Other Shows Could Learn a Lot From the Women of House Of Cards

By  · Published on March 3rd, 2015


For all its issues – and, in its third season, those issues have become resoundingly clear – House of Cards has begun to quietly excel in at least one area: building complex supporting female characters that are just as multi-layered and morally shaded as any of our leads. Although the Netflix series has always been concerned with both the Underwoods (sure, Frank might be our ostensible lead, but spend enough time with the series, and it’s clear that the show is about both Frank and Claire, and especially about their marriage), giving equal attention to both a male and a female main character, the supporting cast hasn’t always been so lucky. Although there have always been supporting female characters available on the show – hey, Zoe Barnes, Rachel Posner, and Christina Gallagher – most of them have been pulled away too soon to really get inside their heads. (In Zoe’s case, she was pushed away too soon.)

Yet, in its third season, House of Cards has finally started paying attention to its women, not only giving Claire (Robin Wright) her best and most unexpected arc yet, but also folding in supporting characters who – shock – feel like real people. As most of the characters on House of Cards don’t actually feel like real people versus power-drunk soap opera characters that deeply misunderstood what The West Wing was about, this is a hell of a change. It’s also the sort of thing that other series should pay some serious attention to, if only to make their shows more full-bodied and compelling.

Spoilers ahead for the third season of House of Cards.

Make no mistake, House of Cards has always had interesting female characters. A look back at this morality ranking of the characters of season two reminds us that, as the show entered its sophomore season, it had plenty of equanimity between men and women (mostly, they were all equally awful and morally bankrupt, or at least well on their way to that). Last season also introduced us to Lisa Williams (Kate Lyn Sheil) who, even after season three, still holds the distinction of being the only true innocent to ever grace the series. Claire Underwood is fascinating and terrifying and composed of the kind of self-possession one would most likely find in an actual raptor (this is a compliment), but this is the first season where she’s been nearly matched by firmly supporting characters.

Last season, we also met Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), whose investigative lawyering helped usher President Walker right out the White House door, and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), an ambitious young Congresswoman. Both women are portrayed as ambitious and good at their jobs, although Jackie’s ambition and ability tend to lead her into morally icky territory. Although the series’ second season was more invested in getting to know Jackie – not only did we come to understand her career ambitions, we also got a big, juicy look inside her personal life – Heather’s contributions to the forward momentum of the plot were omnipresent. These were important women who steadily had their characters shaded outwards as the season progressed.

But by the third season, both of them had taken center stage. Jackie, as ever, is driven by her ambition. Heather, while (mostly) rigorously dedicated to the letter of the law, soon showed her own career interests in some surprising ways. By the middle of the season, both Heather and Jackie had emerged as not just well-developed supporting characters, but true threats to the Frank Underwood status quo, as both declared their candidacy for President of the United States. Sorry, Frank! (Side note: huge points to the show for not making female candidates a big deal simply because of their gender.) Although everyone on House of Cards is almost achingly ambitious, both Jackie and Heather have shown themselves to be characters – and, yes, women – who refuse to be happy with less than what they want. Jackie doesn’t want to be Frank’s snitch or some second-tier Congresswoman. Heather doesn’t want to be a federal judge. And neither of them want to owe Frank anything.

Basically, neither of them want to be beholden to a man. And how does the season end? With neither of them beholden to a man! (And both of them being in very different places than where they first started the season, how’s that for character evolution?)

As if Heather and Jackie weren’t enough – and these two are more than enough – House of Cards also introduced another powerful, strong, and compelling supporting woman character this season. After shunting aside reporter Ayla Sayyad (Mozhan Marno) because she insulted the President during a press conference (sure, okay), the show brought in Kim Dickens as Kate Baldwin, a heavily lauded and award-winning journalist who is so well-known that her choosing to take on a White House press corps gig is considered somewhat beneath her, to just bulldoze her right into to actually reporting on some of the major issues of the Underwood office. Like Heather and Jackie, Kate is clearly good at her job and interested in advancement, but the show also saw fit to include a look inside her – let’s be honest, mostly ill-advised – personal life, pairing her up with hack writer Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) and allowing her to explore her sexual desires in a respectful and relatable way.

These three women – all career-driven, but all still presented as well-rounded personalities – were the unmitigated high point of a mostly just okay season of House of Cards (sorry, Frank, but your presidency has been really, really bad, though not unamusingly so), filling out the gray areas that have long marked the series with sparkling personality color and genuinely great acting. House of Cards is must-see material because of its high caliber cast and weirdo obsession with being “serious,” but it should really start hanging its hat on performances and characters like this. Other shows should, too.

House of Cards is currently available on Netflix.