At this point, it feels almost ungrateful to be critically assessing the fifth and final season of Damages. From a ratings standpoint, the show has been in crisis mode since season one, at the peak of its critical acclaim and cultural saturation point. FX’s head honcho John Landgraf waffled until the very last minute to renew the show for its second season, and has said repeatedly that while he was a huge fan of the show, and admired its ambition, anyone would be a fool to greenlight a show like Damages in this environment. But I come not to bury Damages, but to praise it, even after a season premiere that didn’t instill a lot of confidence in the show’s ability to finish out strong.
Even before Damages moved to DirecTV’s Audience Network following its third season, its reputation had taken such a beating that it’s hard to remember that its distinction as the first basic-cable drama nominated for an Outstanding Drama Emmy is one it shares with Mad Men, which has since come to be known as one of scripted television’s watersheds. What’s sad is that so much blame has been levied at the Damages team for failing to live up to the promise of its first season, because not all of that blame is deserved.
The whys of Damages’ fall from grace with the culturati are far simpler than how they are often presented, and demonstrate how perception coalesces into reality with lightning speed in these days when critical consensus makes or breaks a show. The biggest complaint levied against Damages is that it’s stuffy, self-important, or that its creative team regards it on the level of The Sopranos (or, for that matter, Mad Men.) Damages has never tried to be anything other than what it is, and while the quality of the show overall has been uneven since the first season, its basic architecture hasn’t changed at all.
There are a couple reasons Damages is regarded this way. The first is its star, Glenn Close, who, with regard to how the show has been received over the years, has been both its greatest blessing and its biggest curse. Close is a six-time Oscar nominee, and even though her resume shares the same ratio of Oscar-bait to whatever-seemed-fun-at-the-time as that of Meryl Streep, the actress with whom she’s unfavorably compared, Close is considered a Serious Actor. It’s her prestige that initially drew many viewers to the first season of the show, those curious to see just what it was about Damages that had attracted an actress of her caliber. Once Close was attached, Damages became a magnet for talented actors (Danson! Hurt! Goodman!) looking for well-shaded characters to play. But its ability to draw amazing talent is also what contributed to the dashed hopes of anyone who had come looking for something more significant than a pulpy, narratively tricky legal thriller.
Speaking of narrative trickery, the show’s auteurish, time-jumping structure also led many to believe that Damages was a classic in the making—a reputation that was well-deserved, but quickly disintegrated once season two came along and neither deviated from that formula, nor added anything fresh to it. Had the show abandoned the format in season two (which was considered), the conversation about Damages would certainly be much different now. Not better, necessarily, but different.
But perhaps the biggest contributor to the great-promise-vs.-mundane-results narrative that has been created about Damages is the creative team’s insistence on building its season arcs around cases torn from the headlines. From the Enron-inspired case in the debut season, to the Blackwater riff of the resurgent fourth season, the show’s creators Daniel Zelman and Todd & Glenn Kessler, have displayed a fascination with exploring the simple human emotions and follies behind the most complex, controversial news stories. There’s a temptation to assume that because Damages takes its inspiration from stories about high-level corruption and greed, that it has something really important or demonstrative to say about these themes, when in reality they are just a framework for the season’s intrigue. (The fact that Damages has employed so many actors best known for The Wire, a show with plenty to say about those themes, certainly didn’t help.)
I’m not saying all this to rewrite the show’s history or absolve its unevenness across its seasons. The fact is, Damages could have very well vaulted itself into the upper echelon of television dramas, and missed its opportunity to do so. But the reasons for this are misunderstood and, much like Damages itself, often overcomplicated. A show that myself and others have frequently compared Damages to is 24, as both share a rigid narrative structure that had maximum impact when it was initially deployed, but became an albatross around its neck in subsequent seasons. 24 enjoyed a much more successful commercial trajectory than Damages has, and that isn’t because Damages is “too smart” for people, as die-hard fans like to claim. It’s because 24 had a gangbuster second season that was leaps and bounds over its first, and Damages didn’t.
The second season is a critical point for a quality show that isn’t an out-of-the-box hit; it’s the point at which the people who gave the first season enough of an audience to earn it a second start harassing the people who didn’t into giving it a try. It wasn’t any different with Damages, and FX spared no expense promoting the second season. Viewers who were tuning in for the first time found a heavily serialized story, an imposing structure, some pacing issues, and most disappointingly, a really boring case. It wasn’t bad television— far from it—but it was alienating to the newly converted and the faithful alike, and not all the killer acting in the world could save it. As someone who started watching 24 in its second season, even having missed its first, I was instantly hooked, and soldiered through to the end. Over that show’s eight seasons, it became clear that a show with that rigid of a structure lived or died by the new characters and story introduced in each season. Damages is the same way, and the listless Ultima National case that anchored the second season was a blow to the head from which the show was never able to recover.
This leads me to “You Want To End This Once And For All?,” which is a cause for concern for anyone looking for Damages to stick the landing. We pick up not very long from where we left off after “Failure Is Lonely,” with Patty and Michael still battling each other for custody of Catherine, and Ellen volunteering as a character witness as the ultimate fuck-you to Patty following the fallout from the High Star case. I was concerned at the end of last season that Michael (still my least favorite character) and the battle for Catherine would loom too large in season five, because I simply don’t find it very interesting. (And because I’m still wondering how Jill is not a factor in any of this; was she sentenced to life without parole?) But my fears were somewhat allayed by what appears to be a desire to veer from that plot immediately, and use it mostly as a device to ratchet the enmity between Patty and Ellen to its highest possible level just before placing them on opposite sides of a case, a face-off Damages fans have been anticipating since the show began.
It’s the case itself that has me worried. If Damages lives or dies by the strength of its season-long cases and the characters involved in them, then based on this episode, I can’t imagine a lot of juice being squeezed out of the case of Channing McClaren (Ryan Phillippe) and his whistleblower site. WikiLeaks and its effect on the governmental and business entities whose embarrassing, classified documents it exposes, is absolutely an interesting, robust topic. But so is manipulation of the energy market, and as season two proved, not every fascinating news story can be massaged into an equally fascinating season of Damages. Granted, this is only the first episode and there’s a lot of meat yet to put on the bones, but nothing in “You Want To End This Once And For All?” got me invested in McClaren, his website, or Naomi Walling (Jenna Elfman), the investment banker-turned-whistleblower who wound up dead after exposing insider trading at her firm.
Of course, this season could be the exception to the rule of the case making or breaking the season, as so much of its success will hinge on the gamesmanship between Patty and Ellen. And to that end, the McClaren Truth case does seem like an intriguing canvas to paint that picture on, inasmuch as neither of them seem particularly interested in the case beyond its ability to give them a ring in which to slug each other. Patty rebuffs McClaren’s overtures without a moment’s thought, but then recommends he give Ellen a call instead. When McClaren reaches out, Ellen seems equally indifferent to the case. But despite being encouraged to drop the whole thing by Chris Sanchez, who should hold as much of a grudge against Patty as anyone, Ellen can’t resist the urge to finally beat Patty at the thing she does best, which at this point, is about the only thing Patty has left. It’s a typical masterstroke of psychological manipulation from Patty, who goes from dreading the exposure of her darkest secrets in open court and losing custody of her granddaughter to poising herself to crush both her petulant biological son and her defiant spiritual daughter in one fell swoop. By this point, Ellen’s knowing exactly what Patty is up to is not enough to stop her from playing into the gambit. And credit where it’s due: it was clever to pair Ellen with the smug prick, and Patty with the emotionally fragile whistleblower dead before her time, complicating matters for fans who want the show to end with Patty finally getting her comeuppance.
That’s probably a large chunk of Damages fans at this point, since the final shock of the flash-forward plot finds a lifeless, unconscious Ellen bleeding from presumably the head after being shoved off the roof of a building. Patty, meanwhile, is completely affectless as she’s taken in for questioning in Ellen’s disappearance. It’s always foolish to read too much into these things this early in the game. But judging from the detective’s claim that Ellen was still preparing to testify against Patty three months after choosing to focus on McClaren instead, it seems like the dynamic between the two doesn’t change over the course of the season. (Even as the foul play involved in Naomi Walling’s death suggests that, just maybe, Patty and Ellen’s mutual hatred is masking the fact that they are not in fact on opposite sides of a case, but rather representing two victims of the same unseen foe.)
What remains to be seen is whether this case can deliver the firepower the audience is expecting from Ellen and Patty’s long-in-the-making grudge match. And beyond that, whether the guests they’ve recruited for this season have the chops to deliver the caliber of acting Damages fans are used to. Yes, I’m referring to Phillippe, whose would fit nicely on a short list of actors to cast as a Julian Assange-like douchebag, but sticks out like a sore thumb in a list of the show’s guest stars. I’m not sure the guy has the chops to keep up, especially after seeing him act against Close and Rose Byrne in the same episode. This is the earliest we’ve gotten to see scenes between the women and the guest regular this early on, and Phillippe already seems out of his depth. I was also suspicious of season four when it began, so I wouldn’t be completely shocked if this season comes together too, but at this point, I’m not sure a winning recipe is possible with these ingredients.
- If you’ve never read my Damages recaps, I assure you I’m not this long-winded every week. Now that I’ve put the show in a broader context, I’ll get straight into the nitty-gritty of the episodes from week to week.
- I wish DirecTV had come up with a way to tease this episode that didn’t actually give away the shot of Ellen at the end. It’s not as though there are people who were planning to watch who wouldn’t have if they hadn’t revealed that. It robbed the big reveal of its impact.
- Judd Hirsch’s Bill Herndon is now on full-time Patty’s Sounding Board duty, now that everyone else in her life is gone.
- Speaking of which, this episode was dedicated to the late Tom Aldredge, who played creepy Uncle Pete.
- The episode began with another one of the infernal dream sequences KZK can’t seem to get enough of. Ugh. But at least we got a couple F-bombs out of Patty.
- It was implied that Patty could have had a direct hand in Naomi Walling’s murder, which would be a hell of a cliff to push the character over. Patty has been characterized as a woman who will go to any means to win a case or protect her own interests, so I wouldn’t call it out of character. But if she ordered the murder of a third-party to force a case that would leave Ellen unable to testify against her, that would definitely represent a more extreme version of the character than we’ve seen before.