How Claire Underwood And 'House Of Cards' Changed The TV Antihero Forever

From Dexter to Tony Soprano to Walter White, television has been dominated by the male antihero for decades. The protagonist who we pretend to despise for his immoral deeds, yet can’t help but root for and admire, has become more prevalent while his female counterpart remains widely non-existent.

There have been a few adequate women contenders, such as Nancy Botwin of "Weeds" and maybe even Patty Hewes of “Damages," but they weren't nearly as bad as the men. Instead, female characters have evolved into a more recent archetype of the antihero’s good wife, the one whose sole purpose seems to be reinstating morality in her corrupt husband. The disapproving wife is always the voice of reason and, essentially, the party pooper we love to hate on (e.g. Skyler White fan hate), a phenomenon Alison Willmore of Indiewire called attention to last August. There has yet to be a strong female antihero who stands equal to her wicked marital partner -- until now.

(Spoilers follow for “House of Cards” Season 2.)

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Thanks to Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) of "House of Cards," we now have not just a a strong-willed, merciless female antihero, but a couple who champion as antiheroes side by side. The second season of the Netflix series finally established Claire to be just as villainous as her husband Frank (Kevin Spacey). While she had some mild moments of ruthlessness in the first season, such as firing the entire staff of her non-profit, these were the mere building blocks to her brick-walled mansion of wickedness in Season 2.

Claire finally got off the couch and started to do some of her own inveigling this season. She threatened the health and safety of former coworker Gillian’s unborn baby, betrayed her former lover Adam and tarnished his name, and dropped her anti-rape bill to fulfill her own selfish agenda, which led to Megan’s suicide attempt. Claire is undoubtedly an antihero in Season 2, but she and Frank aren’t just the epitome of the female and male schemers; they are so much more than the Nancy Bowtin and Walter White of Capitol Hill.

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An oversimplified and misguided deduction of the Underwoods would be calling them the contemporary Bonnie and Clyde. For one, such a trope constitutes a sense of male supremacy, that the bad girl is a sidekick and not a true partner in crime. What’s significant about Claire and Frank is not that they are both antiheroes, but that they function as one synchronized unit, and that they don’t wear their corruption on their sleeves.

The Underwoods aren’t your typical bad guys who commit wrongful acts in broad daylight -- their evil mechanics are concealed by carefully a constructed facade, namely their marriage. During Claire’s televised CNN interview, the interviewer suggests, “Some people think that your marriage may be a bit more calculated than you let on,” and she couldn’t be more accurate. The bond between Claire and Frank is not one of romance, or familial responsibility, or happiness; it is a bond of power, held together by an insatiable passion for ultimate domination.

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Through Claire’s malicious plotting, Season 2 demonstrates that together Claire and Frank build their empire of deception and control. While Frank’s road to the vice presidency was mainly his doing in Season 1, his goals for the Oval Office this season could not have been achieved without Claire’s scheme to shake up the president’s marriage. In convincing the first lady, Tricia, that her husband may be having an affair with his aide Christina, Claire plants the first seed. She drives a wedge between Garrett and Tricia Walker, persuades them to go to therapy, befriending them only to betray their trust. This strategy is ultimately what leads to the president’s resignation and thus, the Underwoods accendance to the White House.

This is the perfect cue for that saying you see plastered on bumper stickers: “Behind every great man is a great woman.” It can definitely be applied to “House of Cards,” and Amanda Marcotte of Slate even deemed this season a very feminist one. But the most commendable, groundbreaking aspect of “House of Cards” is not simply that Claire is Frank’s backbone, it is that TV now has an antihero couple, a relationship founded on pure villainy that changes the way we look at evil in pop culture.

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A friend once told me that the strongest relationship is one which embodies the figure of an "H," where two "I"s stand equally on their own with a mutual support stabilizing them in the middle. On the other hand, an “A” relationship is one where each person leans on the other for support, only to topple if the other falls. Both secure in their own agendas, both capable of survival without the other, they meet in the middle with their shared hunger for power -- not to mention their shared sex partner and nightly cigarette. It is through their mutual (though immoral) objectives that they are able to become not just any “H” couple, but the “H” couple.

Tricia tells Garrett in Season 2, “The foundation of the White House is not brick or mortar, it’s us.” Now the foundation of America is the most powerful and callous pair of antiheroes television has ever known, and that's bound to make our feelings towards antiheroes even more complex as their story continues.



"House of Cards"