also feel obligated to mention the—sometimes quite obvious—gay subtext of Claire and Jane’s relationship. They have a strangely casual intimacy, deep fascination with each other and intensely held gazes which make you wonder the true nature of their current or past relationship.

Jane Davis watching Claire Underwood.

With a woman in office, the way things work is much different, with little tolerance for misogyny, especially once Claire establishes an all-female cabinet. There is a brief segment where a female reporter says to her fellow male reporters—who cannot seem to leave Francis in the grave—”are you even capable of defining her in her own terms?” As this reporter not-so-subtly hints to do, please refrain from associating every move Claire makes with her dead husband. She is infinitely more intelligent—politically and otherwise—instinctively powerful, callous and merciless than he ever was. Not to mention she is at least a hundred times more interesting and dynamic to watch as a character.

Claire Hale Underwood is gangster.

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Jenna Kalishman

BA in English and film studies. Early English literature as well as fantasy and sci-fi fanatic. Bylines include Lithium Magazine, Hey Alma, and Flip Screened. @jenkalish on socials.

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