The Most Interesting Character on House of Cards

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 28 2014 12:01 PM

Character Studies: Doug Stamper, House of Cards



This post contains spoilers for the first two seasons of House of Cards.

The sharp hits and sometimes zany plot twists of House of Cards may be what get viewers to binge, but it’s the show’s cast of characters that leaves you reeling in the morning. Kevin Spacey’s ruthless, fourth wall-breaking Frank Underwood anchors the drama, of course, rivaled by his enigmatic wife, Claire (Robin Wright). But Underwood’s lethal chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) was the secondary character to watch in Season 2, adding a psychological depth to the show’s darkness as he descended into his own abyss.


In the first 13 chapters of the series, Stamper seemed as dark and empty as the show’s own nonexistent conscience. He carried out the congressman’s unspeakable deeds without remark, deceived all, and often operated under the cover of night. With Frank Underwood as a sort of faux-Shakespearean protagonist, first-season Stamper was a fairly standard henchman—he possessed much of Frank’s effectiveness with none of the formal façade. His evil reached its apogee, like Frank’s, with the murder of Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). A recovering alcoholic and Russo’s A.A. sponsor, Doug used the candidate’s trust to engineer his tumble off the wagon.

In the series’ return, however, Stamper’s storyline is something else entirely—and sometimes proves more compelling than the convoluted central plot. He continues to serve dutifully as head cog in Underwood’s calculated system. (“Upward mobility has a ceiling with the Underwoods. I’m the ceiling,” he quips to the new press secretary in Episode 9.) But this time it is Doug who falls under the influence. Whether going toe-to-toe with a corrupt Chinese billionaire or passing a weekend in a Missouri casino, Stamper feeds an addiction on the side that causes his cool demeanor unravel with each passing minute.

His poison of choice? Not alcohol, and not even sex, exactly, but rather the mind-altering presence of Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), the one-time call-girl used to snare Peter Russo. Though she knows too much, Stamper fails to “make her disappear,” going to great lengths to get his fix from both near (a stake-out of her remote Maryland apartment) and far (a creepy long-distance voicemail from Beijing). He draws us into his obsession when he confesses at his weekly meeting: “I should cut her off,” he admits, “the way I did with booze.”

This transformation from Underwood’s omnipresent henchman to his own worst enemy is the season’s best bit of psychological drama. Stamper still claims to be Underwood’s “failsafe,” but in Season 2 he’s really Underwood’s foil. Frank cuts off his own signs of weakness at the stem, while Doug cannot. He allows his addiction to flourish, ultimately undermining his value to the vice president, who offers him a surprising “third chance” following an uncharacteristic failure. In one of the second season’s more surprising scenes, we watch as he listens to Rachel reading Dickens aloud in a car. She trails off as his eyes begin to close: “It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness …” Doug desires something other than power, and it gets in the way.

As the season progresses, Doug acts more and more irrationally. He deletes Rachel’s number and crushes his phone in his hands. He lurks outside her window and listens at her door. He uses the power he has over her to end the romance she’s begun. And finally, in a late-season twist, it’s Rachel, not Doug, who plays the trump card in the dark, knocking him dead from behind after he follows her into the woods.

We get our last look at Stamper face down in the dirt, just as Frank’s quest for power reaches new heights. But his slow collapse exposes a fissure in Frank’s careful plot, raising questions about his political future—and Season 3. As Frank’s ring hits his new desk, we’re left wondering how far he too could fall.

Audrey Wilson is a Slate intern in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.