It’s usually less than endearing when a show uses its characters as mouthpieces to acquit the writers’ story choices, but it worked in “Failure Is Failure,” when Patty needles Ellen by talking about what makes the MacClaren case so juicy for this season of Damages. “You know why this is my favorite kind of lawsuit?” she tells Ellen. “Because all of the facts of the case are in question.” I was initially skeptical of the MacClaren case because it felt like there wasn’t enough meat on its bones, but it’s clear now that had to do with the nature of the case. For the first time, the audience doesn’t know who to root for or against, whether MacClaren is a hero or a villain, whether Ellen has chosen a slam dunk or a complete dud as the case that will solidify her legal reputation. It’s not a case about facts, it’s a case about perceptions, how they are created and shaped, and how drastically they can change in the face of new information.
What the audience has that many of the characters within the show lack is firmly held perceptions of Patty and Ellen, formed over the course of four seasons. We know that Patty is highly skilled but also ruthless in her pursuit of justice for her clients, or doing whatever it takes to protect her own interests. We know that Ellen admires Patty as much as she reviles her, and that she always walks the razor’s edge of becoming everything she hates about Patty.
Take, for example, Ellen’s eagerness to participate in Michael’s custody hearing. Her motivation is about settling old scores with Patty, but she manages to convince herself that there’s a larger good in exposing Patty’s misdeeds. It’s not terribly different from the way Patty convinced herself that High Star was such a threat that it was more important to take Howard Erickson down than it was to save Chris Sanchez’s life, when actually it was mostly about grooming Ellen to succeed her as New York’s fiercest female attorney so she would have a legacy to leave behind. This is the season when we get to see Patty and Ellen’s similarities accentuated more than their differences, and where we get evidence for the idea that by the time someone gets to the point of actually saying that it’s all business and not personal, they’ve probably hopelessly tangled the two already.
The episode begins in medias res, with Ellen and Kate heading up in the elevator on the way to Hewes & Associates for a crucial, potentially game-changing deposition. Kate doesn’t realize the gravity of the situation—if the day doesn’t go well, they’re both out of a job—and tries to console her. But when Ellen explains the stakes, she gives a concise pep talk: “Well, we’d better win then.” We then see what led up to this tipping point, with Kate predictably rebuffing Patty’s advances to accept Ellen’s offer, and both sides digging deeper with their respective clients to craft the evidence-free narratives that will frame the case. Both Patty and Ellen have their work cut out for them, but Ellen has the bigger problem, with a client who is unsympathetic to begin with, and also happens to be lying to her. When she confronts MacClaren with the proof that he’s lying about having never met Naomi Walling before, he gives his account of the events, in which their meeting was tame and business-like. She needed reassurance that she would be protected after handing over the information, he gave it, and they agreed never to see each other again.
But Patty’s client is keeping secrets as well; Rachel finally admits that her mother did meet MacClaren prior to the Princefield leak, once in Rome, then again at the Beverly. But that’s where the similarities between the two accounts end. Rachel relays Naomi’s account, that she and MacClaren met first in Rome and had sex, then at the hotel, when she waffled on turning over the information, he menaced her, attempted to rape her, and manipulated her into providing the information. (For Rachel to have this amount of information means that she and her mother have a bond that makes that of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore seem emotionally distant by comparison, but whatever.) I was slightly concerned with the execution of all this, just because Damages can be frustrating when it becomes a Chinese box of flashbacks within flashbacks. (Thankfully there were no Ellen-in-the-alley scenes to further complicate matters.) But the idea of showing MacClaren and Naomi’s respective versions of what happened at the Beverly Hotel was a solid one, and both Ryan Phillippe and Jenna Elfman acquitted themselves well. I’m still warming to Phillippe’s performance, mostly because as the weeks progress I’m learning to appreciate it for what it is. Continuing to expect a Goodman/Danson/Short-level performance is counterproductive at this point, and Phillippe’s performance is more disappointing based on what Damages usually delivers than it is outright bad.
The real fireworks in “Failure Is Failure” came in the confrontations between Patty and Ellen, though, after the first two episodes of the season kept the two mostly confined to their corners. The scene in which the opponents fleshed out the terms of Rachel’s deposition was just a delight to watch, and made me long for a supercut of Patty and Ellen sniping at each other. But that was an appetizer before the main course, that crucial second day of the deposition that had Ellen rightfully on edge. Ellen and Kate were eviscerated during the first day, and by a high school student no less, who maintained an preternatural level of composure as she laid out her mother’s case, even going so far as to produce the cigarette case MacClaren allegedly chucked at her mother. But in the second day, Ellen was able to outfox Rachel and poke a major hole in her story. It was clear that it would play out this way, of course, especially as Rachel and Patty began to get visibly annoyed with Ellen’s seemingly fumbling line of questioning. But after Patty’s psychological victory last week, it was no less satisfying to see Ellen succeed at a point when it really mattered. Game on.
- The episode ended in an intriguing fashion, with Kate showing up to Patty’s apartment to say that someone who was dying wanted to meet with her. This is apparently connected with the “small, domestic” case Kate tried against Patty. Patty’s father, perhaps?
- It’s nice to finally see some of the Hewes & Associates sets again, after the last two episodes made it look like the production team had to relinquish some of their space.
- I’m not yet sure how I feel about the return of Ellen’s emotional, and apparently cash-strapped, mother. But the scene between Ellen and her mother at the pharmacy was truly heartbreaking.
- MacClaren’s creepy contact from the bar is trying to contact Patty, which is apparently how she’ll get her next break in the case.
- The minute they showed Patty sipping that scotch, I knew that was one piece of glassware that was not long for this world.
- Patty still hasn’t fired Catherine’s nanny, even after she was all judgmental last season about Patty’s lack of religious faith, and reminded her that she’d forgotten Catherine’s birthday as usual. Growth, or something!
- Potential alternate episode titles: “…Or So My Mom Said,” “You Should Be Going For The Jugular,” “Too Attractive To Be Good.”