House of Cards: Why Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood Is the True Leader

As we begin to dive into House of Cards Season 5, we consider why it's Robin Wright's Claire Underwood who is making TV great again.

House of Cards, which is now unloading its fifth season, started out as a character study of Congressman-cum-President Frank Underwood, with his statuesque wife Claire in the dutiful background. Yet as it continues, the show increasingly trends toward Claire’s quotable quips, political (and sexual) appetites, and complete command of the Oval Office, with (or in spite of) the president’s blessings. Though Claire Underwood was silent in the House of Cards season 5 trailer, it is her presence that has become the narrative torque on which this show turns. When Claire delivers her “simple request” in the promo video “Message From the Underwood Administration,” she entreats viewers to “tell us what you see.” So too in this medium close-up does the camera beckon, watch Claire. And, in revisiting her filmography, it seems as if Robin Wright’s career has culminated with this character, a character who stops for nothing and nobody, politically sedulous while also cinematically seductive.

In House of Cards season 1, Claire often serves more as a background or secondary character to her husband – she reveals nothing and everything, translucent and opaque as air. An expressional look could signal the approval of murdering a journalist or the tacit, unspoken agreement to have a threesome with her husband and Secret Service agent Meechum (Nathan Darrow). When she fires half her staff at the non-profit Clean Water Initiative, Claire is ruthless and refreshing, albeit slightly bitter, like a Campari soda or a mouthful of vintage. Claire of course drinks both beverages in equal measure, but she cottons to bourbon. Gauche or ya’ll don’t trip so much as glide off her tongue, and Claire mirrors this aural movement in her body; she’s mean, lean, and lithe – she choreographs pouring wine, breaking a glass, and fetching bandages as if in a ballet.

But, to me, the most delicious aspect of Claire Underwood is not just the ease with which she navigates a room, a conversation, or a political gridlock, but also the way in which she often surpasses her husband’s predilection for power and revenge at all costs. When she divulges her abortion on national TV in season 2, she spins her personal truth into public revenge on Gen. Dalton McGinnis (Peter Bradbury), a man who raped her in college.

She claims the abortion was a result of his rape and uses this platform to press a bill on sexual assault prevention. Taking her pain and welding it into policy is the kind of old-fashioned, cracked knuckle pragmatism that would make a Spartan (or this writer) swoon. Whenever she confronts an adversary she spreads her legs squarely, her stance never wavering. Any flinch is facial. She wears stilettos, never flats. It’s women like these that lead cultural critic Camille Paglia to claim that high heels don’t cripple women, but serve as weapons.

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Claire is formidable in ways her husband is still trying to channel: raising her voice to Francis and proclaiming he needs to “cut [his] fucking heart out” and give it to then-President Walker; stating that she’s leaving Francis in the cliffhanger finale of season 3; and betraying Francis in season 4 in order to get what she wants… the vice presidency.

Vice President Underwood, however, is also not without a conscience. In season 1 she wakes from a nightmare about Peter Russo’s children, children who are now fatherless thanks to the Underwoods’ merciless scheming. In season 3, she confronts Russian President Petrvo (Lars Mikkelsen) during a press conference for his intolerance of LGBTQ citizens, undercutting her husband’s wishes while simultaneously raising her own political popularity. But these moments of introspection or reflection don’t paint Claire as weak or secondary to Francis. If anything, they add to her complex, steely gradations of gray. If she can verbally chastise a man while perching above the toilet as she takes a piss in full view, there’s nothing she’s not capable of, not even bad posture.

Robin Wright has had an uneven career, albeit one peppered with astute character studies such as Starr in White Oleander (2002), the titular character in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009), or, most recently, as Roz in Adore (2013), donning the same button-down men’s shirts that Claire sports during her weekend tryst with Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels) in season 2. Wright is best known to audiences through crowd favorites, such as Buttercup in The Princess Bride (1987), Jenny in Forest Gump (1994), or Theresa in Message in a Bottle (1999). These are films that did well at the box office, if less favorably over time.

They’re also glib and contrived, unctuous narratives for which Claire would have no patience and even less interest. Wright built a career out of catering to sentimentality before Claire cut that to the quick. Like Claire, Theresa often goes running (and, on a run, serendipitously finds the letter in the bottle that Kevin Costner’s Garrett’s penned), though in an oversized shirt, running attire Claire would scrupulously avoid.

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And when her character Kathleen, from State of Grace (1990), delivers the line, “I’ve got your number, sailor,” one can’t help but wonder how Claire would edit this bald-faced earnestness. Would she deliver it tonelessly, with heels crossed? As Kathleen, Wright moves with purpose, and the camera pans as she exits her first scene, formally intimating that the audience visually savors her as much as Terry’s Sean Penn does. Kathleen also smokes like her Netflix descendent, but Claire seems to just relish it more, as if she’s savoring the taste of her imminent revenge while biding time.

The series of films Wright made with her ex-husband Sean Penn include State of Grace, She’s So Lovely (1997), and Hurlyburly (1998), the latter of which also starred Kevin Spacey before he and she wedded us to to a televised match made in hell. When Rosanna Arquette interviewed Wright in the documentary Searching for Debra Winger (2002), she marveled on how Wright balanced a successful career and family, gushing, “You’re actually in a marriage that works and you work together – it’s like, a dream.”

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This is admiration equally applicable to Claire and Francis. But, unlike the Underwoods, Penn and Wright’s working and personal relationship did not last: the couple divorced in 2010 after 14 years of marriage. It’s easy to imagine Wright became more empowered and enabled as an actress after the divorce, stepping out from the shadow of Penn’s career, flexing her muscular acting chops (and biceps) as Penn drifted into Hollywood’s shadows.

Could we have bought into Claire’s ruthless rationality had we known Wright to still be waving from the audience at Penn, as he accepted yet another accolade? This is the rub for Claire who, in season 4, also refuses to play the singular role of the wife any longer, making me wonder, at some level, where Robin’s career ambitions end and Claire begins. There’s the unsuccessful UN bid and the sacrifice of her giving up the Clean Water Initiative. But when Claire proposes the vice presidency, it’s clear this is the role she was born to fulfill on this show (just as Claire is the role Wright was born to play), though only time will tell how successful this latest ruse will be.

Robin, like Claire, is finally climbing to the top. In 2014, she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Series.  In 2016, she demanded that she receive equal pay to her co-star Kevin Spacey, bringing awareness to the pay discrepancy between men and women in Hollywood. She cinched the deal when she told those bankrolling the show that Claire was more popular than Francis and, in a bold move that she no doubted acquired from (or acclimated to) her doppelgänger, threatened to go public if they did not acquiesce.

Additionally, Claire carried the first half of season 4’s narrative while Francis was in a coma, undermining our investment in Francis to the point that it did not necessarily matter whether or not he survived. Wright no longer grimaces garishly while knocking back a shot like in She’s So Lovely, nor serves as the one-dimensional object of desire like in Hurlyburly. Though each of these characters carries traces of Claire – a penchant for cigarettes or exercise, the hauteur look of high-heeled ferocity – it is on Netflix where Wright has come into filmic fruition as her character, charming us with her wit and wile. Claire is making American television great again – and we’re willing her to keep trumping our expectations (or her husband’s), one stiletto click at a time.