With minimal exceptions, political dramas aren’t heartwarming. We know that going in. In fact, we crave it. House of Cards fans want to see intrigue, infidelity, back-stabbery, and deceitful chicaneries of all kinds. Viewers of this powerful Netflix original are there for the smug deceit that defines Frank Underwood’s career. Yet we’re still shocked and enthralled by the calm, matter-of-fact audacity that the Underwoods display when causing conflict at home and abroad, just to meet their own ends. By conflict, we mean careers ruined, military actions engaged, good people maligned, and even a few murders that fall under the purview of what the Underwoods are willing to do to get their way.
With the new season within our grasp, we thought it was our duty to revisit those times when House of Cards has broken our hearts and ruined our good mood. Expect spoilers for seasons 1-4. We left out season five so you could all get caught up—and because there were plenty of terrible tragedies already.
Here are 15 Times House of Cards Ruined Your Life.
15. The Dog
We don’t always mind when a human character dies, because on TV, some people really deserve it. But animals? No way. There are some viewers who decided against watching House of Cards during the very first episode. Why? Because the ruthlessness of main character Frank Underwood is demonstrated by his killing of a neighborhood dog.
Underwood expounds in this first scene about “two kinds of pain.” There’s helpful pain that makes us stronger, and useless pain, and Frank has no time for the latter. So when a neighborhood dog is hit by a car, it’s perceived as a useless pain. It’s going to die anyway, so Frank steps up and does what needs to be done. We see Frank put plenty of characters out of their misery in the first four seasons—some literally, while others have downfalls that are more abstract. But this is the scene that let us know what was coming, kind of like when we all watched in horror as Bran Stark was thrown out that window.
14. Disappeared Handprint
The tragedies of Agent Edward Meechum are many and varied, unfortunately for him. Introduced as a pawn in a season one Underwood scheme, Meechum’s job was saved by last minute intervention. Over the seasons, Meechum joined the secret service and headed up (at different times) both Frank and Claire‘s security details. His loyalty to the Underwoods was impressive and intense, and the relationship between the three became even more so.
Sometimes, your best memories of a friendship are the little spontaneous moments that don’t seem extraordinary at the time. As Francis Underwood and Ed Meechum walk through the White House, Frank comments that he’d never liked a certain painting. Meechum suggests that Frank take it down and replace it with something he “likes better.” In response, Frank traces Meechum’s hand on the wall. When Frank revisits this space after a tragedy (more on that later), he is devastated to see that the handprint had been unceremoniously removed. It’s a sad moment for us, and a doleful one for Frank.
13. Thomas Yates Fired for Truth-Telling
Novelist Thomas Yates has one of the more fascinating backstories of the regular House of Cards characters. Played by the brilliant Paul Sparks, Yates was a celebrated novelist despite being a possible plagiarist. He’s also a former prostitute and knows a handful of very powerful people—not even counting the Underwoods.
Yates goes against several of his core principles when he agrees do write a book about Frank and his jobs program. This leads into a look into the then-VP’s life and how he worked himself up from nothing. Yates puts copious amounts of time and effort into the book, only to be fired after sending Claire and Frank the opening pages. Even though we’re well aware of the heartlessness of this couple, and knowing how they toss people aside like trash, it’s difficult to watch Yates being treated so poorly after he gave so much to the project. At least he and Claire are getting along better these days.
12. Gillian Cole Loses
We could argue that Claire and Francis are equally brutal in their treatment of others. But Frank is a career politician. When we met Claire, she was running a charity, Clear Water Initiative, that she wanted to take worldwide. Charitable work is generally thought of as being less cutthroat, so nobody expects it. Gillian comes to work for Claire’s charity after a mass firing (we’ll discuss that in a bit), and they get on famously…for a while.
There’s conflict when the women disagree on mutual back-scratching between CWI and Sandcorp, a big business. Claire fires Gillian, who decides to fight back and sue Claire to make a point. But Gillian has a weakness. She’s both pregnant and ill. Knowing this, Claire cancels her former employee’s insurance to leverage Gillian to drop the suit. When Claire literally tells this woman that she’d “let that baby wither and die inside you” to get her way, Gillian (and viewers) were speechless. Gillian was in the right all the way through. As we see, that doesn’t always matter with the Underwoods.
11. Goodwin: Murderer, Murdered
Lucas Goodwin is another great House of Cards example of how being right and working really hard might not amount to a hill of beans. Goodwin begins as a solid reporter and editor, and a friend to pivotal season one character Zoe Barnes. He doesn’t like that his colleague, who he’s crushing on, is involved with then Congressman Underwood. After Barnes is killed in season two, Goodwin suspects that Underwood was involved, but has no real proof.
As Goodwin gathers evidence and amps up his efforts to avenge his dead friend, Doug Stamper takes steps to have Lucas Goodwin imperil himself. He’s later arrested and imprisoned, but is later released and resumes his investigation. Ultimately, Goodwin tries to kill Frank Underwood, but does not succeed. Meechum kills Goodwin in a final act of loyalty to his beloved boss. RIP, Goodwin.
10. Michael Corrigan’s Suicide
The death by hanging of activist Michael Corrigan has divided fans since it happened back in season 3. Setting aside the tragedy of treating gay people as if they’re “unnatural sinners,” or a detriment to a nation, this death was a totally avoidable tragedy. Corrigan was an American who, with his husband, traveled to Russia to protest President Petrov’s (who bears a striking resemblance in demeanor to a certain real-life politician) new law criminalizing homosexuality. Corrigan is told he must apologize before being released, something he outright refuses to do. Good for him!
Claire Underwood’s conversation with Corrigan is revealing. His marriage is not a loving one, but they remained together so as not to hurt the movement. Surely, Claire can understand that. Seeing no viable option, Corrigan hangs himself with Claire’s scarf while she’s sleeping. Apparently, this possibility never occurred to Claire. Should it have? How much culpability does she have in Corrigan’s death? Less than Petrov, but more than most people.
9. Francis Turns Feral
Though we know the Underwoods are ruthless, they have rules. For the first 38 episodes, Francis and Claire are a team. Even if they’re sleeping around, keeping secrets, or dropping subtle hints in the form of exercise equipment—they’re still each other’s biggest supporter. We like that about the Underwoods, even during the times that we don’t especially like them.
That all changes during “Chapter 39”. Francis is suddenly enraged that Claire wants more, and that being the First Lady of the United States isn’t enough. Why? Because she told him she no longer feels like an equal partner. Francis’s transformation is quick and striking. He stalks her across the Oval like an animal, snarling about his disappointment. Eventually, he goes so far as manhandling her as he demands that she keep her mouth shut and do the job he tells her to do. We all know what Claire decides, but it’s a point of no return for Frank.
8. Doug Stamper Dead?
Best known for being Frank’s Chief of Staff, Doug Stamper is at least as ruthless as the Underwoods. He’s also a little more brave, since he gets up to even more dangerous shenanigans that he is even less protected against than his bosses. Stamper is a recovering alcoholic whose relapse might have earned him more sympathy if he hadn’t done what he did to Peter Russo (who, of course, is coming up on our list).
Stamper isn’t what anyone would call a hero. But House of Cards does ensure that we understand his motivations for the terrible things he does. Doug is often caught between a rock and a hard place, so some viewers have an urge to make excuses for him, even considering how he treated Rachel Posner. We can’t blame Rachel for escaping from Doug, or even for bashing him in the head with a brick. But it was a bummer when we thought Stamper might die alone in the woods, and that his body might not even be found.
7. The Miller Family
The kidnapping of the Miller family by ICO terrorists was a huge plot point at the end of season four. The push to get the family back unharmed illustrated the different conflict resolution styles of Underwood versus his Republican opponent, Will Conway. Eventually, a tense standoff ensued while the Underwoods and Conway did their best to get the three Millers: Mom, Dad, and daughter freed. Of course, for Francis and Claire, it’s mainly theatre used to meet their own ends.
This is one of those House of Cards situations that watches like a slow-motion traffic collision. We can see it coming—at least one of these people is not going to make it out alive. But we, like Frank and Claire, can’t do anything to stop it. Even though we don’t see the entirety of what happens, what we do see combined with the word “beheading” is more than enough to bring home the horror and tragedy of the murder of Jim Miller.
6. Freddy Hayes Becomes “The Help”
If it could ever be said that Frank Underwood had a true friend who wasn’t using him for anything, it would be Freddy Hayes. When we meet Freddy, he’s opening his restaurant on an off hour just for Frank. They talk often, and Underwood seems to have an appreciation for Freddy’s work ethic and old-school wisdom, not to mention the ribs. Freddy grew up poor with a lousy father and a spotty past. Through his friendship with Frank, it looked like Freddy might actually make it big for himself with a rib franchise. Until…
Frank’s ambitions get in the way. When Raymond Tusk wants to hurt anyone associated with Frank, Freddy is caught in the crossfire. When his franchise deal goes away (Freddy’s son is culpable in this too), Freddy loses everything and has to line up outside the White House looking for a dishwashing job. This is all awful for Freddy, but the worst of it comes when we see that Frank has no idea of his terrible impact on Hayes’s life, daring to call him “ungrateful.” In the end, we’re with Freddy, Frank Underwood is an M-Fer, “Mr. President!”
5. Claire Fires Evelyn Baxter.
We talked about Claire’s profound ability to add cold-heartedness to any charity. This was first demonstrated in the early episodes, when Claire’s decision to take her charity global results in firing roughly half of her staff. It’s a tough choice for Claire, but one that she makes all the same. Evelyn implores Claire to look at alternatives, keep people on at lower wages or for fewer hours, even just offering small severance packages or more notice. Ultimately, Evelyn is unable to help her coworkers.
Horribly, Claire gives Evelyn the awful task of telling all the fired employees the bad news. It’s a long, awful day that leaves Ms. Baxter feeling broken. She breaks down in tears, wondering aloud how Claire can do this. That’s when she sees the look on Claire’s face and realizes that she’s being fired too. We wish Evelyn Baxter all the best, but we don’t have much hope that she’ll get it.
4. Zoe Barnes Misses Subway Connection
Who doesn’t love the thirsty young journalist who claws her way to the top by exposing corruption in government? It’s a romanticized tale, usually. In this case, though, Zoe Barnes is a flawed person, grasping yet vulnerable. There’s nothing wrong with seeking fame, fortune, or the respect of your peers—even when your boss calls you the c-word for your trouble. But you know, it’s still possible to be terribly flawed and still have a conscience.
After a mysterious death still to come on our list, Zoe confronts Frank with what she knows. Frank is her former source, lover, confidant, and conspirator, so while we know he won’t be happy, we can’t imagine that he’ll…do what he does. We suspect that maybe Frank will concoct a plan to discredit her, or even use someone like Stamper to have her disappeared. Noope, Frank tosses Zoe onto the subway tracks like a used tissue, walking away without a glance as if he’s got somewhere important to be.
3. The Tragedy of Agent Meechum
Another B-list character with a beautiful character arc and a lot of impact is Agent Ed Meechum. He began as a simple pawn in the Underwood plan, nearly losing his job after being convinced to leave his post to join Claire for coffee. This setup could have ruined Meechum. But Frank stepped up and helped, eventually getting his friend Meechum assigned to some lucrative and important gigs. Meechum wasn’t just a work friend either. He clearly had the trust and confidence of the Underwoods, up to and including a night of threeway lovemaking.
Meechum’s death at the hand of another tragic B-lister, Lucas Goodwin, was a gut-wrenching tragedy. Meechum wasn’t crooked, or greedy, or selfish, or bad. He was a loyal and dedicated servant who was damn good at his job. Ed Meechum deserved a long and happy life. He was unlikely to get this working for the Underwoods, but we have to think he deserved far better than this.
2. Russo’s Phone Call
Peter Russo is another deeply flawed and tragic character, and a major player in the first season. One trait you’ll notice about people who develop drinking problems is that they’re emotional. They care a whole lot about things. Russo wanted very much to help the people in his district and to follow through on his promises to them. But time after time, his allegiance to Underwood, his inability to prevent relapses, and his general weakness keep his plans from coming to fruition.
By the end of the first season, Russo has been manipulated by pretty much everyone, and has destroyed every relationship in his life. Downed by rampant relapses, public embarrassments, and the ire of his constituents, Peter makes a phone call. Against his ex’s wishes, he talks to his children in a way that makes us suspect suicide on the horizon. We’re relieved when Peter tells Frank that he’d never do that to his children. Russo’s unwillingness to commit suicide was just an inconvenience to Frank—who doesn’t appear to have any remorse after leaving Russo to die in a running car. Saddest of all is that the Russo children will grow up thinking their dad left them on purpose.
1. The Van Turns Around—Rachel Posner
Rachel Posner, with all her pseudonyms, is easily one of the most tragic characters in the series. Like Freddy Hayes, Rachel is neither powerful nor malicious. She just wants to survive in a world that doesn’t care about people without money or power. She was manipulated and coerced by Stamper from the beginning—told each time that if she waits a little longer and does what she’s told—that it’ll all come out okay in the end. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
When Doug Stamper has Rachel in the van, we know she’s running out of time. Can she save herself? Surely he doesn’t really want to kill her. We’re terrified to think she might die, and incredibly relieved when Stamper lets her go. But man oh man, did our hearts sink when we saw the van peel up behind Rachel as she thought she was walking away from Washington, and Stamper, forever. You deserved far better, Rach.
Did we miss a particularly life-ruining House of Cards moment? Tell us all about it in the comments—but out of respect to others—please avoid posting spoilers for season five.
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