The ‘House of Cards’ Ending Had Claire Break the Fourth Wall — Here’s Why It Matters
Part of the intrigue of House of Cards — a political drama that has gotten more chaotic with each season — is the complex relationship between the leading characters, Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) Underwood. While lots of shows might create one dastardly character in a leading couple, like the initial dynamic between Walter and Skyler White in Breaking Bad, the Netflix original series paints Frank and Claire as equally ambitious and deplorable in their measures.
Though Claire hasn't been at the forefront of Frank's most callous moments, such as murdering the likes of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), she's been very much aware of his misdeeds. However, she hasn't had her hands sullied in as many unspeakable acts as her husband — until now.
(Editor's note: Spoilers for season four of House of Cards below.)
The fourth season of the acclaimed series puts the Underwood's relationship under duress — at least for the first few episodes. Claire and Frank are pitted against each other, and it's not until Frank is shot by journalist-turned-convict Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) that Frank realizes the importance of Claire in his life. It's not for any reasons of conventional love; rather, he realizes how formidable she was in his absence.
Their bond and shared ambition — simply, for power — is exemplified in how the Underwoods run together on the 2016 presidential ticket. In typical House of Cards fashion, they place an inexperienced Claire on the ticket through complex colluding, but in the end they're successful. In turn, they mount an aggressive reelection campaign against rising Republican star Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman).
Moreover, global concern is mounting with the rise of the Islamic Caliphate Organization (the show's version of ISIS). While ICO's leader, Yusuf Al Ahmadi (Farshad Farahat), is captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay, extremists in the U.S. capture an American family — a father, mother and daughter — and threaten to execute them. Frank's tactics in talking with the captors work, however, allowing the mother and daughter to be freed. In exchange, the terrorists are given an opportunity to speak with ICO's captured leader.
Simultaneously, Frank is pinned in a corner by a scathing investigative piece from the journalists at the fictitious Washington Herald uncovering the layers of corruption that led to the Underwood presidency. It seems an inescapable hole — even for the crafty Frank — to climb out of. However, Frank and Claire agree on a new, disturbing tactic to persuade the American public to support them: a culture of fear.
Frank addresses the country from the Oval Office, describing an impending war with ICO extremists and thus sealing the captured father's fate by condemning the terrorists publicly. At this point, it's a foregone conclusion that the father will be killed in a live broadcast.
The majority of the series' characters watch the execution in anguish and disgust as the camera cuts away from the father's throat being slit, though the disturbing audio remains. In the situation room, the camera slowly zooms toward the only unflinching characters from the execution: Claire and Frank. Claire's eyes are fixated on the execution the entire time, while Frank slowly looks around the room at all the troubled faces, before turning toward the camera for a staple, fourth wall-breaking statement.
"That's right, we don't submit to terror," Frank says. He gazes toward Claire, and both look directly into the camera. "We make the terror."
It's the first time in House of Cards that Claire addresses the audience, albeit without saying a word. However, it's a resonant effect: She's on equal, cruel grounds with her husband for the first time. She's comfortable distracting the public from their misdeeds — and she's similarly content with using an innocent person's death for political advantage.
"They pulled out a major ace there right at the end, but this run helped shape the entire story so far into a 'rise and fall' scenario," Matt Fowler wrote for IGN. "A rule ended not because of a spousal rift, but because of the sheer totality of acquired sin."
Certainly, the series has had Frank kill off people before, but Claire had no direct involvement. Now, Claire's broken the fourth wall, spawning a newly formed intimacy with the audience. This closeness, however, has a drawback. It's no longer the monstrous Frank the viewer is following, it's the "we" — the equally diabolical Underwoods.