Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Step aside men — it's Claire's show

ROBIN WRIGHT trumps all the ordinary evildoers in House of Cards

  • Print

Netflix released the second season of House of Cards last weekend, offering 13 binge-worthy episodes of backstabbing and score-settling, scandal and spin, duplicity and double-crossing.

Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), now the American vice-president, pretends to take political stands while pursuing a purely personal agenda of power grabs and payback, usually involving fake-folksy billionaire Raymond Tusk. This alpha-male posturing seems like the least interesting part of the series. Build a bridge, don't build a bridge. Who cares?

The show's women, on the other hand, are something else, especially Robin Wright as the monstrous, magnificent Claire Underwood.

Frank likes to talk to the audience in arch asides, implicating us in his misdeeds. Claire remains opaque, whether she's ruthlessly gutting a philanthropic organization or skilfully manipulating the skittish First Lady. The occasions when she drops her perfectly made-up mask are rare, and therefore precious.

They can also be revealing. There's a scene in Season One in which Claire stands in front of an open fridge trying to cool her hot flashes. I mean, wow. This is an entirely new look at menopause.

Female characters are often overlooked and underwritten in prestige (and faux-prestige) television. Or they are offered up as a moral counterweight to a misbehaving male protagonist, a thankless job, as the experience of Breaking Bad's Skyler White has proven.

To see not just a woman but a woman "of a certain age" stealing some thunder from a top-billed antihero is a treat. There's something perversely admirable about Claire's pursuit of equal-opportunity badness. She could even be seen as a feminist icon (in a sick, sociopathic sort of way). She's certainly the show's best character.

First of all, Claire is very watchable. One of her very few human-being moments comes when she stares at her reflection, trying to decide whether the mirror is a friend or an enemy.

I'd say friend. The onetime Princess Bride has become far more interesting with age. Her blond beauty is now pared down to its cool essentials -- faultless bone structure and a daringly short haircut. Then there's Claire's wardrobe of black, white, grey and taupe shift dresses and pencil skirts. It's irresistible, in that sexy-severe way.

It's also fascinating to watch her marriage to Frank. In the original British version of House of Cards, the wife is evil but underused, relegated to a supporting role. Frank and Claire have a modern partnership, like any two-career Washington power couple. They also have an old-fashioned partnership, like, say, the Macbeths.

Their relationship is not sexy in the conventional sense, but their twisted mutual attraction comes out in the illicit cigarette they share at the end of each day. As Frank and Claire channel their erotic energy into smoking and scheming, we feel the ferocious loyalty they hold for each other.

Frank declares that he loves Claire "more than sharks love blood," which is his pathological version of sentiment. When Frank vows to obliterate a rival, Claire adds that they need to make him suffer first. "I don't know whether to be proud or terrified," Frank says to the audience. "Perhaps both."

Claire's efforts at "leaning in" (and leaning on) usually end in her favour, but she sometimes runs into obstacles, ones that highlight actual feminist issues. A key point in Season Two involves her live television interview with Ashleigh Banfield. (Yes, that Ashleigh Banfield, former Winnipegger and wearer of signature glasses.)

Claire's calculated preparations for the interview underline the impossible expectations set for powerful women. She knows full well that she has to be perfect but accessible, attractive but not sexy, determined but not obviously ambitious. As well, she's expected to smile while she explains on national TV why she doesn't have children. No wonder Claire occasionally acts out.

Responses to Claire raise that fraught notion of "likeability," an issue that follows around female TV characters as well as real live women. It only takes one of Claire's imperiously icy glances to blast the whole notion of likeability into irrelevance.

Nobody on House of Cards is likeable. This profoundly cynical series is set in a post-Hope White House, where JFK's assassination is invoked only to score cheap political points. The characters are mercilessly divided into predators and prey, being either criminally guilty or hopelessly gullible.

Claire is undeniably a moral monster. The show's second season has made some attempts to understand her, offering fleeting glimpses of vulnerability -- possible regrets about being childless, emotional holdovers from a traumatic event. But I wish the scripters would lose the back story. I prefer Claire enigmatic and evil.

In a pop-culture landscape where middle-aged women are usually pigeon-holed, patronized or rendered invisible, Claire stands out. Malevolent and murderous she may be, but at least she has our attention.

I don't know whether to be proud or terrified. Perhaps both.

Definitely both.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 D12

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Total Body Tune-Up: Farmer's Carry

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press. Local- Deer in Canola field near Elma, Manitoba. 060706.
  • Two Canadian geese perch themselves for a perfect view looking at the surroundings from the top of a railway bridge near Lombard Ave and Waterfront Drive in downtown Winnipeg- Standup photo- May 01, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Do you agree with the sale of the Canadian Wheat Board to foreign companies?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google