House of Cards, Narcissism

NARCISSISM EXPERT ANALYSIS: House of Cards’ Frank and Claire Underwood

I’ve just gotten into watching House of Cards. And, yeah, Frank Underwood is a narcissist deluxe. And Claire! The two of them. A therapist once told me that the best mates for narcissists are other narcissists. They are ultimately only in it for themselves. The Underwoods prove it.


I’ve written on Reel Life With Jane here, about how in real life versus on the big (or small) screen, a little bit of narcissism goes a very long cringe-worthy way. That being the object of a narcissist’s wrath can shake its recipient to the core.

For the narcissist, it’s a matter of survival. If you threaten that – possibly without realizing it – watch out. If you have a blind spot to it (say, you were raised by a narcissist), being hurt or manipulated by a narcissistic person tends to induce a lot of shame. How did I miss that? Is it only me? Our own shame keeps us stuck in not seeing. When we confront the narcissist and they call us crazy, this feeds our shame. It also keeps the narcissist from being exposed, because we are redirected back to our own shame.

No, it’s not only you. Anyone can be a target (see: House of Cards). If a person seems too good to be true, take note: he or she is likely too good to be true.


That said, these people seem to have a gravitational pull – they draw people in. One way they do that is by acting like they care about you and about bigger causes that you care about (or that impress you). They have sincerity – appearing sincere – down to a science.

A narcissistic individual might ride these bigger, grander causes with a false humility that seems so real, it’s hard not to know until you’ve been dragged in deep and then abandoned for something better. Abandoned or annihilated. We see this repeatedly in House of Cards. We even know it’s going to happen. What’s fascinating are the new and different and more sinister ways it happens. It’s a sight to behold.


False humility is one of the ways the narcissist finds a way “in” – to things like causes and people’s lives and projects. Which makes the world of politics the perfect world to set a story about narcissists.

Finding a cause and identifying with it show the narcissist attaches parasitically. But genuinely caring about? Let’s just say that within the spectrum of narcissism, “caring” can be fleeting. Allegiances and affiliations shift rather quickly as they are driven by a desperate need for the individual to not see the gaping wound inside themselves. This is why, I believe, Frank clings to Claire. And vice versa.

We will see what the writers have planned for them in season five, however. The writers on this show totally get it – and the actors portray the lines so well. Frank and Claire are such compelling characters and awful people. But we can thank them. They teach us a lot about narcissism which, hopefully, will help us sidestep its effects in the real world.



House of Cards, Narcissism
House of Cards

Frank and Claire illustrate the narcissist’s need to be looked up to and revered and the lengths they’ll go to ensure this happens. This is exactly why House of Cards gets increasingly darker as the series goes on. The disease of narcissism is progressive. However, the moment the spotlight is achieved, it is at risk of being lost, which is why the narcissist is constantly upping the game to stay “seen.” Being “seen” is what every child needs from the parent. It affirms his existence (think mirroring, for example).

Being seen is what the narcissist is still craving as an adult, and he will go to any lengths to ensure he gets it. This is for his psychic survival, to fill the bottomless black hole inside. Without it, the narcissist fears a kind of non-existence – a psychic death.

To be the “most important” person in the room, in the country, in the world accomplishes a lot in keeping the person visible and therefore “alive”. House of Cards is about politics, so leading a country is the obvious job of choice. But not everyone will be President, and all over the world every single day someone is jockeying within his or her circle to be the one most “seen.” To look like the one who cares the most. To be the one who did the most to help others.

This goes beyond trying to get ahead, which can also have the affect of hurting people along the way. The narcissist will destroy others and/or keep them hanging, promising them something tangibly desirable that is ultimately in the narcissist’s best interest. If refused, the narcissist will then find a way to destroy the other person. We see this by watching Frank and Claire. Both these characters have honed their focus outward in such a way to steer the outer world to give them what they want. And when they don’t get it, the go into destruction mode.

It’s quite remarkable.

And very unsettling.

And difficult to look away.


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