How House of Cards Subverts the Typical Trauma Narrative

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by Eric Liebowitz/NBCU Photo Bank, Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank, Ray Mickshaw/FOX, David Giesbrecht/Netflix, Craig Blankenhorn/FX and Ursula Coyote/AMC

Violent trauma limits TV characters physically, but it’s great for actors; it gives them new challenges and lets them shine apart from their castmates, or against them. Michael Kelly must love playing Doug Stamper on House of Cards, the former chief of staff to the show’s recently ascended president, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Last season, Doug got bashed in the head with a rock while chasing Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), the prostitute who helped Frank derail and destroy Peter Russo in season one. Though the final image of Doug made it seem as though he was dead, season three found him emerging from a coma and dealing with a brain injury that hurt his mobility. This plunges Doug into depression, leading him to self-medicate with prostitutes and bourbon (which he squirts into his mouth with a syringe — a great example of an alcoholic pretending that drinking a little isn't "really" drinking).

Kelly, who is alone onscreen for long stretches this season, plays the character’s pain with a matter-of-fact stoicism that’s characteristic of Doug, while still showing us the great (and ultimately counterproductive) effort required to act as though he can get through it all without help. There’s no reason for Doug to tape up his broken arm after falling in the bathtub. If he were afraid of ending up in the news, he could’ve called one of Frank’s people and gotten a private doctor. It’s the act of a man who’s not in his right mind and has taken a code of self-sufficiency into the realm of the ludicrous. Because of who he is, and the sort of show House of Cards is, Doug's journey does not end on an affirmative note. And that's what makes his story stand apart from all the other examples of trauma and recovery on scripted TV.

Television history is filled with examples of characters like Doug who suffer grave injuries and fight their way back toward a semblance of mental and physical health. Often these stories are exploited for shock value, then quickly and conveniently resolved so as to not bum people out for too long. See Skye on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., who got shot, then recovered thanks to an injection of alien blood; Quinn Fabray on Glee, who ended up in a wheelchair after a car accident but was walking again soon; and Frank Pembleton on Homicide who — despite a stroke so severe it destroyed his ability to speak — was fine ten episodes later.

The latter was conspicuously disappointing because the show prided itself (though not always with good reason) on its gritty realism. Homicide’s producers and lead actor Andre Braugher knew that strokes as bad as Frank’s rarely end in full recovery and originally meant for him to have trouble speaking from then on out. But viewers hated seeing Frank in that condition: thus the miracle. There are many such miracles on TV, and a lot of them come from the same place: viewer pressure (note-giving network executives are viewers, too). We’re willing to watch our favorite characters suffer, but not too much, and we tend to want restorative endings that reset the character as he or she originally was, even if that’s not dramatically or medically realistic.

But prolonged and more believable recoveries have been a staple of scripted drama, too; when they're intelligently executed, these plotlines give actors a chance to perform Doug Stamper–like anguished solos in relative isolation, which can lead to great TV. Pain puts a spotlight on characters (and actors) that might not have otherwise settled on them — at least not for as long. But like the more hurried, cynical trauma-and-recovery stories, the realistic ones tend to arc toward a resolution that's sunny, hopeful, or at least not entirely downbeat. Most notable, Hank Schrader went through a Doug-like scenario on Breaking Bad following a shootout, with heavy rehab and frustrated lashing-out against his wife Marie. But he arguably sharpened his detective skills during his housebound phase, and while his tale ended tragically, at least he got to expose and pursue his once-secret nemesis.

The list goes on: The West Wing’s Josh Lyman spent the better part of a season recovering after getting wounded in an assassination attempt on the president, while Zoey Bartlet, the president’s daughter, was abducted by terrorists and spent a while coming to terms with that. Emily on Revenge got shot and had to recover; Homicide: Life on the Street critically wounded three detectives and spent a season watching them deal with the aftermath; and The Sopranos put its hero in a coma after a close-quarters shooting by his uncle, leading to dream-state wanderings and many frustrating near-epiphanies. Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans was shot in season one and has healed slowly (only to be dealt another blow in season three). Grey’s Anatomy is fully stocked with trauma survivors, including Arizona, whose leg was amputated after a plane crash.

One of the better trauma narratives I’ve seen was Karen Sammler’s on the short-lived ABC series Once and Again: She got hit by a car and spent several months in recovery. Like Hank’s story line on Breaking Bad, her plight gave people who’d never been through something like that a sense of what it means to be sidelined from your own life. Even after the physical damage has healed, injured characters sometimes cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. John Carter and Mark Greene on ER played out a version of this arc (Carter was stabbed, Green beaten), and both were changed by their experiences: made warier, slightly less sensitive, and more attuned to situations that signal impending violence. (Hank experienced multiple layers of PTSD, actually, and the originating incident might have been that tortoise-bomb in Mexico in season two. In every season afterwards, there was a triggering incident that briefly put us inside the character's troubled mind.)

All these characters seem to be experiencing injury as if it has never happened to anyone before — a reaction that feels unfortunately true to life, as it rarely occurs to anyone to imagine such a thing happening to them. ER doc Kerry Weaver’s long struggle with congenital hip dysplasia showed the other characters what it means to integrate disability into daily life, though they might not have paid as close attention as they should have.

Although beatings, car accidents, and the like are visually spectacular, trauma narratives can also originate in illness, and be just as involving — often more so, because a sick character, by necessity, rarely suffers alone (or nearly alone, like Doug). Their plight occurs within an established social framework of family, workplace, or community. Part of the fascination comes from seeing how other characters react to a friend or family member’s struggle. Some are compassionate and involved, others tone-deaf or chilly. Cancer has fueled some of the most rewarding plotlines on Sex and the City (Samantha), Parenthood (Kristina), and powered all of The Big C, Breaking Bad, and ABC Family’s Chasing Life. Fox’s recently canceled Red Band Society was set in a pediatric ward filled with teenagers suffering from various illnesses and conditions, including osteosarcoma, Ewing sarcoma, anorexia, and cystic fibrosis.

What makes Doug’s story line on House of Cards unusual is its bleak resolution. Though Doug doesn’t immediately realize it, he has been dealt a double-whammy. The physical damage, which required him to hobble around with a walker, scarf down pain meds, and navigate his own apartment like a minefield was bad enough. But the pain of being shut out of the Underwood White House (because he was physically limited, but also because of his connection to the Posner/Russo thing) deepened his depression, and probably plunged him into the moral spiral that intensified as the season went on.

Doug’s story is atypical only because it ends (or pauses) on such a dour note. The pain that he suffered launched him down a rough road. I won’t reveal the finale of House of Cards' third season, which is truly upsetting; let’s just say that the injury changed Doug in the worst way, burning away whatever remained of this chilly political fixer’s conscience. All he wanted was to get back to where he’d been — a return to a dark Eden lorded over by forked-tongued Frank — and he gets his wish, but the final episode feels like a point of no return for this character.

Traumatized TV characters usually end up learning a lot about themselves and growing in the process. In Doug’s case, the education has been ugly, his growth malignant. Doug's last scene cuts to Frank being congratulated on a victory, which makes it sound as though the president somehow triumphed over Doug as well as his official opponents. This is true, in a way. Frank wins every battle in the end, even the ones he wasn't really present for. The prize here is a wounded man's soul. Doug can’t sink any lower; he’s unquestionably as bad as the Underwoods now. The beating and brain damage self-actualized him, but not in a good way. A TV tradition has been flipped upside-down and dropped on its head.