I’ve been seeing a ton of hate for s3 of House of Cards recently, mostly because I think people missed the goddamn point. This post contains spoilers for s3, so if you haven’t watched it, don’t complain about spoilers.
We blasted through s3 last weekend/most of this week, and while some things didn’t work overall for the season (like fucking Doug and his manpain bullshit), I’ve been thinking a lot about Claire Underwood, and her relationship with Frank and what it all means and how it all relates. All the reading I’ve been doing about this season has made a theme emerge; people keep labeling her as ‘incompetent’ and ‘the new Skyler White’ from the neckbeard contingency, and this shit is just incorrect. But then again I think the naysayers and the room-temperature intellect types watch the show because Frank Underwood is their ultimate dudebro fantasy on steroids and thus miss the goddamn point.. like the Walter White proponents from Breaking Bad.
I keep thinking about the uncomfortable/overall sad fights Claire and Frank had this season, and how they left me cold. s3 is a lot about their marriage, it’s a recurring theme they keep coming back to. I kept thinking of those questions Nick Dunne posits in Gone Girl;
I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage:
What are you thinking?
How are you feeling?
Who are you?
What have we done to each other?
What will we do?
And I think Claire knew exactly what was going to happen when she asked Frank to fuck her in no uncertain terms that night in Iowa; of course she knew that he wouldn’t be able to do it. She wanted to force him to admit that he was incapable of giving her what she wanted and needed.
Frank does not see, and never has seen his wife as a sexual being or someone to be desired.. he respects her too much. And Frank doesn’t get off on respecting his sexual partners, especially the lady partners. He doesn’t get off on love; remember, he reminds the audience via Oscar Wilde that sex is about power. When Frank bangs a woman, the absolute last thing on his mind is whether or not he loves her, and he loves Claire. As much as Frank Underwood seems incapable of loving anybody, he loves Claire. She’s his partner, his sister, his friend, his confidante. He has no family to speak of, save for Claire. She’s as much a part of him as his own two hands. And sure, he likes to be intimate with her (maybe? I think?), but it’s not really sexual to him.. it’s more like giving a friend a backrub or a hug or something along those lines. It’s all very comforting, affectionate, and uh, pleasant? Baseline shit. We see at the beginning of s3 that he wants to be in the same bed as her, but it’s purely from a comfort standpoint. He wants her body in the bed next to him and that’s about it; a comforting presence. And there’s a reason every single sex scene on House of Cards is entirely fucking uncomfortable, sterile, and unsettling.
Claire understands all of this, and for almost 3 decades she’s accepted Frank’s sexuality as part of who he is, and part of what their marriage is. In a way, it made them stronger as a partnership and as if their love transcended sex.. almost. Because Claire always harboured a lingering resentment, just bobbing there under her well-manicured, stoic surface. When she figures out Zoe, she feels exposed and raw. When Frank banged dudes, Claire could rationalise it, but not so much with Zoe. When Claire went to Zoe’s flop apartment and looked around at the stained carpet, the shitty bare mattress, the peeling paint, the bugs, she was forced to face reality. Hearts and minds and all that. She knew Frank had fucked this girl in every single way he could think of; Claire also knew it was a business transaction. Yet on a purely visceral level, Claire was jealous. She hated that she was jealous, but she couldn’t help it; she loved Frank. She desired Frank. She wanted it to be her, and Frank knows it, too. When Claire visited Zoe and then ran off to New York City to be with Hot Older Man(TM) Adam, the message was clear; he had crossed a line, and he had really hurt her. Frank took no pleasure in that whatsoever – he doesn’t like hurting Claire. But it’s like.. he can’t help it, he can’t help himself, though he tries not to; it’s just who he is as a man, we all know a man like Frank. Some of us have dated a man like Frank. Frank is the type of man who loves, but repeatedly hurts the type of woman Claire is, and she can’t help herself. She alludes to this push and pull to Yates when she’s in the blood draw haze on the verge of blacking out – that she hates how she needs Frank. And in Frank’s most unselfish moments (which obvi don’t come around too often), he is point blank ashamed of himself.
I feel like that’s why he does a lot of what he does; as Dr. Rosen dropped that truth bomb on Mad Men, people will do anything to alleviate their anxiety. Frank doesn’t dwell on it, but it’s always there; his nagging sense of inadequacy is just under the surface, the monkey on his back dating back to his childhood. Anyone notice how Frank doesn’t break the fourth wall as much this season? Or how his trademark ring double-tap was glaringly absent? As the President, he never quite feels in control like he has in the past. His confidence is shaken, which is a large reason he’s been uncharacteristically lashing out at times he shouldn’t. He cannot narrate a situation which he cannot control.
That uncomfortable bedroom scene in Iowa was about Claire confronting her own fears and demons. She was admitting Frank’s inadequacy to herself and then, in a fit of anger, throwing it right in his face. She taunted him with it, and she did it again in the Oval Office and received the horrifying response she knew was coming from him. “You couldn’t even give that to me” and “You’re not enough” were clearly meant to jab him in the spot that she knew he was most vulnerable. And obvi, Frank had it coming for a whole slew of reasons.. but it was still genuinely nasty of her. It was the meanest (and most truthful) thing she could have possibly said. She pushed him to snap, because she was already emotionally prepared for it to be over. And then she split. Claire is 120% done.
Let’s backtrack a bit with Claire’s character development up until this point. I feel like people are dismissing Claire’s s3 arc as ‘bad writing’ or that ‘she’s an imbecile’ or ‘her emotions control her lololol women’ because they’re unable to reconcile nuanced characters who are pretty close to real people on television, much less a female character who has agency and is written like.. gasp.. A REAL WOMAN. What the Fuck on God’s Green Earth. People don’t know what to fucking do with themselves when they’re given a character like Claire, or Skyler White, or Carmela Soprano, or Peggy Olson. To me, Claire Underwood is the lady TV character I always wanted and and didn’t know I needed. A woman who is unapologetic about having had an abortion, who was unbroken by that experience; a rape survivor at that. A woman who is unapologetic about her choice to not have children, her overall disinterest in that lifestyle choice, yet she is not judgmental of other women who choose to have families, and doesn’t make it A Thing(TM) that defines her personality. Seriously! Claire is my Lady Hero. She’s smart and calculating and puts careful thought into who she’s meant to be, what she’s meant to do. Career aspirations aside, I relate to Claire on an innate level.
In s1 we could see from Claire’s interactions (i.e. that uptight woman who told her not to run in the park, the bum outside her building who gives her a paper crane made from the $20 bill Claire gave her, her clear remorse for Russo’s kids) that she is capable of empathy and has some semblance of a conscience. A different tune to Frank’s overall nonchalance about standing on whomever’s shoulders he needs to to achieve what he wants at any expense.
In s2, one of the most powerful moments was when she broke down crying on the stairs in the season finale. Claire had been confronted with the fact that was hated by the public, labeled as Satan incarnate (I mean, God forbid a woman who has an abortion not be fundamentally broken..), had driven a depressed rape victim to attempt suicide, and destroyed the career/reputation and marriage of the only woman to consider her a friend (Mrs. Walker). Her breakdown was a crucial moment for her character, and people hating her on the internet seem to be forgetting that happened. These actions she was taking in Frank’s best interest really cost her a whole lot, and she doesn’t manipulate people with grace and ease like Frank. Frank killed Zoe, for fuck’s sake, and it doesn’t really faze him. Claire carries that, I think.
In s3 she started thinking that all of this might be worth it, and by seizing the opportunity to go for the UN Ambassador position, she could begin to directly benefit from all the awful shit they had done. I guess I could attribute most of the ‘incompetence’ that people keep yammering about to the fact that her unraveling had already begun a touch in s2, and as the days went on it was slowly tearing her apart. She was physically ill at the idea of confronting Frank about the Ambassador nomination, and her ensuing outburst at the hearing was that stress manifesting itself outward. She and Frank had done unforgivable things to get to that point, and she was more full of doubt than ever. On top of all that, she can’t even use running as an outlet since she’s too high profile.
When it comes to the whole Russia mess, the more I think about it I feel that she did the right thing by publicly condemning Petrov. It was very risky and overall not a good look (and literally WHO sleeps through someone hanging themselves, that shit is LOUD) but I think that they almost had an obligation to condemn such a horrific/jank-ass culture. It was a good move in that it got the public opinion back on her side (the USA saw her as a hero), and she managed to salvage the situation with her UN business until the attack in the Jordan Valley and the false flag accusation. Internet people complain that she was easily manipulated, but she was manipulated BECAUSE she was Frank’s wife. She was targeted because Petrov wanted to drive them apart the way they drove apart the Walkers. She was forced to resign because she was being used as a weapon against Frank.
Shortly after, she was very very close to having her personal secrets about her past abortions exposed to the entire world, as a weapon against Frank potentially wielded by Dunbar. Fucking Doug..
Claire knows that she’s more likeable and would probably make a better politician based on that alone, but her affiliation with Frank has led her to take part in unforgivable, dark things. On a grander scale, she has actively prevented herself from accomplishing her own goals in pursuit of Frank’s. She left her lofty position at the CWI, she dropped the sexual assault bill, she resigned from the ambassador position, and she did all of it for Frank’s best interest. Yikes.
Frank spent this season burning his final bridges and alienating any allies he had when he wasn’t in Absolute Power. Absolute Power stripped away all of his skills of manipulation and ‘whipping’ that he used to have, and brought out the monster that was underneath the whole time. Claire saw it first as horrific, slept on it, and then saw it as being of absolutely no benefit to her. So she’s splitting. I’m so curious about what they will function like as individuals.
So uh, I have a lot of feelings about the Underwoods.