Whether they’re the puppets or the puppet masters, the diverse set of characters on House of Cards add depth and intrigue to the show’s political machinations. Here’s how they stack up against each other. Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS through the Season 2 finale.
32. Nancy Kaufberger
Played by: Elizabeth NormentWhat she does: secretary to the Democratic whip
Nancy is proud to be Frank Underwood’s secretary — so proud, in fact, that with a little flattery, she’s willing to aid Frank in spying on Jackie Sharp when she’s Jackie’s secretary in Season 2. (It’s possible she didn’t realize what she was doing, exactly. But come on.) Nancy hasn’t been given much in terms of character development, but her loyalty, however twisted, is admirable.
31. Gillian Cole
Played by: Sandrine HoltWhat she does: employee, then owner of Clean Water Initiative
For a very brief period of time, Gillian was a thorn in Claire’s side — it looked as though she might actually do some damage. And when Claire, in response to a potential lawsuit, basically threatened the life of Gillian’s unborn child, it was an eye-opening moment: Claire could be just as cutthroat as Frank. But Gillian disappeared with little fanfare in Season 2, making it all feel a little pointless.
30. Connor Ellis
Played by: Samuel PageWhat he does: communications director for Claire Underwood
Aside from being perhaps the most attractive member of the Underwood’s staff, Connor didn’t leave much of a lasting impression. As soon as Seth Grayson started working for Claire and Frank, purposely pushing Connor out of the loop, there wasn’t much left for Connor to do. He left abruptly, leaving only the memories of his pretty face behind.
29. Lisa Williams
Played by: Kate Lyn SheilWhat she does: social worker
From the moment Lisa showed up on House of Cards, there were sparks between her and Rachel Posner. Oh, sure, they were just friends at first, but you could tell there was something more brewing. Who didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when these two finally got together? Unfortunately, Lisa wasn’t much of a character beyond that, and Doug forced Rachel to quickly dispatch her.
28. Christina Gallagher
Played by: Kristen ConnollyWhat she does: staffer for Peter Russo, then assistant to President Walker
Poor Christina got the short end of the stick by the end of the second season. She was a driven staffer, yes, but for most of Season 1, she was relegated to the role of Peter Russo’s secret girlfriend. And in Season 2, despite the fact that she was a fully competent assistant, she got shut out thanks to Claire’s meddling and Tricia’s jealousy. And then she, too, vanished from the series. Christina deserved better.
27. Janine Skorsky
Played by: Constance ZimmerWhat she does: reporter for The Washington Herald, then Slugline
During Season 1, Janine was rightfully suspicious of Zoe’s inside knowledge of D.C. politics, later deducing that she was sleeping with her source. But once the two reporters started working together, they were even more effective, and it looked as though they might actually uncover Frank Underwood’s involvement in Peter Russo’s death. Instead, Janine got threatened and chickened out. Kind of a bummer exit.
26. Catherine Durant
Played by: Jayne AtkinsonWhat she does: secretary of state
Many of the characters on this list — most, perhaps — are pawns for Frank Underwood, but Catherine Durant is one of the most flagrant examples. A presence throughout the first two seasons, she mostly just exists to do Frank’s bidding, consciously or otherwise. Toward the end of Season 2, she gains some backbone in going above the president — even though, yes, that was Frank’s idea too.
25. Nathan Green
Played by: Jeremy HolmWhat he does: White House/FBI liaison
It takes a real asshole to threaten a guinea pig’s life. Agent Nathan Green is that asshole, using poor Cashew as a means to control Gavin Orsay — well, that and the 100 years of prison time he’s holding over Gavin’s head. On a series with countless unlikeable characters, Agent Green still stands out, if only because he’s perfected that smug dick look.
24. Adam Galloway
Played by: Ben DanielsWhat he does: photographer
Whether it’s the accent or that unbelievably gorgeous New York City apartment, Adam Galloway is a serious temptation for Claire. But her dalliance with Adam in the first season comes back to bite her in the ass during Season 2. Adam does his best to hold his own as he’s manipulated back and forth by Raymond Tusk and the Underwoods, but he wisely admits defeat when it’s clear there’s no winning.
23. Tricia Walker
Played by: Joanna GoingWhat she does: first lady of the United States
You want to feel sympathy for Tricia — and a lot of the time, you do — but she’s just so easily manipulated by Claire, it’s embarrassing. Sure, there are moments in which Tricia stands up for herself, demanding time with her husband, and moving forward with the sexual assault bill. But when push comes to shove, she’s still too weak to survive the world of House of Cards. At least the marriage stayed intact.
22. Seth Grayson
Played by: Derek CecilWhat he does: press secretary for Vice President Underwood
Kudos to Seth Grayson for so deftly slipping his way into the White House and proving himself a valuable asset by gaining seriously damaging intel on Claire’s abortion. He also chooses power over money, siding with Frank against Raymond Tusk, an impressive and ultimately smart move. At the same time, we still don’t know a lot about Seth, and he’s not exactly overflowing in the charm department.
21. Donald Blythe
Played by: Reed BirneyWhat he does: congressman
While Rep. Blythe hasn’t had as much screen time as many of the other characters on this list, his ability to call Frank on his bullshit earns him a respectable ranking. He’s a man of convictions, but he knows enough about the game to realize when Frank is trying to use his wife’s Alzheimer’s to curry favor. And, as he demonstrates when he supports impeachment, he’ll do what he has to for the greater good.
20. Xander Feng
Played by: Terry ChenWhat he does: businessman and backchannel diplomat
It’s hard to top Xander Feng’s introduction: kinky threeway sex involving near-suffocation. And yet, Feng’s sexual proclivities are only one aspect of his character. What’s most fascinating is how calm and collected he seems throughout Season 2 — even when things don’t go his way and with certain death looming in China. Feng’s peculiar coldness is his most interesting trait.
19. Megan Hennessey
Played by: Libby WoodbridgeWhat she does: former U.S. Marine Private
Megan is one of Season 2’s most tragic characters: a rape victim Claire coerces into speaking out, then stabs in the back. It’s not all as calculated as that — at least, not at first — but regardless of Claire’s initial intentions, by the end, she’s turned Megan into another pawn. The storyline is depressing, but it reflects the staggering real-life statistics of sexual assault in the military as well as the psychological toll it takes.
18. Daniel Lanigan
Played by: Gil BirminghamWhat he does: casino owner
Another one of Raymond Tusk’s secret partners, Daniel Lanigan proves to be a formidable foe in Season 2. Anyone who stands up to Frank Underwood is impressive, and there’s something particularly brazen about Lanigan — his no-fucks-given gaze, perhaps — that makes him that much more fun to watch. The poolside scene between Lanigan, Tusk, and Frank is one of the season’s best.
17. Freddy Armstrong
Played by: Reg E. CatheyWhat he does: owner of Freddy’s BBQ
While Freddy was a presence throughout the first season of House of Cards, it wasn’t until Season 2 that he really came into his own. It was a little strange at first — why was this ribs cook, however great the ribs, getting so much screen time? As it turned out, Freddy was doomed to be a casualty of the battle between Frank and Raymond Tusk. His eventual sacrifice was a punch in the gut for viewers.
16. Tom Hammerschmidt
Played by: Boris McGiverWhat he does: reporter, former editor-in-chief of The Washington Herald
Tom Hammerschmidt hasn’t always been likable. This is, after all, the editor who called Zoe Barnes a “cunt” when firing her. And yet, he gets some redemption in the second season, doing his best to tell Lucas Goodwin’s story — for better or worse — even though he believes very little of it. Tom is clearly good at his job, but he’s firmly planted in the world of newspapers, and old media has its limits.
15. Edward Meechum
Played by: Nathan DarrowWhat he does: Frank Underwood’s bodyguard and driver, then Secret Service member
For most of his episodes, Meechum doesn’t do a whole lot. He’s clearly a loyal staff member to the Underwoods, but we know very little about him. And then, on one fateful drunken night, Meechum blew our collective minds when he got drunk and had sex with Claire and Frank. And if we’re being real, he seemed a lot more into Mr. Underwood. Turns out there’s more to Meechum than meets the eye.
14. Lucas Goodwin
Played by: Sebastian ArcelusWhat he does: Editor at The Washington Herald
Poor Lucas Goodwin. His intrepid reporter skills — and willingness to team up with a serious hacker — were no match for Frank Underwood. And yet, it was still fun to watch him nobly struggle to pin Zoe’s death on Frank, giving up sleep and sanity in pursuit of an unattainable goal. The fact that he’s now wasting away in federal prison just makes his character all the more tragic.
13. Ayla Sayyad
Played by: Mozhan MarnòWhat she does: reporter for The Washington Telegraph
Finally, a truly competent journalist on House of Cards. Ayla Sayyad is so good at her job that she doesn’t even need to sleep with a source or hire a hacker. She does things by the book and gets results — so effectively, in fact, that Raymond Tusk assumes she’s working for Frank. Sayyad’s resilience in the face of Tusk’s threats prove what a badass she is. And they make Lucas seem really whiny in comparison.
12. Gavin Orsay
Played by: Jimmi SimpsonWhat he does: hacker and FBI informant
Gavin would be a weirdo even without his sidekick, beloved pet guinea pig Cashew. But Cashew is what pushes Gavin into the realm of greatness. He’s a creepy hacker hermit, working for the FBI to avoid jail time. But he also has his own agenda, and it goes beyond keeping Cashew safe. When he slaps Lucas for his insolence, his inner rage is unmasked. Also, at one point, he literally barks like a dog.
11. Zoe Barnes
Played by: Kate MaraWhat she does: reporter for The Washington Herald, then Slugline
As far as some people are concerned, the best thing Zoe ever did on House of Cards was get thrown in front of a train. And yes, that was a pretty incredible moment. But give Zoe some credit. While her character has been criticized for inconsistency, much of that reflects her internal struggle to be the best at her job while compromising her morals and negotiating newfound fame. She is missed.
10. Rachel Posner
Played by: Rachel BrosnahanWhat she does: call girl, then telemarketer
There are few House of Cards characters more tragic than Rachel Posner, who is ruthlessly manipulated in Season 1, and then forced to live a sad, isolated life in Season 2. While sparing her life seemed like mercy, Doug Stamper’s control over her — which quickly becomes an obsession — nearly destroyed her. As great a character as Doug was, it was truly satisfying to see Rachel finally bash his head in and flee.
9. Linda Vasquez
Played by: Sakina JaffreyWhat she does: chief of staff to President Walker
It’s easy to underestimate Linda — Frank certainly does. But she’s more than just the occasional thorn in his side. In fact, Linda comes very close to exposing Frank for who he is at the end of Season 2. It’s only the president’s backpedaling that gets in the way. Linda also knows when to pull out: Her resignation was a blessing for Frank, but he also noted that it was the first time he had truly respected her.
8. Garrett Walker
Played by: Michael GillWhat he does: president of the United States
Walker was a kind of a dud president in Season 1, wasn’t he? He certainly talks like a president, but he was far too easy to manipulate. It was only in Season 2 that he broke free from being Frank’s puppet, eventually realizing that his trusted vice president was the one pulling all the strings. Sadly, Walker reverted to his lame former self in the end, quickly resigning and giving Frank the reigns. Poor choice.
7. Remy Danton
Played by: Mahershala AliWhat he does: lobbyist at Glendon Hill
Remy is a force to be reckoned with — both as a lobbyist and as Raymond Tusk’s righthand man. While Remy seems largely motivated by money, he also has his own complicated set of morals that round out the character. Who would have guessed that the same man who convinced Claire to backstab her husband in the first season would demand commitment over casual sex from Jackie Sharp in Season 2?
6. Jackie Sharp
Played by: Molly ParkerWhat she does: House majority whip
Jackie Sharp spends a lot of time insisting that she isn’t Frank Underwood. And that’s true, but it doesn’t mean she won’t go to extreme lengths to get her way. That was clear from the beginning when she destroyed a lifelong friend’s reputation to become whip. She’s one of the strongest, most uncompromising characters on the show, and her desire to do it all without becoming Frank makes her fascinating.
5. Raymond Tusk
Played by: Gerald McRaneyWhat he does: businessman and advisor to President Walker
Like Frank, Raymond Tusk keeps his true desires under wraps, which is why he makes such an effective adversary. He’s one of the show’s most ruthless characters, but he’s spent most of his life passing through undetected. By the time he angrily snaps one of his pet bird’s necks, it’s clear he’s been pushed to his limit, but think of how many years he was able to manipulate the economy behind closed doors.
4. Doug Stamper
Played by: Michael KellyWhat he does: chief of staff to Frank Underwood
Doug is complicated, to put it mildly. How else to explain a recovering alcoholic who has no qualms about getting fellow alcoholic Peter Russo drunk to destroy him? He’s fiercely loyal to Frank but also haunted by his own demons — as seen in his unsettling fixation on Rachel. It’s hard to imagine Frank surviving without Doug, but he’ll now have to, as Season 2 ended with Doug’s untimely demise.
3. Peter Russo
Played by: Corey StollWhat he does: congressman, candidate for governor of Pennsylvania
Let’s be fair: Peter Russo was troubled before Frank Underwood came along. But he died because of Frank’s manipulation, and not only because Frank was the one to actually do the deed. As Season 1’s major casualty, Peter was a reminder of the personal toll political machinations can take. His struggles with alcoholism and his Frank-orchestrated relapse gave him a tragic arc that anchored the first season.
2. Frank Underwood
Played by: Kevin SpaceyWhat he does: House majority whip, then vice president of the United States, then president of the United States
Everything in House of Cards circles around Frank Underwood’s unstoppable rise to the top: Even at his most reprehensible, his skillful maneuvering and shady dealings are a pleasure to watch. As television antiheroes go, Frank is one of the hardest to like, whether he’s casually murdering former lovers or forcing a presidential resignation. The fact that we still root for Frank somehow is a credit to the series.
1. Claire Underwood
Played by: Robin WrightWhat she does: head of Clean Water Initiative, then second lady of the United States, then first lady of the United States
But there is no Frank — or Francis, as she calls him — without Claire. Claire is the standout character of House of Cards, a woman just as conniving as Frank but also motivated by her own personal causes. Herself a victim of sexual assault, Claire’s desire to reform the way the military handles rape cases is noble. That she eventually caves to political pressure adds depth — as do her surprising tears.