MyAmericanFuture

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

March 12, 2014: AmericanStudying House of Cards: Doug and Freddy

[To balance out that series on non-favorites, here’s a series inspired by my recent viewing of Season 1 of a new favorite show, House of Cards. Spoilers for that first season, but not for the recently released Season 2, follow! Please add your thoughts on this complex and compelling show, ahead of a special weekend Guest Post!]

On the more and less stereotypical ways to read the show’s most loyal sidekicks.
In the corrupt and cynical world about which I wrote in yesterday’s post, it’s very difficult for Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood to trust anyone (even, perhaps especially, those to whom he’s closest). But there are two men who seem, at least as of the end of Season 1, entirely trustworthy, and indeed to live only to serve Frank’s needs: his uber-loyal and –competent Chief of Staff Doug Stamper, played pitch-perfectly by Michael Kelly; and Freddy, the owner of a barbeque rib joint that is Frank’s favorite Washington restaurant, played by the great Reg Cathey). Given how tense and stressful the show’s world generally is, it’s nicely relaxing to watch Frank interact with, and able himself to relax around, these two loyal supporters (and friends, if a man like Frank can be said to have any), and they thus offer two distinct but parallel changes of pace.
But they do so at least in part because they represent two stereotypical character types. Doug’s type is familiar from numerous action films as well as The Simpsons: the villain’s (and make no mistake, Frank is certainly a villain) unquestionably loyal chief henchman, one who exists only to carry out the villain’s plans and who almost always dies protecting his boss from the hero (foreshadowing for House? Time will tell). Freddy’s, on the other hand, is a far more specifically American and more troubling stereotype: the happy-go-lucky African American cook (or servant), one more than content to serve the powerful white characters with a smile and thoroughgoing deference (much is made of the fact that Freddy will literally open his restaurant at any hour of the day or night in order to make Frank ribs, along with other ways he goes far out of his way to accommodate Frank). That Frank grew up in Civil Rights-era South Carolina, and that Freddy’s restaurant serves what is overtly called in one episode “soul food,” only amplifies the presence of these longstanding racial and regional stereotypes.
I don’t know that there are too many ways to push past this stereotypical reading of Freddy, although his final Season 1 scene offers a slight glimpse: Remy Danton, the African American lobbyist I mentioned in yesterday’s post, brings a competitor of Frank’s to Freddy’s restaurant, suggesting that there are perhaps other kinds of alliances in Freddy’s life besides the one with Frank. Similarly, Doug has one striking Season 1 scene that shifts our perspective on him: attending one of Peter Russo’s AA meetings as Peter’s sponsor, Doug opens up about his own lifelong battle with alcoholism and sobriety, linking his job “counting” votes to his ongoing “count” of the number of days he’s been sober (and his concurrent fear of returning to 0 at any moment). The connection offers an alternate reading of Doug’s absolute dedication to his boss: that his job has literally saved his life, and that doing it as all-consumingly as he does is, at least in part, an expression of the same weakness that destroys Peter and could, absent that dedication, take down Doug as well. Nothing’s entirely simple on House of Cards.
Next House analyses tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

2 comments:

  1. I think Doug Stamper is one of the most interesting characters on the show. Yes, he is a henchman, but he's definitely got his own agenda. I just can't figure out what it is! And you're spot on about the relationship with Freddy. What are we supposed to do with the fact that Frank can only relax when he is 1) being served soul food by Freddy? 2) playing first-person shooter games? Frank actually gets another interesting hobby in season 2, but I won't offer any spoilers!

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Anna Mae!

    I would actually tie the relationship with Freddy into that Season 2 hobby--which I'll say, broadly to try to minimize those spoilers, has a Civil War/South Carolina connection. I'm not sure if the showrunners/writers have a definite sense of why they want to connect Frank to the South in the ways that they do (Freddy and soul food, the Civil War, the military academy background, etc), so I don't know how much to make of it, but it seems like those are some of the most clear and consistent character notes for Frank, y'know?

    Thanks,
    Ben

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