After watching the season three finale of Damages last April, I felt strongly that the episode, “The Next One’s Gonna Go in Your Throat,” should have been the series finale. It culminated in a scene between Glenn Close and Rose Byrne that addressed both the psychological underpinnings of Patty and Ellen’s relationship, as well as playing with one of the show’s major themes, the question of what happens when a win-at-all-costs attitude gives way to a nagging, all-consuming regret. It was a relatively tidy conclusion for Damages, written at a point when it was almost certain the episode would be the show’s last. Then, DirecTV swooped in and brokered a deal to save the ratings-challenged show, renewing it for not one, but two ten-episode seasons. When I heard the news, I was excited, but then a little nervous. To have optimism constantly tempered by caution is the burden of a Damages fan.
The fact is, Damages is a show, like 24 and Lost before it, that can benefit as much as it suffers from its rigid storytelling devices. The flashback/flash-forward device, in particular, presents a challenge now that we're into the fourth season. It's a clever storytelling tool, and has yielded some genuinely jaw-dropping moments over the first three seasons. But more often than not, revelations that have seemed like game-changers before don't feel that way anymore. Damages withholds the secrets of its central mysteries as long as possible, and parcels them out stingily over the course of each season. The problem, though, is that we're given nuggets of information outside of their proper context. We didn't really know in season one, how much the writers of this show relish misdirection, but we do now. And season three was especially egregious with implying plot points that wound up being something else entirely. (For example, the shot of a body plummeting from a bridge which we assumed to be that of Tom Shayes, but turned out to be Marilyn Tobin.) By this point, I can't help but feel slightly detached when I watch the show, suspicious of everything, knowing that nothing on this show means anything until it means something, and hell, maybe not even then.
And yet, there's still a whole lot to like about this show. The relationship between Patty and Ellen is the most complex, interesting and lived-in working relationship I've possibly ever seen. The writing ended up going a bit literal in addressing the reason for their dynamic--Patty's guilt over the self-induced miscarriage of her first child--but Close and Byrne are so terrific in their performances, the relationship always feels real. It no longer seems valid to ask why Patty and Ellen are still attached. There's a symbiosis between them that is alternately sweet, sad, and grossly dysfunctional. That relationship remains the core of Damages, and while the show's narrative trickery is showing signs of fatigue, its character dynamics are no worse for the wear.
The move to DirecTV also looks good on Damages; the switch to ten episodes rather than thirteen will hopefully allow them to trim some fat, and there's not a horrific drop in production value, plus the latitude to pepper up the language. And in spite of the show's troubled ratings history and a gradually cooling critical reception, its affluent viewership and respected lead actress allow it to maintain an aura of prestige. Every season Damages has impressed with its ability to attract top acting talent, and this one is no different, with John Goodman and Dylan Baker joining as regulars. I also want to mention Byrne here, who was totally unknown when the show premiered and seemed harmless but unimpressive, then really came alive towards the end of season one. And after her terrific performances in Bridesmaids and elsewhere, it seems like a get-in-on-the-ground-floor casting coup. (It also reminds me of Anna Torv’s performance in Fringe, which seems like she upshifted in season 2, when in fact she was an unfamiliar face making character choices that, for some, made the performance seem unconvincing. More evidence that casting fresh faces in lead roles is high-risk, high-reward.)
If "There's Only One Way to Try a Case" was the second season premiere rather than the fourth, I'd have probably been foaming at the mouth by the end of it. Because it did everything well that Damages does well. Creators and showrunners Daniel Zelman and Todd and Glenn Kessler still love a good bait-and-switch, as they demonstrated in the opening scene in which Patty grills what we assume to be a potential cub lawyer at the firm. Turns out, Patty's auditioning new nannies for her totally precious granddaughter. It was a graceful way to establish the three-year leap forward, the stylish execution of a good idea. Jumping forward this far allows Patty and Ellen some distance from Tom's death, and shows how their relationship has deepened and matured over time. It's the closest we've ever come to seeing them as actual friends. But, y'know, the way a mother and daughter are friends. Patty respects Ellen as a lawyer, and as a person, far more than she did in season one, but she'll never be capable of seeing her as a true equal. But what they have seems totally healthy, warm and familiar, but still marbled with hostility.
I'm also pretty excited about this season's case. I'm concerned that it will lead to a lot of anti-war speechifying, but I love the idea of Patty and Ellen being up against a foe that is genuinely over their heads. Sure, she's taken on pharmaceutical and energy companies, but she's never seemed like the Samson. From the pilot, we've seen Patty as someone for whom winning a multi-million dollar judgment is kinda like "Time to make the donuts." With the Blackwateresque High Star Security at the core of the season, and Dylan Baker's wily, creepy character lurking about, I feel legitimately concerned for them in a way I never have before. This episode also did a terrific job of sketching out John Goodman's character, the security company's CEO. Goodman has a real handle on the character already, and I equally impressed with Chris Messina as the traumatized private soldier from Ellen's past.
It's a really strong start, and honestly, I wish I could get a little more amped up about it. I'm predicting I will soon enough, but I'll always be extremely skeptical about the flashforward mystery. For one thing, even if the slaughtered man turns out to Chris Sanchez, I'm not sure I'm yet attached enough to that character to be invested in getting to that point in the story. And that's nothing against Messina, who I think is absolutely nailing it so far, but it's a risk to hinge my interest in the flashforward mystery on their ability to get me invested in that character. Considering that, after all, this is Damages, so Chris could be the guy getting killed, or the guy doing the killing, or neither, or...both or whatever. There's a cost to building a show on neverending narrative shell games, and the cost is that I'll never get as invested as I might've before. It's still an incredibly potent formula, but not one that has evolved one bit since season one. Even the best magic trick, after you've seen it enough times, is just another magic trick. I'll be interested in seeing if the team can tinker with the rhythms enough to keep me interested.
- Really not sure how to feel about Julie White just yet. But hooray for more Tom Noonan!
- I loved seeing Patty and Phil as friends. I sincerely hope they don't move towards a reconciliation though.
- Is there a way to keep Michael off the show forever? Can we do that?
- Was anyone else hoping there would be a happier resolution between Patty and the nanny? I know it’s Patty’s instinct to bat mice between her paws, but by this point I’d like to see that she’s getting better than that.