Damages: “I Need To Win”
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Damages: “I Need To Win”

Of the many themes Damages has explored across its run, the one that looms largest is the idea of victimhood. What makes a person a victim, and what choices must one make to overcome that label? Can it be overcome at all? From the first moments of the pilot, we saw Ellen Parsons, battered and bloody in that designer trenchcoat, tottering out of Patty’s building and onto the streets to search for her fiancé, who she found bludgeoned to death in their bathtub. Ellen was what anyone would define as a victim. She survived an attempt on her life, and couldn’t even lean on the man she loved most to help her through it, because he’d been murdered in a most savage fashion. But Ellen’s arc has been about shedding the victim label by fighting back, by racking up enough wins to overcome such a catastrophic loss of her dignity, her sense of security, and her ability to trust.

Patty is, in her own way, just as much of a victim. Having suffered a childhood in which she had to witness her mother being abused and was helpless to stop it, she’s now driven to punish wrongdoers by an inner rage she’s aware of but doesn’t totally understand. And now she’s a victim of that untended anger, which has led to her to manipulate and destroy everyone and everything in her path. This, of course, includes Ellen, because by trying and failing to have Ellen killed, she’s committed what is arguably an even worse offense against her. Patty has inflicted Ellen with a massive emotional wound that she’ll spend years trying to heal by winning to prove how tough she is.

This is Ellen’s folly: she seems to think beating Patty is her salvation, and that this one case will restore everything she feels she’s lost. But I’d be willing to bet that Patty once thought the same thing (probably in the case regarding her father and Kate), and yet it hasn’t stopped her in her pursuit of the big win that will end the hurt once and for all. “I Need To Win” is a terrific, but bruising episode because of its exploration of the idea that victimhood, and the obsession with crawling out of it, is a transmissible disease, and the idea that despite all that disease has cost Patty and Ellen, they are both willing to infect others if it serves their ultimate purpose.

As the episode begins, Patty and Bill are trying to track down a crucial witness, Thomas Weld, who was staying in the room next door to the one in which McClaren met with Naomi Walling for the last time. This is a case of he-said-she-said, and given that the she is dead, Patty is dead in the water unless she can find someone to corroborate the account Rachel relayed on her mother’s behalf. Weld tries to avoid getting involved at all, but when Patty leans on him, he comes in for questioning but says that while he did see Naomi and McClaren, he didn’t hear anything unusual coming from the room that would confirm Naomi’s account of the events. Ellen and Kate aren’t able to track Weld down until later, but when they do, they find that his account bolsters their case.

Meanwhile, McClaren and Rachel go from being rivals to representing two ends of the same rapidly fraying rope. McClaren’s site is tanking, as no whistleblowers with major information are willing to come forward lest they wind up exposed like Naomi. Rachel, too, is finding it tough to move forward as she’s being harassed online and even in person, as when her mother’s former boss Bruce Davies crashes a dinner with her friends to assail her with a drunken rant about how much of an uncaring whore her mother was. Both of the clients want out of the case, even as Patty and Ellen unleash their craftiest appeals. Ellen tries to convince McClaren that settling the case won’t go far enough to clear his name. Patty tries to guilt Rachel into submission, basically telling her that if she doesn’t press forward with the case, she’s putting a small price tag on her mother’s life and freeing McClaren to victimize others.

But after McClaren and Rachel meet against the wishes of their respective attorneys, they manage to agree on the fact that they both want nothing more than for the entire debacle to be over. Here’s where we get the objective version of what happened between McClaren and Naomi at the Montclair Hotel, and where the backstory we got on McClaren in “There’s Something Wrong With Me” demonstrates its utility. What actually happened is pitched right between their two vastly different accounts of the events as presented in “Failure Is Failure.” They met, McClaren reassured Naomi, after some initial misgivings, that she wouldn’t be exposed and the wrongdoing at Princefield would be brought to light. Then he tried to initiate sex, and at first, she gave a combination of contradictory physical and verbal cues that most people would have been able to properly interpret. But McClaren, because of his Asperger syndrome, didn’t pick up on the fact that no actually meant no until he’d caught a knee in the groin. As with the other accounts of this event, Jenna Elfman and Ryan Phillippe acted the scene well, and it’s made clear how Naomi could have reasonably perceived the meeting the way she did, and why McClaren would have been too embarrassed to tell the truth.

Settling the case seems like a good idea for everyone involved, including Ellen, whose life has become a waking nightmare of visions that place her back in Patty’s apartment fending off a knife-wielding assailant. Her client is telling her it’s time to quit, as is her former group therapy counselor, as is her boyfriend. But Ellen can’t stop until she’s won, until she’s beat Patty. It proves so important to her that she does the unthinkable by joining forces with Patty to blackmail Weld into giving a fake deposition—nothing Patty will use in court, just a performance convincing enough to get Rachel back on board before the judge can sign the settlement.

“I Need To Win” doesn’t do any more to push the season forward as did the last two relatively dull episodes, and by the end of the episode we end up back where we started, with Patty and Ellen on opposing sides of a case that will be won or lost based on lawyerly guile. But it was breathtaking all the same, and deeply sad, as we see Patty and Ellen abandon the most basic principles of the law they both claim to love and revere to settle their ancient score with no regard for the damage they inflict on their clients. In the deliciously tense closing scene, Patty asks Ellen if she’s afraid of her. “You look like you’re afraid.” Ellen should be afraid, of course, but not afraid of Patty, afraid of how far she’ll go to prove her bravery.

Stray  observations:

  • There was something intriguing and hypnotic about the opening dream sequence, even as I continue to question the wisdom of using the device as frequently as Damages does. In particular, I question using a dream sequence as a cold open, which elevates it to a level of importance it doesn’t quite deserve at this stage of the game.
  • David Gautreaux was really terrific as Bruce Davies. He sold menacing drunkenness quite effectively.
  • Kate finally gets around to mentioning to Ellen that she’s continuing to have contact with Patty regarding the Mystery Daddy Case. Surely there has to be some kind of conflict arising from it soon.
  • It’s fascinating that the Thomas Weld ruse was Patty’s idea, as it’s clear she feels that, in spite of her storied career, she has as much to prove as does Ellen.
  • Daniel Zelman directed this episode, so it looks like the KZK boys are stepping back to the fore as the season enters its back half. I can only hope it yields a string of episodes as fantastic as season four’s final three.

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