Why Kimmy Schmidt and Claire Underwood are the same person

Ok, maybe not exactly the same, but…

Left: Patrick Harbon/Netflix; Right: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

Since the delightful Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt premiered on Netflix at the beginning of March, the titular Kimmy has been compared to a slew of TV characters, most of them female, most of them funny. Kimmy is indeed sassy like Mindy Lahiri, sunny like Leslie Knope, and secretive like Samantha from Bewitched. But Kimmy also bears an unexpected resemblance to one of Netflix’s more dramatic leading ladies: Claire Underwood from House of Cards.

Unbreakable and House of Cards admittedly occupy very different worlds within the Netflix universe: Unbreakable is a goofy (and hilarious) sitcom that isn’t above the occasional poop joke, while House of Cards is a sleek political drama with enough gravitas to sink a ship. The shows’ respective female leads are, accordingly, quite dissimilar. Kimmy is excitable, totes around a purple Jansport, and has a bit of a thing for The Baby-sitters Club. Claire is controlled, boasts an endless supply of white power dresses, and has a bit of a thing for subversive political maneuvering. But in spite of those differences, Kimmy and Claire share a similar—and similarly gripping—narrative arc that sees them free themselves from nasty men who wield a disproportionate amount of power.

Unbreakable, the latest offering from 30 Rock duo Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, follows the aftermath of Kimmy’s rescue from a doomsday cult led by the Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne (“senior prophet and CFO of Savior Rick’s Spooky Church of the Scary-Pocalypse”). Armed with her newfound freedom, Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) moves to New York, where she displays a wide-eyed amazement at everything that she has missed while in the bunker. “Day two in New York, and you’ve already got a room with a door, a pair of shoes and a black friend!” she tells herself after meeting her roommate, Titus.

But an undercurrent of trauma runs beneath Kimmy’s good cheer. She lived her formative years under the isolating control of a crazed man who told her how to dress and what to think. Though she tries to hide her identity as a “mole woman????? (the unfortunate media title that gets slapped on Kimmy and three other women who were abducted by the Reverend), Kimmy can’t quite repress her memories of her captivity, which gurgle up in flashbacks and nightmares. Kimmy’s spirit might not be broken, but it is a little bit cracked.

Because Kimmy’s rescue from the bunker is only the first phase of her liberation, Unbreakable is very much about Kimmy’s journey to reclaim the identity that has been stolen from her. Kimmy quickly sheds her drab bunker uniform for fuchsia dresses and canary-yellow cardigans. She gets a job. She starts studying for her GED. Most importantly, she learns how to exist without relying on the influence of a man.

In an episode titled “Kimmy Rides a Bike!” Jacqueline takes Kimmy to a SoulCycle-esque class led by the fitness guru Christopher (which he pronounces “Tristafey”). Kimmy becomes enthralled by Christopher’s zen platitudes, which she mimics from atop the exercise bike she installs in her living room. But pretty soon, Kimmy realizes that she has simply substituted one cult with another. “Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?” she cries out to her fellow female cycle-mates. “Replacing one stupid male authority with another, like Days of Our Lives replaces Roman Bradys.”

While Kimmy was kept in a literal prison, Claire finds herself in a figurative one. Like bunker era-Kimmy, she spends much of her existence subsumed by the wants of the primary man in her life. The Underwoods’ marriage is fueled by one main goal: getting Frank into the Oval Office and keeping him there for as long as possible. Claire is, for the most part, a willing player in her husband’s machinations, and she can scheme, manipulate and bully with the best of them. But Claire’s ambitions always come second to Frank’s bid for the presidency. In season one, she rejects a donation that could save her non-profit because it comes from one of Frank’s opponents. In season two, she makes concessions on her sexual assault bill in exchange for votes that would oust the current President, allowing Frank to take his place. Kimmy falls prey to a man with a megalomaniacal sense of his own importance and so, in a way, does Claire.

House of Cards’ third season sees Claire come to the gradual realization that her sense of self has eroded throughout the course of her marriage. Her discontent begins with her bid for U.N. ambassadorship, a job that Claire pretty clearly does not deserve. Claire convinces Frank to nominate her for the position and when her nomination is voted down, she asks him to give her the title through a recess appointment. He concedes, and she heaves into their kitchen sink. Claire knows that she is completely dependent on Frank to get what she wants, and that awareness makes her sick.

Frank holds the power to terminate Claire’s ambassadorship, which he does when it becomes convenient for him. Then Claire has an angry workout on the couple’s rowing machine, and we know things are about to get dramatic. Like Kimmy, Claire begins asserting her independence after years of leading a life that was not really her own. She refuses to accompany Frank during his public appearances for the Iowa caucus. When he emerges victorious, she tells Frank that she will play no further part in his political aspirations. “We used to make each other stronger, or at least I thought so,” Claire tells Frank. “But that was a lie. We were making you stronger. And now I’m just weak and small, and I can’t stand that feeling any longer.”

Frank, unsurprisingly, does not react to this statement kindly. He grabs his wife by the face and hisses into her ear: “You will get on that plane to New Hampshire, you will smile, and shake hands, and kiss babies.” Still, while Frank is the one with his hand clasped on Claire’ chin, the power dynamic of their relationship seems to shift. Frank is desperate. He relies on Claire and needs her to appear by his side so he can make a PR-perfect bid for his second term in office. “Without me, you are nothing,” he tells Claire, but it is clearer than ever that the opposite is true.

Kimmy  experiences a similar, if far goofier, confrontation scene. In the penultimate episode of the series, she heads back to her hometown of Durnsville to testify against Wayne Gary Wayne in court. She plays a tape of the Reverend auditioning for The Apprentice (which, it turns out, he had filmed one day before the apocalypse that he supposedly believed was going to scorch the earth to dust)The footage depicts the Reverend proclaiming that he is “a genius and really good with clients,” and it makes him seem small, silly and sad. The Reverend needed Kimmy and her fellow mole women to fuel his desperate ego, just like Frank needed Claire to realize his own self-promotion.

The seasonal narratives of both Kimmy and Claire end with closure. Kimmy puts the Reverend in jail with her testimony, and Claire announces the she is leaving Frank as she strolls calmly out of the White House. These conclusions aren’t about revenge, they’re about emancipation: both women shed overweening influences in their lives so they can exist on their own terms. Or, in the words of Unbreakable’s auto-tuned theme song, “They alive, dammit! It’s a miracle! Females are strong as hell!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *