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Best Performances: House of Cards' Michael Kelly on Doug's "Ultimate Sacrifice"

He breaks down that big dinner scene

Liz Raftery

On Season 5 of House of Cards, the moment Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) has been simultaneously dreading and preparing for finally arrived. In the penultimate episode, Claire and Frank Underwood (Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey) invite Doug, Frank's chief of staff, to a dinner... Where they ask him to implicate himself in a murder he didn't commit.

Kelly says the moment Doug receives the request -- which is really more like an order -- from the Underwoods to make the "ultimate sacrifice" and take the fall for Zoe Barnes' (Kate Mara) Season 2 murder (committed by Frank) represents the latest in a series of low points for his character.

"It just hits him like a ton of bricks," Kelly, who's nominated for a drama supporting actor Emmy Award for his role as Doug (and the episode specifically), tells TV Guide. "But he doesn't freak out about it. He's got to internalize it. So much of that character and playing Doug Stamper is doing the homework to know everything that's really going on, so that you can then take those emotions and bury them and hope that they somehow surface. ... He has to say a lot without saying a lot, which is difficult. But I love it."

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The challenge Kelly faces in the episode, and the brilliance of his performance in it, stems from that exact notion: In the aforementioned dinner scene, Doug conveys all of his emotions wordlessly. After he initially offers to resign, we see the realization slowly dawn on him that what his bosses are expecting of him is actually much, much worse. As Doug processes the information, his anguish is made even more palpable by the fact that he doesn't say anything. The disbelief, frustration and anger are all right there on his face, before he abruptly excuses himself from the table.

Kevin Spacey, Michael Kelly, Robin Wright, House of Cards
David Giesbrecht / Netflix

"As a chief of staff, I think you always know that could be the case, that you will have to take the fall for something. It's your job, if you do it right and you do it well," Kelly says. "But to hear those words come out of their mouths, the people who he's done everything for his entire career ... that's a really big ask. I felt the need to have to get up and leave."

Doug's other big scene in the episode is when he goes to LeAnn's (Neve Campbell) house and "tries out" the confession on her. She doesn't believe him, but as Doug rehearses the lines he'll have to soon say in a much more formal (and damning) setting, it becomes clear that it's a catharsis of sorts for him, a way to work through the guilt he still feels for killing Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) in Season 3.

Kelly modestly attributes much of his performance in both scenes to the influence of his co-star Wright, who directed the episode (as well as the Season 5 finale).

"She's incredibly instrumental in helping you really find the smallest details that make the biggest difference in a scene," he says. "I forget the exact words that Robin used, but I remember her taking me in a different direction than I had originally thought for that scene [with LeAnn]. ... It was Robin who touched on, 'Let's look at the other implications that might be going on here. Maybe this is a little bit more about Rachel.'"

Will this be the last straw for Doug? Probably not, based on what we've seen from him thus far in the show. But even Kelly isn't sure where his character will go from here.

"Doug Stamper is like a rock, so steady," he notes. "Those peaks and valleys though, what he goes through personally, with the alcohol, with Rachel, all of it being addiction at its core - addiction to her, addiction to alcohol, addiction to his job, addiction to Frank -- those ups and downs are fascinating to get to play."

All five seasons of House of Cards are available on Netflix. The 69th Primetime Emmy Awards air Sunday at 8/7c on CBS.

(Full disclosure: is owned by CBS.)