Housekeeping first: yes, that’s an A. No, I didn’t click too hastily. I’m as surprised as anyone to be assigning such a high grade to a season four episode of Damages, but here we are. I hope that the discussion around this recap is mostly confined to the merits of the episode itself, rather than hand-wringing over the rare appearance of an unqualified A. The rationale behind it is simple: I can’t imagine why any self-described Damages fan wouldn’t absolutely love “The War Will Go On Forever.”
Damages is a smart show, if perhaps not always as smart as its writers seem to think it is. It’s a showcase for magnificent acting. It’s a narrative Christmas gift that, when shaken for clues, sounds either like socks or like a radio-controlled car. Sometimes it sounds like the car and ends up being the socks. But when it sounds like the socks and ends up being the car, as was the case in so much of season one, the swooning is well-earned. Everything came together here. “The War Will Go On Forever” delivered exactly what viewers have come to expect from Damages but feared they might not get again.
I knew this one could be special from the opening credits. Creators Todd & Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman have written fewer episodes this season than any other season of the show. We haven’t seen a writing credit for any of them, let alone all three, since the season premiere. I thought perhaps they wouldn’t show back up until next week or the season finale, so when I saw this was a KZK-written episode, my expectations ticked up. Turns out, it was as brisk, dense and shocking as I could have asked for.
Chris Sanchez, still in his holding cell, is in the middle of a hunger strike and having flashbacks to the ill-fated final mission that killed three of his men. The flashbacks weren’t particularly illuminating, but we did get a chance to see Sanchez in his element. Not only were Sanchez and his men operating with little to no knowledge of the assets they were capturing, Sanchez seemed to almost take a perverse pride in his team’s ability to execute its objectives while being kept in the dark. Meanwhile, Ellen is apprising reporter Dean Gullickson of what High Star is up to in Afghanistan, and why it’s so urgent that someone track Sanchez down before Erickson puts out the order to silence him permanently.
Earlier in the season I griped about how daunting and practically unwinnable the case against High Star seemed. At the beginning of this episode, it still felt that way, despite some dramatic revelations over the course of the season that gave Ellen and Patty more and more ammunition. The case still has very little meat on its bones. The only two witnesses were Sanchez and Nasim Marwat, who have both been neutralized, and all they’ve got to go on is Bill Herndon’s mysteriously acquired file on Operation: Dust Devil and a few dozen boxes of thoroughly redacted documents.
So perhaps for the first time ever, Ellen and Patty form what feels like a genuine partnership. None of Patty’s mind games, no guile, no one-upmanship, just two fiercely determined lawyers who have been through a lot together and are finally ready to focus their intensity on a common enemy rather than each other. They show up to court together to contest Jack Shaw’s request for a dismissal, and fall into an easy give-and-take. When she sees Ellen starting to wobble a bit, Patty jumps in and convinces the judge to compel High Star to either produce Erickson for a deposition, or the Dust Devil documents in their unredacted state. A couple weeks back, Ellen bristled when Patty showed her Herndon’s file, seeming to still secretly suspect that her mentor was trying to screw her over. Earlier, Patty was complaining to her therapist about feeling overextended in her relationship with Ellen. But there was no feeling of suspicion or mistrust here, or later when the two congenially tag-teamed Erickson at the deposition.
Speaking of the deposition, boy howdy was that ever fun to watch. This was another stellar episode for John Goodman, who would be enjoying the same torrential adoration that Ted Danson received for season one were the show still on FX and if Goodman was still known exclusively as a comedy guy. “The War Will Go On Forever” would be a strong episode for Goodman to submit come Emmy time, if only for his terrifying reading of the titular line. (The constipated look on his face when Ellen announced that Patty would be pinch hitting was equally priceless.) In addition to being a blast, the deposition scene delivered a surprising detail: Erickson knew nothing about the kid Jerry Boorman extracted in the last mission.
As it turns out, Boorman was essentially acting on his own, but using Erickson’s men to handle the extraction. It’s a totally plausible scenario, given Erickson’s bird’s-eye view of High Star and Sanchez’s willingness to carry out any mission, no matter how thinly sketched out. With one hand never shaking the other, Boorman could use Sanchez and his crew to carry out his own agenda, which in this case was extracting the child of a woman who was a contact and a friend who died as a result of helping him. With its topical cases, Damages does with a fictional treatment the same thing some of the best long-form journalism does with actual facts—it boils down huge scandals with millions of moving parts into stories about people, their flaws and their mistakes. It’s a bit of genius to make Boorman’s desire to avenge the death of his friend the impetus for the botched mission that led to all of this.
I’ve tripped over myself praising Goodman, but I haven’t pointed out to the same extent how excellent Dylan Baker has been this season. That’s mostly because Boorman wasn’t really doing it for me as a character. But in the last couple of weeks, Baker’s wonderful performance hasn’t been in search of a wonderful character as it had been early on. He had a pair of real doozies this week: pleading yet again for information from his child captive, and gently silencing the lover who betrayed him with an effortless snap of the neck. There are people for whom Boorman has genuine love and concern, but his French secret agent (still only credited as “Attractive Woman”) wasn’t one of them. After she finds out he’s holding a child and turns over the information to Patty, he swiftly disposes of her and goes about his day, after an emotional breakdown that somehow seemed equal parts genuine and artificial. By the end of the episode, the tiny wedge that Patty and Ellen began driving between Boorman and Erickson has gotten massive. Boorman’s ready to hand over Erickson “on a platter.” Hopefully for Sanchez, this will all happen sooner than later, since he’s being collected by a group of ersatz terrorists paid handsomely by High Star to behead him on camera and deflect blame to whatever extremist group seems most convenient.
Then there was that cliffhanger which, my God, might be the best cliffhanger the show has ever done. Never mind what the “One Week Later” flashforward says about whether or not Sanchez will live or die; that story is at the point now that there’s been such excessive misdirection that I’m not sure how much I care either way. But apparently, one week after the chummy, collegial Patty and Ellen featured in this episode, they’re at serious odds over what Ellen sees as “playing with a man’s life.” Ellen says to her mother figure, professional mentor, confident and friend: “Do not fuck with me Patty, I swear to God you will regret this.”
Wow. This packs a bigger wallop than any other “one more thing” scene we’ve seen because while it’s certainly about the outcome of this season’s case, it’s even more about what the state of Patty and Ellen’s relationship will be by season’s end. It suggests a rift forming between them so massive that it will almost certainly influence where we see these characters next season, which is far more rewarding to me than yet more breadcrumbs about a mystery that will be solved after two more episodes. The endlessly complex relationship between these two women, how it evolves, devolves, grows deeper then suddenly disintegrates before reforming again, is the core of what Damages is, as much as Walt and Jesse’s curious codependency is the core of Breaking Bad. To hint at such an abrupt sea change in the relationship left me breathlessly anticipating the next episode.
Better still, since there’s only a week between what’s happening now and whatever will lead to this huge falling out, so I’m immediately invested. It was a far better execution of the scene we saw at the end of last season’s “Don’t Throw That At The Chicken,” which found a distraught Patty yelling at an unknown party on the phone. Here we see that Patty and Ellen are in fact talking to each other, and whereas “Don’t Throw That…” was only episode four, a point at which my skepticism is cresting during any Damages season, there are but two episodes left to get us to the scene we saw in the flashforward. Well-played, KZK. Now, granted, Damages is still going to be Damages, so I realize the folly in assuming that anything in tonight’s episode means what it suggests. But judging this as an individual episode, rather than a nice set-up that could easily fall apart in the execution, I’m duly impressed.
- Boorman’s child captive: “You are the devil,” before crunching down on a potato chip. Geez, tough crowd.
- I didn’t completely buy that Boorman’s lover would take the information to Patty, of all the people she could have spoken to about it, but I won’t quibble.
- Erickson on his eleventh-hour contract renewals: “Politicians. Who can figure ‘em out?”
- Threading the anniversary of Erickson’s wife’s death through the episode was a deft touch.
- There were a lot of F-bombs in this episode, but unless I’m mistaken, there hasn’t been one from Patty yet. Have the writers decided Patty doesn’t curse, or are they holding their powder?
- Seems like the scene with Boorman packing the body into the rolling suitcase would have been a great opportunity for paid product placement. Or maybe not.