Frank and Claire Underwood of #Netflix political drama House of Cards are a formidable duo, there’s no debating that. Also of little debate is Frank’s psychopathy; just about everyone who’s seen the show has referred to it almost as a fact of his personality.
Of course it’s easy to see it with a man who kills by hand without compunction and drawls out charming asides that sound right out of Machiavelli's The Prince. Claire is subtler than that, but in going down Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist (as I did with The Walking Dead’s Negan) you’ll see she’s no less psychopathic — in fact, she might be more so.
Claire is very charming when she wishes to be, more so than her husband, and is able to almost instantly become someone’s best friend and closest confidante. By Season 3 she’s more popular with voters than Frank. The thing is, it’s all surface. Her kindness, gentle demeanor toward others, and one-on-one talks of apparent openness and honesty are generally only done to aid her in her goals.
She accumulates favors through friendships and uses the secrets she’s told against the confessor and others. Once a person no longer proves valuable, Claire loses all interest in turning on the charm for them. This includes her own husband who, after she feels is more interested in his own political career than hers, she separates from to pursue her aspirations alone.
Grandiose Sense Of Worth
While not constantly boasting her greatness or needing reassurance that she’s fabulous, Claire certainly thinks very highly of herself. With no experience at all she insists Frank make her an ambassador — even when it means circumventing the standard Senate hearing — and is certain she’ll be great at the job. When she’s not, Claire proceeds to blame others and outside circumstances for her failings throughout her time holding the position. When Frank later declares he never should have made her ambassador, she counters:
“I should have never made you president.”
True, she had a major part in his success, but so did he.
Need For Stimulation/Prone To Boredom
When discussing Frank’s marriage proposal, Claire quotes him as stating:
"'Claire, if all you want is happiness, say no. I'm not gonna give you a couple of kids and count the days until retirement. I promise you freedom from that. I promise you'll never be bored.'"
For some people, that might not be the best way to go, but for Claire it's perfect. The wording of Frank’s proposal suggests that a boring life, or even just a simple but happy one, was something Claire always worried she’d end up with; she needs excitement and stimulation.
Claire lies directly, by suggestion, and by omission whenever she thinks it’ll benefit her. She lied to the (previous) first lady by suggesting there was something untoward between her husband and a secretary to throw their marriage into turmoil, paving the way for Frank to take the presidency right from under them. She lied to the public about her relationship with another man, Adam, to cover a potentially scandalous affair.
When the press discovered she’d had an abortion, she claimed it was related to being raped and, from there, built an entire political movement concerning sexual abuse in the military. (Yes, she’d been raped, but the abortion occurred as the result of different circumstances.) At the end of Season 3, Claire even states that both she and Frank have been lying to themselves and each other. While not specific, it’s easy to presume she’s referring to what each expected to get out of the other and their relationship as a whole.
Claire has no trouble using others to get what she wants and then dropping them when they are no longer useful. From coworkers to lovers, Claire has manipulated many into doing her dirty work or taking the fall from grace for her before discarding them for the next person, project or organization.
This even includes her husband. After coming to believe what she thought was a mutually beneficial relationship was only going one way (and not hers), she leaves him — and only returns when there's something substantial in it her for.
Lack Of Remorse Or Guilt
Claire destroys the lives of former lovers, previous first ladies and presidents, and even fellow rape victims to get ahead without thinking twice or looking back. When a former employee at her nonprofit dares to challenge her, she cooly declares:
“I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required. Am I really the sort of enemy you want to make?”
The answer is no, she is not. Even her own husband isn’t immune. After they separate, she actively goes after him and his campaign by prominently displaying a photo of his father with a Ku Klux Klan member as Frank campaigns in the South.
Claire is known for her chilly demeanor, so she certainly shares the flat affect that psychopaths are known for when they aren’t turning on the charm. Most find her colder than Frank and even when speaking about traumatic aspects of her past (such as her rape in college), Claire’s not one to get emotionally expressive. The closest she’s gotten to a show of true emotional depth is with the death of her mother, but even that was subtle and brief.
Callousness/Lack Of Empathy
Previously discussed traits such as her ability to manipulate and lack of remorse speak to her callousness and lack of empathy. If she were truly empathetic, she’d feel the pain of those she uses, bullies, and ruins the lives of so that she'd be unable to do such things with any frequency.
Yet Claire's frequently shown, even when sharing a similar experience that would allow her to feel as another would, that she’s still not empathetic enough to not take advantage — like when she pushed a fellow rape victim into telling her story so she could make her own political progress. And as the patriarch of the Miller family is about to be publicly executed, Claire's ultimate suggestion is to use the country’s fear over these and similar terrorist incidents to her and Frank’s advantage. That an innocent man is murdered on live TV means nothing to her, except an opportunity to get ahead.
This one’s a little tricky, since Claire and Frank found one another while still young and, at least for much of the time, seemed to have a more symbiotic relationship. They fed off one another, but it was balanced so that neither was really parasitic of the other. Though it says something that, after she feels she’s not getting what she wants or needs from Frank, she has no problem discarding him.
Poor Behavioral Controls
For the most part Claire doesn’t exhibit this trait, as she tends to maintain a placid behavior, no matter the circumstances. That said, there are a few instances where she seems to lose control.
At the Senate hearing for her confirmation as ambassador, when she is not allowed to speak, she snaps at one of the senators. She verbally slaps Russian President Viktor Petrov during a joint press conference for his upholding of anti-gay laws in his country. Also, while giving blood, she rambles and comes just shy of revealing things about her marriage that she perhaps shouldn’t. Yet none of these are extreme and most are understandable — it’s easy to see anyone in her position doing the same.
It’s difficult to know what she was like prior to meeting Frank, but even with him the trait fits. While she and photographer Adam appear to have a history (making promiscuity a nonissue), no one can say that about other lovers Claire's had on the series.
She and Frank have a threesome with their bodyguard Meechum, and she knows even less about him than Frank does. In Season 4 Claire spends a night with author Tom Yates. While Yates clearly respects her, it’s a risky move to have an affair with the author of your husband’s biography. Her spouse aside, Claire's choice in lovers appear to be more spur of the moment than one would expect from such a calculating woman.
Early Behavior Problems
Given we don’t know much of Claire’s pre-Frank past, it’s difficult to say. Even after the reunion with her mother and seeing the tension between them, it’s impossible to tell whether she had troubles as a child. The information we have is simply too limited to determine.
Lack of Realistic Long-Term Goals
Are any of us certain what Claire's long-term goals are? We presume that she wants to be president herself one day, but that’s not unrealistic given Frank did it. That being said, after all that’s occurred in Frank’s presidency and her own political career thus far, it’s not unimaginable that enough of the US public will vote for either of them to give them the win.
At first glance Claire doesn’t seem impulsive, but she does have her moments. One of the clearest examples is in the first season when she disappears to Adam’s apartment to stay for an extended period. She goes without preparation or giving notice to anyone. She just does it. Her night with Yates is equally impulsive. And Claire also impulsively goes off-script at the aforementioned press conference to condemn Petrov.
Claire is responsible when she wants to be, when it benefits her, but otherwise she isn’t. Once the focus of her responsibilities are for Frank’s benefit more than hers, she sorta starts slacking. She’s less inclined to go through with promised campaign stops and, eventually, she stops altogether and without warning. She even stops taking her husband’s calls. And when a vast majority of her staff at the nonprofit needs to be fired, Claire pawns the responsibility off on an employee — who she then fires.
Failure To Accept Responsibility For Own Actions
There are probably multiple reasons why LGBT rights activist and Russian prisoner Michael Corrigan commits suicide, but the nonstop insistence by Claire that he read the statement prepared for him didn’t help. Despite not being prepared or experienced enough in any way for her ambassadorship, Claire blames the senators who aggressively questioned her and not the fact she was unqualified for not getting the position.
Many Short-Term Marital Relationships
Claire notes that she had many proposals, but as far as we’re aware Claire’s only ever been married to Frank, so it would seem this aspect of a psychopath is not something she has.
Again, we don’t know enough about Claire as a young woman or child to speak with any authority on even the possibility of her having this trait. Her mother never makes any mention of her having had early trouble with the law or authority, but as a dying woman it’s possible she was ready to let such past issues with her daughter go.
Revocation Of Conditional Release
We’re not aware of Claire having ever been released from anywhere on any condition, so this one’s probably a no.
While there’s no mention of Claire having a criminal record (expunged or otherwise) and while none of the things she’s done have quite reached the level of being illegal, she might still qualify. She’s done a variety of amoral things — lying, intimidation, using others, betraying those around her, allowing the deaths of innocent people — and under slightly different circumstances some of these might be viewed as criminal acts. She also likely knew about the murders of Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes, which would at least make her an accessory after the fact.
“In many ways, I see Claire and Frank as the same animal: two people who are liberated in so far as they don’t bind themselves to any ideology or ethical standards. As people who do not feel they have to play by the rules, they really are completely self-serving – and they think that’s OK.”
That statement heavily suggests that both Underwoods have the same potentially pathological psychology and, given many have (rightly) declared Frank a psychopath, then Claire would be one, too. What ultimately makes Claire the greater psychopath is that she's the first to drop Frank, to be able to move on, to turn on him. Frank pines over the loss, Claire sabotages his campaign. In the end she is the less emotional, more ruthlessly ambitious one of the pair; more than Frank, Claire is the one others need to fear as she is truly psychopathic one.
House of Cards Season 5 will stream to Netflix on May 30. What are your predictions for the coming season? Sound off in the comments below.