House of Cards, Part 6: A Cast of Master Obfuscators
Check out the previous installments in Becky Graebner's dissection of House of Cards. Spoiler Warning!
May 29: Why We Love to Hate Politicians
June 5: Can 'Evil' Sometimes Be Good?
The art of reading body language is extremely helpful in Washington, D.C. Those who wheel and deal for a living must possess this ability—otherwise, they will be unable to decide who is lying, who is telling the truth, and will not be able to gain leverage over competitors. In House of Cards, Frank Underwood is amazingly good at reading his opponent. He knows when someone is lying to him and when to push peoples’ buttons just a little bit harder in order to get what he wants. He is a master at reading people.
Although I am not as good as Frank, I like to consider myself pretty good at reading those around me. However, no matter how hard I try, I don’t stand a chance against the characters in House of Cards. As soon as I think I've figured out a character, they change their mask and I have to start my analysis all over again. In one episode, Character X might show their soft side, but two episodes later, the same character might take part in a murder?! Eventually, I realized I cannot read the characters at all—or predict what they know or what they will do.
The show producers and writers obfuscate the true intentions of several individuals, which allows for great plot twists…and leaves the audience in doubt as to who they can trust. It’s hard to piece together the truth or predict the future when the audience is not sure who is truthful and who is a deceiver. Below are a few questions that season one leaves unanswered. What is certain is that House of Cards teaches the audience a valuable lesson about Washington, D.C.: trust no one.
Aside from Frank, the person you are least likely to trust or understand is Claire Underwood. I find her the hardest character to crack on the entire show. She is impervious to my deep psychological evaluations each episode (psych major here!); and I have subsequently labeled her an enigma. The majority of her actions can be interpreted in one of two ways: as well intentioned and caring or as part of the “greater plan” to dominate and destroy everything around her.
Question one: How much does Claire know about the murder of Peter Russo?
We all know Frank killed Peter—but is Claire aware of the monster within the man she is married to? The audience is never quite sure how much Claire knows—is she just playing “the good wife” or is she really in the dark regarding some of Frank’s more sinister plans?
When Frank returns home (after killing Peter), Claire meets him in the living room—and tries to comfort him. Earlier in season one, Claire tells Zoe that Frank tells her “everything”—so I wouldn’t put it past her to know that killing Peter was part of the plan, but Claire’s show of support isn’t transparent. It could either be an act of goodwill; to comfort her husband after such a horrific suicide, or she could be verifying that she had knowledge of Peter’s murder at the hands of Frank--and feels for her husband for having to carry out the killing.
Later on, Claire tells Frank she cannot sleep—because Peter is haunting her thoughts and she is having nightmares. Claire is visibly shaken in this scene (it’s probably the most emotion Claire has ever demonstrated on the show), and you are not sure if this fear is because Claire regrets what they did to Peter or if she is just struggling to process his “suicide.” Frank’s response is “I know, he haunts me too.” So, is Frank identifying with her nightmares because he too is also haunted by the fact that he had to kill Peter—or is he just trying to calm her down?
Verdict: Claire comforts Frank because she knows he killed Russo. It’s ok Frank, I understand killing is tough. Therefore, Claire knows he killed Peter.
Question two: Why does Claire suddenly want children?
Episode 13 of season one showed Claire at the doctor’s office, exploring her likelihood of becoming pregnant. The audience has seen Claire’s hot flashes—so we know that she is a little older and nearing the end of her child-bearing days. It is made known early on in the show that Frank and Claire do not want children—and the subject is dropped. However, the audience is left a trail of breadcrumbs to suggest that Claire might want children after all; she seems to enjoy the Russo kids and she asks Francis what they are “working towards” if they have no offspring to inherit their legacy. Towards the end of season one, the audience is led to believe that Claire does want children—hence why she consults a doctor…BUT, this is after her lawyer tells her that “expectant mothers” will be given more sympathy by a jury in court. Remember Claire’s upcoming court battle with Jillian? Jillian is pregnant—and Claire knows very well that she could lose the case because Jillian will garner more sympathy due to her condition. Is Claire’s interest in becoming pregnant due to a hidden desire for children…or because she wants a leg up in court?
Verdict: She wants to use her (possible) pregnancy as leverage in court.
Zoe wasn’t hard to read in the beginning of season one, but after breaking off her fling with Frank, I am not sure where Zoe’s loyalties lie. Like Claire, some of Zoe’s actions are confusing—you aren’t sure if her reason for doing them is good or bad.
Question three: What’s with Lucas?
The audience probably felt bad for Zoe when she felt like she needed to run away from her apartment and “small life”—but you couldn’t help but wonder why she had to call Lucas? Lucas’ reappearance in Zoe’s life seemed too quick to be anything legitimate. Is Zoe staying with/dating Lucas because she wants his help with her story or does she legitimately like him? Remember, they hadn’t spoken in six months. So, out of nowhere, she wants to stay with him? (Note: she did end up in his bed.) Zoe, we already talked about the “Anne Boleyns of D.C." Zoe also never responds after he admits he loves her — nor does she shed any further light on her feelings after the topic comes up again. Zoe’s interest in Lucas seemed too strategic…
Verdict: Zoe is using Lucas (for now), but I think she will legitimately fall for him later. (At least, let’s hope.)
Question four: Is Zoe really on Janine’s side?
Zoe obviously tries to kill Janine’s story on the watershed bill and its link to Peter Russo and Frank Underwood—she goes as far as to warn Frank that Janine was digging around. Therefore, we can assume that Zoe does want to protect both herself and Frank. However, as the puzzle pieces start to fall together and Zoe realizes that Frank may have been the puppeteer all along, she starts to place herself in the Janine-Lucas camp that is against Frank. However, Zoe continues to get stories from Frank via text…which means he is still valuable to her.
Verdict: Zoe will face mounting obstacles in season two that will force her to decide where her loyalties lie. In the end, she will pick the side of truth.
I will never like Doug Stamper. I would rather fight Frank Underwood for the last rack of BBQ ribs on earth than admit I like Stamper. That being said, I do have to admit that although I am prejudiced against him, he still throws me for a loop sometimes.
Question five: Deep down, is Doug Stamper caring or controlling?
When Stamper first meets Rachel, he gives her a wad of cash and asks for her silence — then he proceeds to unbutton his pants. Yuck. However, the first “loop” was thrown when Stamper stuck up for Rachel after her boss acted inappropriately towards her. After he found Rachel a place to stay (in Nancy’s house) and, later, an apartment, I started to think that maybe I was misguided in the beginning… maybe Stamper would turn out to be a nice guy. Stamper didn’t have to get Rachel an apartment — not even as a trade for Rachel to get Peter drunk and guarantee that he screw up his interview. He could have just given her money like the first few times. He also didn’t have to take care of her creepy boss. Does Stamper have a soft spot for Rachel?
In regards to Peter Russo, it looked like Stamper had a hard time with the aftermath of the botched interview and murder—he seemed upset and almost full of regret.
Verdict: I think Stamper cares about other people, but, ultimately, realizes that he must follow Frank’s orders and keep people in line—for fear that someone could bring down the entire Underwood team. I think something could develop with Rachel but, if asked by his boss, he would “tie off” loose ends.
I look forward to season two—and the answers to these questions. Only the Lord knows who is good and who is bad in this series, as all of the characters have become completely impossible for us mortals to read.