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

douglasstamper

Netflix

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.

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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.

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