[WARNING: The following story contains major spoilers from the third season of House of Cards. Read at your own risk.]
The second season of House of Cards began with a shocking a death, but the Netflix drama's third season offered up a surprise resurrection.
The Season 3 premiere revealed that, despite being brained with a brick multiple times in the Season 2 finale, Frank Underwood's chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is, in fact, alive. "It was always planned," executive producer Beau Willimon tells TVGuide.com. "We wanted it to be a question at the end of Season 2, but we always knew that he would be [back]. I think the importance of Doug Stamper in the story is obvious. He's a character who has proven more loyal to the Underwoods than really anyone else. He has been at the center of everything the Underwoods have done to achieve their climb to power, and to have his loyalty and his position tested in Season 3... was a story that we felt was necessary for understanding him and the Underwoods better."
Tested indeed. Much of the opening episode dealt with Doug's recovery, including his adamant drive to get back to work at the White House. Of course, nothing's that easy. After breaking his arm while showering — and using duct tape and a wooden spoon as a makeshift splint so he wouldn't miss a meeting in the Oval Office! --Doug fell off the wagon and took a pain pill. Things got even more wild when the former alcoholic hired a prostitute to shoot a syringe filled with bourbon into his mouth.
But is Doug struggling with physical pain, or is he nursing the deeper wound of being kept on the bench by Frank (Kevin Spacey)? TVGuide.com chatted with Kelly about being brought back to life, the dangerous game he's playing with his sobriety and just what was going on with that hooker. Plus: Find out why future episodes feature Doug playing against Frank.
Did you know at the end of last season you would be coming back?
Michael Kelly: When we shot it, in every single take I was doing very shallow breathing, exactly as it was scripted. Beau and I are pretty close, and we talked about it, and he's like, "Yeah, it's a just a cliff-hanger." Then when the show came out... my dad emailed me and he's like, "Just finished the show. Loved it. But I gotta say, you're dead. And the next morning my business manager was like, "Well, it was a fun run while it lasted." Then the show was officially picked up and people's contracts were getting hammered out, and I hadn't heard anything. I was like, "Wow, maybe they changed their tune. I know what I shot, but I know what they obviously made it look like." It was a good three weeks after that until I heard officially that I was picked up with the show. There was a little bit of time of freaking out.
The first episode back has a lot of Doug in it. How did that feel?
Kelly: It was a great big mixture being completely honored and absolutely petrified. Because it's the president's show, you know? I was given the material well ahead and I worked with the director John Cole. One of his dear friends is one of the top brain surgeons in the country and deals so much with these kind of injuries. So, I was at a very big advantage that I was able to get on the phone with him many times. I had a million questions and I did a lot of research. So, I was very, very fortunate for it to be the first one, so I could do all the research going in.
In that first episode, Doug is clearly focused on getting back on his feet quickly, but pushes himself a bit too hard.
Kelly: It very clearly looks like recovery, but at the core, all of it for Doug is to get back to work. The recovery is a byproduct. When the pain becomes too much, he decides to self-medicate, especially once he's fallen off the wagon with the pills. When he takes the first pain pill, that's falling off the wagon. You can't do that.
So, he doesn't see going back to bourbon as escalation?
Kelly: When he self-medicates with the bourbon, the way that he looked at it was, "I'm not drinking again. I'm medicating myself to deal with the pain." Those shots of bourbon, they're precisely drawn the exact same amount every time. He rationalizes it in his head, saying, "OK, here's my dose of medicine. I'm not drinking." Your mind is not working the same way.
That scene has the extra layer of weirdness when Doug calls over the prostitute. Is that a further rationalization? That she's his nurse or caregiver administering the medicine?Kelly: [Laughs] Yeah. I don't think it was played as any sort of sick, perverted thing. It was more like, "I just need you to give it to me. I can deal with the pain, and we can carry on with what it is we're going to do here." Doug just thinks a little differently than most other people. [Laughs]
But is he only medicating for the physical pain? Or is part of him struggling with the fact that he wasn't just welcomed back into the White House?
Kelly: Oh, yeah. That's all he cares about, and he foolishly believes that he's fine and he can do it. That job is his life. He loves his job and he will do anything for his job. Frank'ssmart enough to realize that he's not ready, just from seeing him there. So, the whole season becomes about that. "How do I get back?"
Doug's a smart guy. Does he not see that his shortcuts are ultimately detriments that could jeopardize the job forever in the long run?
Kelly: You become blind to it. He becomes blind to the detriments, and that sends him into a deeper spiral. Francis says he's not ready and it's devastating because he believes he is and he's been working so hard. It's shock and it causes him to make some foolish decisions.
Such as joining Dunbar's (Elizabeth Marvel) campaign? Is that to get back at Frank or is it a long con?
Kelly: He doesn't go to Dunbar to f--- over Francis. He doesn't go to work for the competition. Everything that Doug does the entire season is to get back to where he feels he belongs. The whole arc of the season is "Get me back to my job." To go to work for Dunbar, he's got something up his sleeve.
But Frank hasn't asked him to do that, right?
Kelly: That's correct.
Why do you think Doug stays by Frank's side no matter what?
Kelly: One of Doug's greatest attributes is that his loyalty. He is the loyal soldier. He is the one who will do absolutely anything to serve the man. That's just what he does. It's what he loves. It's the addiction of power. I don't think it's an addiction to Francis as much as it is the addiction to the job, to the power. I think he very much admires Francis, but I think he loves his job.
Some of the information Doug gives Dunbar to win her over is damaging to the Underwoods. Could that backfire on Doug?
Kelly: Sure. And the way that Claire [Robin Wright] reacts to what I've done there with Dunbar and the way that Francis reacts to what I've done with Dunbar are completely different reactions. It's a very big thing that he does. Francis is fine with it, and Claire is not.
Frank and Claire seem on shakier ground than ever. Does Doug get drawn into that fight? Kelly: To an extent. Without a doubt, Doug's loyalty is to Francis. It's not to the president and the first lady. Yes, I serve them as a whole sometimes, but Frank is my man. I serve him. If they're going to fight, I'm taking sides. I found it really interesting this season that we're dealing with what happens when someone actually gets what he wants. Now you're the president and it's not everything you thought it would be.
Right, Frank seems to have lost some of the mojo he had when he was clawing his way up the ladder. Does Doug worry that Frank's not the guy he supported all these years?
Kelly: Doug believes it could be better with him around. Frank's making some decisions that aren't so great. If he had Doug by his side, he might not have made the same decisions. I don't think that Doug agrees with everything that he's seeing. That's why he's trying to get back.
We also see Doug working with Gavin (Jimmi Simpson) to find Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan). He claims it's to tie up loose ends for Frank, but is there some part of him that just wants to see her again?
Kelly: Yeah. That relationship with Rachel is as complicated as anything. To him, that's another addiction. He was addicted to alcohol, and when a lot of alcoholics remove that from the equation, their energy and focus goes into something else. For Doug, it went into his job. Then comes Rachel, and it's sort of like he got very addicted to her, however twisted it was. She also falls under that thing of, "I know that's something that I have to deal with, and if I could show that to Francis and maybe that's my way back in." But I also believe that a lot of his desire to find Rachel is not necessarily to seek revenge or to get her back for doing what she did to him. He has to have her again.
House of Cards Season 3 is currently available on Netflix. What did you think of Doug's return?