Ruthless Recovery: Relapse Isn’t Failure in House of Cards

Friday, March 8th, 2013

Spoiler Alert: This review reveals key plot points of House of Cards.

Unless orchestrating your sponsee’s relapse is Step 13 in the steps to recovery, Congressional staffer Doug Stamper is in the running for worst Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor of all time. Stamper (Michael Kelly) is the deputy villain in Netflix’s House of Cards, a show that expresses unrelenting cynicism about everything from female reporters to nonprofit executives. However, House of Cards is worth watching for its depiction of two facets of recovery: its fragility and also its power, especially when that recovery comes with full honesty, transparency, and responsibility.

Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood in House of CardsDoug’s boss is Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a Southern congressman who oozes a poisonous charm and operates a smooth three moves ahead of his enemies. When Frank spots a tragic flaw in a troubled young Congressman, Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), he decides Peter is the perfect political pawn.

Peter may be the kind of man who drives drunk with a prostitute in the passenger seat, but he’s one of the most warm and human characters on the show. Frank sees Peter’s weakness for women, vodka, and cocaine and decides to exploit it, first through blackmail and by extorting a political favor in exchange for Peter’s unquestioning loyalty. Then he guides Peter to addiction recovery and sets him up for a position of power, only to exploit his addiction to tear him down.

On a superficial level, Frank sees Peter’s recovery as a political strength. They turn his newfound sobriety into an explicit metaphor for the economic recovery Peter’s struggling blue-collar district is desperate to see. This works best with only partial honesty, however. One character muses, “The narrative has to be redemption. A phoenix from the ashes.” Frank rejoins, “Well let’s not focus on the ashes. We don’t want people to think Peter was a disaster.” They instruct Peter to talk about the alcohol but lie about the drugs, how recently he became sober, and of course, that a Congressman and a police commissioner covered up his transgressions.

Doug, the worst A.A. sponsor of all time, is an integral part of the plan. “You cannot white-knuckle your recovery,” Frank tells Peter sternly when informing him that Doug, sober for 14 years, will be his sponsor. It’s unfortunate that Doug’s role as political henchman is more important to him than his role of recovery mentor—in part because Doug’s thoughts on recovery are brutally frank. In a twelve-step meeting with Peter, he names the exact number of days since his last drink:

“The bigger that number gets the more it frightens me because I know all it takes is one drink for that number to go back to zero. Most people see fear as a weakness. It can be. Sometimes for my job I have to put fear in other people. I have to be ruthless because failure is not an option. The same goes for my sobriety. I have to be ruthless with myself. I have to use my fear. It makes me stronger. Like everyone in this room I can’t control who I am. But I can control the zero. F–k the zero.”

This paradox—fear becoming an asset and weakness becoming a strength—is extended to the show’s end, when Doug and Frank tempt Peter to relapse so they can destroy his campaign and move to step two of their plan. They forget one important factor; the recovery process has actually changed Peter, and one relapse won’t reverse the process. Doug’s recovery is based on fear, and they calculated Peter would stay afraid of relapse, afraid of the stigma of addiction, and afraid that his past would be discovered. Instead, Peter’s relapse only makes him resolve to be totally honest and try again. He pleads with Frank, “I need to take responsibility for my actions … Real responsibility like they talk about in the meetings, not the lies we told for the campaign.”

In the end, Peter’s willingness to acknowledge his weakness gives him a power that overcomes the hold of secrets and shame. Recovery can be fragile, but it’s powerful too.

Alisa Harris
Communications Associate
Phoenix House Foundation

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