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A Love Letter To Claire Underwood

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Warning: spoiler alerts

“Claire”: that was the last word of season three of House of Cards, uttered by Frank Underwood, the venal American President to his equally calculating First Lady. And as season four premieres tonight, it is already clear that Claire will be running the show. She always is.

It’s been a year and five days since the last series of House of Cards landed on Netflix. For those who watched the whole thing in a weekend binge, pausing only to eat, sleep, Google why Doug drinks bourbon from a syringe and try to understand the Jordan Valley bit (what was happening in the Jordan Valley? We will never really know but quick, look, Remy and Jackie are snogging!) – here's a brief reminder of how series three ended. In the last episode, Claire Underwood explained to her husband, the President of the United States, that he was “not enough” for her. The next morning she coolly told him that she was leaving him, mid-campaign, and swished out of the White House without a backward glance, or any luggage.

Obviously, thankfully, that was never going to be the last we saw of Claire. She is all over the trailer for the new series, an almost comically sinister flash-forward in which she is heard in voiceover talking about the future and is glimpsed, squat-honed legs first, in the back of a limo. There's sex, shouting and a tap that appears to be dripping blood. It's all very Lady Macbeth.
Was Frank right when he snarled at Claire in the last episode, "Without me, you are nothing"? Of course not. It seems clear now that, in this election year, Claire will run for office herself. She has great approval ratings, knows how the place runs – having served as Ambassador to the UN and as First Lady – knows which haircut wins the most votes and has ambition that vaults far above smiling, shaking hands and Easter Egg rolling. Indeed, when Michael Dobbs, creator of the original House of Cards, was asked who Claire Underwood most resembled in real life, he answered: Hillary Clinton.

With or without a Presidential bid, House of Cards has always been all about Claire. She is the cold, dark, exquisitely tailored heart of the show and the best female character currently on television. When they first started filming, David Fincher – who executive produces the show and directed the pilot – told Robin Wright to act “like a marble bust” as Claire, according to an interview in Vanity Fair. “Your job is to remain immoveable,” he said. “And it’s everyone else’s job to orbit you.”

And so they have. Marble is particularly apt for Wright, an ice-blonde Amazon of an actress, with a jawline designed to be carved into Mount Rushmore. Rebecca Miller – who directed her in 2009’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee – called her “a great actress trapped inside the body of a Norse goddess.”

Kevin Spacey’s Frank has his traits – his to-camera asides, his signet ring rap on the table, his love of ribs, his pigeon-toed lollop. But where the President is all surface – winking as he sticks the knife in, rolling his eyes as soon as an adversary turns his back, pissing on his father’s grave – Claire is a fascinating iceberg, a chilly, poised beauty whose shifts and depths are all but imperceptible to mortals.

Other characters are defined by the quirks given to them in the writers’ room – a limp, an addiction, a soft heart, a guinea pig – all characterisations, but Claire's quirks are seamless. Everything, from the way she calls Frank “Francis” or holds a cigarette, to her all-in-black midnight runs and the way she fiddles with a bracelet on her wrist, is precise. She doesn’t say much, but when she speaks – smoothly, softly, baring pearly teeth – people listen. Her hair is so impeccable it could win the Iowa Caucus just by turning up. And her clothes are fabulous – weaponised silk and stilettos so high they could kill a man at ten paces.
Claire has a dark side. There was that time she told Gillian, her former employee at the Clean Water Initiative, “I am willing to let your child wither and die inside your womb, if that’s what’s required”. She’s not at all sisterly, and her willingness to convert her rape and abortion to political gain may strike some as unseemly. Yet how many lead female characters on a popular show talk about these things at all, let alone without shame? Her promotion to UN Ambassador was pure nepotism. And that threesome with Meechum the bodyguard was simply unbelievable.

Showrunner Beau Willimon, in an interview with the Telegraph, has said: “I have zero interest in likeability. I think it’s horseshit. I’m only interested in attraction, and I don’t just mean sexual attraction. I mean that a character is so compelling that whatever you might think of them, you cannot take your eyes off them – and that’s what I aim for with Claire: that mix of entrancement and horror.”

Claire is not only ruthlessly ambitious, manipulative and successful – Wright describes her as “utilitarian and efficient”, which is a bit like saying Jeremy Corbyn is “quite left-wing” – she knows all of Frank’s secrets. She knows where the bodies are buried but has never let a trace of their DNA touch her white silk blouse. Peter Russo, Zoe Barnes, Rachel Posner – she manoeuvred in the background of their demise without leaving a trace. With the journal containing the account of her abortion burned and her affair with photographer Adam already raked over by the media, she is free to have a scandal-free run at power.

Maybe Frank will end up supporting Claire’s bid for the White House. It is inconceivable that the show could continue without one or other of them, and their wonderfully twisted relationship. “I love that woman more than sharks love blood,” said Frank. Well, so do we.

@alicevjones
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