Zoe Barnes was one of people’s favorite characters from the early seasons of House of Cards. Played by Kate Mara, Barnes helped us see the truly dark side of Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey. Now that the fourth season of House of Cards has been put on Netflix, some folks are wondering if her untimely death is going to come back to haunt Underwood. In order to get a better idea of where her plot may finally rest, pun intended, let’s look at her role on the show, and contrast it to the original British series. Before you go on, be warned, this article doesn’t shy away from spoilers.
What Happened to Zoe Barnes?
There’s really no gentle way to say it. Frank Underwood killed her, pushing her in front of a DC Metro line, making it seem like an accident. But what led up to her being such a threat to Underwood as to warrant murder?
Zoe Barnes was introduced to the show in the first episode. Ambitious but young, the reporter for the Washington Herald was dissatisfied with the banality of the stories about which she was writing. Barnes therefore directed all of her charm (read: sexual energy) and social skills toward getting sources from within the political establishment in Washington. On a date with a congressional staff aide, Zoe Barnes attended the same opera as main character Frank Underwood. Underwood, then Whip of the Democrats, who had House majority, was caught by tabloid photographer sneaking a glance at the back of Barnes, in her tight-fitting white dress.
Barnes was informed about the photo, and went to Underwood’s house, persuading him to work with her, to their mutual benefit. He would leak her information from inside the Capitol, and she would run stories to help him further his own political game. Barnes soon began to upset coworkers with her new-found confidence. After sniping the position as White House Correspondent, Barnes continued to upset things at the Herald, creating tension between herself and her editor Tom Hammerschmidt. Eventually, this led to her leaving for an online newspaper, Slugline, which in the show fills a role similar to a hybrid between the real-world Huffington Post and TMZ.
While working at Slugline, Barnes, working with a former colleague, Janine Skorsky from the Herald, begins to investigate the death of Peter Russo, a member of the House of Representatives. Russo, indebted to Frank Underwood for helping him cover up a DUI and escapade with a prostitute, is known to have committed suicide. What Barnes finds out is that Russo was found in the passenger side of the car, despite the news reporting that he had killed himself via carbon monoxide poisoning, alone.
Zoe Barnes goes to Frank Underwood, now the Vice President, looking for more details. While Underwood admits to being involved with covering up the DUI, he denies any further involvement in the Russo tragedy, and persuades Barnes to work with him again, now that he is in an even more powerful position. Barnes walked away from the meeting beginning to doubt her suspicions, and isolates herself from her boyfriend and her coworkers at Slugline.
Underwood, afraid of how much Zoe Barnes might know, schedules another meeting with her, at a DC metro station. Although the meeting was in a more public place, it took place at night and Frank Underwood was cautious to keep himself hidden from security cameras. He convinces her that they need to create a “fresh start,” prompting her to delete his contact information from her phone, and all previous text messages.
Despite the promise of trust, Barnes continues to ask about Russo, and reveals she knows more about Frank Underwood’s Chief of Staff Doug Stamper than he would like. Keenly aware that her knowledge represents a threat to his burgeoning political empire, he gets her to follow him behind a barrier, and shoves her in front of an oncoming train. The well-thought place of murder, combined with the deletion of contact information from her phone, makes it seem as though her death was an accident.
After Her Death – Goodwin & Hammerschmidt
After her death, her boyfriend Lucas Goodwin attempted to pick up the pieces of the Barnes’ investigation. Made aware of his attempts by informants in the FBI, Doug Stamper coordinates a successful attempt at entrapment, resulting in Goodwin’s arrest for cyberterrorism. Initially sentenced to 10 years in prison, Goodwin attempted to convince Tom Hammerschmidt and Janine Skorsky to carry on the investigation, but without any of the involved parties coming forward, they have no evidence. While Skorsky outright refused to participate, Hammerschmidt said he would investigate, but specified that he would treat it as any other investigation, regardless of his personal involvement.
Two years after his imprisonment, Lucas Goodwin was released into witness protection. However, he still is focused on exposing Underwood, prompting him to seek a private audience with Heather Dunbar, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for a presidential campaign, against Underwood. He tries to convince her to investigate Zoe Barnes and Peter Russo, but Dunbar refuses to get involved, more focused on winning her primary campaign.
Weeks later, Frank Underwood is speaking to an angry crowd as part of his own primary campaign. Lucas Goodwin uses the cover of the crowd to get near Frank, shooting him in the liver before being shot by a Secret Service agent and friend of Underwood, Edward Meechum.
This pushes Tom Hammerschmidt, the former editor at the Washington Herald, to reinvigorate his investigation into Frank Underwood. Despite being written off by Underwood in a private meeting prior to Goodin’s arrest for cyberterrorism. In the fourth season, we see Hammerschmidt continuing to pursue any lead he can find, going so far as to interview Freddy Hayes, former proprietor of a BBQ restaurant Underwood frequented as Whip. Hayes, despite having a falling out with Frank Underwood, who had risen to the presidency after the former president’s resignation, violently refuses to answer Hammerschmidt’s questions, leaving him beaten in a DC alley.
Season 4 Hallucinations
In Season 4, after being shot by Lucas Goodwin and going through liver failure, Frank Underwood began to vividly hallucinate. With a failing liver, the brain is drowned in ammonia, causing these hallucinations. In his visions, Underwood is violently and sexually assaulted by Zoe Barnes and Peter Russo, the two people he has killed or had killed in the show. At their surface, the hallucinations represent some of the guilt that Underwood may feel for how he has secured the presidency. But under that, there may be more. The Civil War has had a role through the series, but this is made exceptionally explicit by the Civil War soldier who appears repeatedly in his hallucinations.
One interpretation of the Civil War imagery may be the emphasis that politics is, at its core, an attempt at resolving internal issues before they result in a war. Frank Underwood has spent four seasons fighting not just fighting for his own power, but against his own countrymen, people like Zoe Barnes and Peter Russo, to do what he thinks he must. He has fought his own party, the Democrats, and his own partner and wife, Claire Underwood. These themes seem to only be growing stronger as the show goes on and pushes its own boundaries.
Zoe Barnes in the Original British Series
While the American version has seen fame the English version never did, it may be helpful to look at the show’s roots. Originally based on a book by Michael Dobbs, the UK version focuses on Francis Urquhart. Urquhart is just as ruthless as Underwood, and has his own ghosts that haunt him. In the second series finale, Urquhart is seen throwing a young reporter named Mattie Storin off the roof of Parliament. In some ways, the English show is even more gruesome than the American House of Cards. Storin was still deeply infatuated with Urquhart, screaming her pet name for him as she fell.
What Is Kate Mara Doing Now?
Kate Rooney Mara is best known for her role as Zoe Barnes in House of Cards, but had been in several films prior to the show. Her most well-known roles were in Brokeback Mountain (2005), Shooter (2007), and The Open Road (2009), and in the first season of American Horror Story (2011). Since the end of her main role in House of Cards, she has played the Invisible Woman in 2015’s Fantastic Four and had a role in The Martian.