Pop Psych: A Psychotherapist Analyzes Frank Underwood’s Dreams

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood.
Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. David Giesbrecht/Netflix

Pop Psych: Where we ask a real psychotherapist to delve into the mindsets of our favorite shows and TV characters.

When acting as a therapist, there’s a lot of theory behind how much to reveal about yourself to a client, and when.  Books and books worth of theory, really, but the gist of it is: just a little, and not too often.  Seeing as I’m writing about House of Cards this week, though, I think now might be an acceptable time to mug for the audience.  I think of myself as a pretty empathetic therapist – the bulk of my training was in how to relate to people, particularly their most difficult emotions – and I cannot relate to the characters in House of Cards.  Watching this show brings up for me precisely that feeling of when you get out of a bath and realize you need to take a shower.

And yet, I keep watching it.  Though I really struggle to relate to Frank, Claire, and the gang, I feel compelled by them to try.  Moreover, it seems that the characters on the show are going through the same difficulties.  Even though they hate each other they are simultaneously unwilling to walk away from the relationships they’ve formed.

Now, whenever you’re in a relationship with someone, one way to try and understand what their life is like is to understand what it feels like to be with them.  Once you get good at understanding yourself, it becomes easy to separate what it feels like to be you from what it feels like to be you with them.  That is, you’re able to suss out the emotions they broadcast all over the place.  In a classic “this is funny when it’s not happening to you” sort of way, the feelings we broadcast all over the people in our lives are usually the ones we don’t want to feel ourselves.

This is to say, if there’s something you’re trying to hide, rest assured: someone in your life knows about it.  Normally this is a good thing, albeit a terrifying one.  But I guess if you’re, say, a lying, treasonous murder who’s only really happy when he’s peeing on graves, that might feel like a problem.

Season 4 of House of Cards, at least the first half of the season, spends a lot of time presenting Frank’s dreams of being killed by the various people in his life.  It’s easy to watch these and think they represent guilt or fear of retaliation, and in part they do.  On a deeper level, though, dreams represent the workings of our inner worlds.  Dreams don’t really show us expectations about what’s happening around us, but instead show us precisely what is happening within us.

Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.
Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. David Giesbrecht/Netflix

In Frank’s case, his inner world is sorting out what it feels like to be him without Claire.  He’s a guy who’s really placed his focus on hyper-analyzing the people around him in order to exploit them, which leaves him quite lacking in the self-awareness zone.  If you need proof of this, just look at his hail-mary play at the end of season 1, “I pray to myself, for myself.” It’s important for his ability to function to assume he is in the role of God, of perfection, as he doesn’t have time to self-regulate.

By the middle of season 4, that has changed: his primary relationship is basically over, his underlings seem capable of running themselves, and also he’s in a coma.  It’s like that time you worked really really hard before going on vacation, and then when you came home you said to your coworker “I need a vacation from vacation because when I’m not preoccupied with murdering my way to the top I feel all squishy and weird inside”.

So Frank’s laid up, and he doesn’t have people around him to disperse his feelings onto, and instead they come rushing in on him.  His first dream of the season is quite telling: as he lays in bed, he sees Claire and gets in a fight with her.  He shoves her into a mirror, strangles her, she stabs him, and then she tears his eyes out with his hands.

The mirror is a clue for us here; in Jungian analysis, we treat every character in a dream as a representation of a disowned part of the dreamer.  Frank is fighting some part of himself that shows itself as Claire, and he’s trying to put it back into the mirror, to bury it again.  But when you push into a mirror you see yourself, and this disowned part is able to use that self-reflection not to hurt him, but to penetrate him.  To make an impact, to get under his skin.  When it tears his eyes out this is telling us not that he can’t see anymore, but that he can’t see in the same way.  His disowned piece has changed his view.

Instead of being locked in a room and battling Claire, now Frank is chasing her.  Which makes sense – she penetrated him in his last dream, and it turns out he liked that a little.

The question, then, is what is this disowned piece, and why does it show up as Claire?  Well, let’s think about what Claire might mean to Frank.  She has plenty of qualities, both admirable and terrible, so instead of guessing let’s let Frank tell us.  Like in his dream, Claire is able to get under Frank’s skin in the tail-end of episode 3 when she asks to become his running mate.  He loses it in a way he hasn’t done in front of the camera through the whole series.  He accuses her of not deserving the vice presidency, of not having earned it; on account of not needing it, not fighting for it, not knowing what it would mean to accomplish it the right way: from the ground up.

He’s not right, of course, but that’s beside the point: he’s right to himself.  His greatest value, the one that exists in contraposition to everything his father means to him, is his struggle.  His tenacious, vicious, bloody struggle to take anything that gets in his way, rather than let it parade in front of him forever out of reach.  When he tells Claire she hasn’t earned the vice presidency, he is showing us what he really thinks of her and what he pretends not to know he thinks of himself: that she is entitled.  That she, and thus he, feels like the world is there to please him, rather than to be conquered at all hours of the day.

Halfway through the season, though, we see changes.  At this point, Frank is fully, vividly dying, and probably catching up on his sleep for the first time since he murdered ol’ Petey Russo.  At this point in the season, his dreams take a turn. Instead of being locked in a room and battling Claire, now Frank is chasing her.  Which makes sense – she penetrated him in his last dream, and it turns out he liked that a little.  He liked the threat of changing his view.

So now, we have him in a hallway lit like a train car, passing through a group of people who don’t notice him in pursuit of Claire.  She’s a little different than the rest; moving pointedly away from Frank is a means of saying “I see you, and I don’t like it, I am no longer pleased by you.”  In reality, she is one of the very few people in Frank’s extremely public life that has any idea of who he is, and in his dream she is the entitlement and joy in him that is ready to give up on the rest of him, on the bitter fighter that has no sense of how to slow down and enjoy what he already has.

By the end of this sequence, Claire has turned but is now Zoe Barnes wearing Claire’s dress from season 1.  She stares right at him, but alluringly, coquettishly, pleadingly, not in a way that indicates she has seen anything private and true about him.  Frank’s dream then jumps to a new sequence, where he pursues Claire into the oval office, only to find Zoe again.  Except this time Pete Russo is there too!  Good news: Petey Pants is as inconsequential here as he ever was.  Zoe climbs into Frank’s lap and toys with his eyes, but there’s no threat of removal here.  As she glides her thumbs over his eyelids it’s a pantomime, practically more a massage than an attempt to harm.

Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes.
Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes. David Giesbrecht/Netflix

This is interesting, because now we have two very important women taking on two very important roles in Frank’s inner world.  Frank’s first love, and Frank’s first murder.  Whereas Claire represented something very ephemeral in Frank, something buried and terrifying to his system of personal control, Zoe represents something very familiar and stable.  She is impressed by him, she is still charmed by his public face, and she loves his vision despite the knowledge that it’s “wrong”.  You can tell which of these people he’s spent decades of his life with.

And, ok, maybe Pistol Pete has a little symbolic importance here.  Frank watches him and Zoe get a little sexy-freaky, and then they beat him up together while he’s trying to get to Claire.  P’zone Russo says, “you tried, Frank, which is more than most people do,” then tells him to rest his eyes before forcing him into an extremely gross three-person kiss.  That’s not how you’re supposed to do it!  You can see Frank is in incredible pain here, and then his dream resolves: he is sitting facing Claire, she is facing him, they are calm together.

What Pierogi Pete said was right, but it’s inconsequential.  He’s right at Frank’s surface, telling him something he not only already knows, but already acts upon.  That trying is his only mark of distinction.  This is why Frank cannot relax, and why he secretly hates his wife – because for him the value is in the effort, and his effort never stops.  Claire, meanwhile, is heir to the secret known only by the rich and listless, and even then just a select few, for millennia: that having accomplished means you can relax and enjoy your accomplishments.  That effort has no intrinsic value, and is instead just a tool to be employed on your way through this incomprehensible and long life.

Of course, neither view is correct.  Effort is noble, and enjoying the fruits of your effort is wise.  This is why it’s so hard for Frank, and the rest of us, to integrate the wisdom of his matched partner.  Both him and Claire know something utterly necessary and have lived their lives thus far by it.  But this leads to a certain emptiness – in Frank’s case, an inability to value the particular elements of his life, such as his extremely supportive wife and their fake child Doug Stamper.  To bring in Claire’s wisdom, to be penetrated by it, means to change utterly, to change in the core.  It is terrifying and painful, and we see him go through this fear and trembling when he resists his murder threesome with the symbolic characters of his own surface knowledge.

And this may be what’s on Frank’s mind when he dreams, in the same way it’s on my mind when I watch.  Frank’s made it – he’s the president.  There’s very little effort left for him, which is troubling: now what will he conquer?  Out of new worlds to run towards, he is left with the one place to explore he has never been able to abide: himself.  A terrifying place full of fear, hate, and resentment.  He’s lucky, though, to have such an adroit model of how to walk away clean from a brutal upbringing in Claire.  She is more than his wife, she is his partner and his guru.  And by episode 6, he has started to acknowledge this.  We’ll see if he can stick to it through the end of the season.

James Cole Abrams, MA, is a psychotherapist living and working in Boulder and Denver, Colorado. His work can also be found at www.jamescoleabrams.com where he blogs every Sunday. Pop Psych: A Psychotherapist Analyzes Frank Underwood’s Dreams