Hey folks, I’m Joshua and I’ll be accompanying you for this season of Damages. So that the relationship gets off on the right foot, I should first address the question that demarcates Damages fans: how did I feel about the second season? The short answer is I didn’t like it. I’m all for ambitious television and complex narratives. But when a show is as ambitious and complex in its first season as was Damages, to double-down on the intricacy of the plotting, as writers tend to do, risks alienating the audience. The more-is-more approach was to blame for the wobbly second season of Veronica Mars, and the Damages team learned the same lesson: wax-wings plus sun equals splash. (In my best grindhouse-trailer voice: more litigation, more characters, more flashbacks, more of everything!) But the hubris of season two wasn’t its only problem, or even its main problem.
The real shortcoming of season two was its failure to put characters I cared about in situations with major, lasting consequences. When the show began, there was poor Ellen Parsons, bloody and delirious, stumbling half-naked around Manhattan after a well-dressed contract killer tried to take her out. Her fiancé was dead in a bathtub, and she was the main suspect. There was plenty more to explore of course: the world of Patty Hewes; her mother-daughter/boss-employee/hit-orderer-hit-orderee relationship with Ellen (perhaps the most dynamic anywhere on the dial); the Arthur Frobisher case and the populist rage it engendered. But at its core, Damages was a classic murder-mystery, albeit with a million moving parts, all of them connected to a central story that imperiled sympathetic characters.
The mystery at the heart of season two, the flash-forward we spent the season working towards, lacked dimension and intrigue. As fascinated as I was initially by the sight of Gangsta Ellen busting off shots at an unknown guest, I knew there were only two possibilities: Ellen shoots somebody I don’t care about or Patty gets shot and lives. While I wasn’t exactly right, the bottom line was that nothing of lasting consequence was going to happen to any characters I was invested in, and no matter how many sleight-of-hand tricks the writers employed, I was never convinced otherwise.
Meanwhile, the Ultima National Resources case was shockingly boring. Maybe I got my fill of energy-market manipulation in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, but once the case took a hard left from people in West Virginia being killed by a toxic chemical to illegal yet vague and cerebral corporate malfeasance, I wasn’t interested anymore. I could go into the death of Daniel Purcell’s wife, but I’ve beat the “I don’t care” drum hard enough now that I’d be overdoing it. All this grousing about season two isn’t for its own sake. It’s context for the praise I’m about to heap onto “Your Secrets Are Safe,” a stunning premiere that shows the promise of returning Damages back to its season-one glory. Obviously many Mondays will pass before season three can be deemed a full-fledged return to form, but this episode bodes well.
The first shot following the clever refresher montage made clear this was Damages post-clean reboot, a radiant, soft-lit Patty laughing with friends over dinner, looking less wound than we’ve ever seen her. And why shouldn’t she be? A year has passed since season two; she’s been liberated of her philandering husband, her obnoxious son, her Ellen guilt and Ray Fiske remorse. She’s even sort of pleasant, though totally unyielding, as she’s shutting down would-be suitor Julian Decker. Six months later, Patty looks far less content as she’s sitting in a police questioning room, trying to piece together who T-boned her car and fled the scene. Detective Huntley, the detective who grilled Daniel Purcell about his wife’s murder last season, is on the case, flashing an array of quizzical expressions. I was initially disappointed by the car crash, because I thought it was the entirety of the mystery. Damages 1, Joshua 0.
The case du jour finds Patty working along with the government to take down Madoffesque Ponzi schemer Louis Tobin (Len Cariou), who ruined an otherwise pleasant Thanksgiving dinner by telling his family that its fortune was ill-gained and about to dissolve. Lily Tomlin joins as Tobin’s wife Marilyn, and after last season’s frittering of Marcia Gay Harden’s Claire Maddox, I was delighted to see Glenn and Lily mixing it up so early. The same goes for Martin Short, who plays the Tobin family’s weaselly attorney, Leonard Winstone. Campbell Scott gets right into the action too as Joe, the Tobin scion who is eager to divorce himself from his father’s actions, but not the money they generated.
Ellen meanwhile, has taken a new job at the district attorney’s office. This episode did a fine job of blending Patty and Ellen’s disparate storylines, and I loved the scene between them in the restroom, a sly callback to their first encounter in season one. Rose Byrne’s performance is easier to appreciate now that Ellen’s character has progressed so much. In season one, it was hard to tell what it was that made this naïf such a promising attorney, but the meek graduate is gone, replaced by a weathered hard-ass who will go toe-to-toe with anyone and probably come out the victor.
Of course, the most dramatic character transition this season will be that of Tom Shayes, who will go from newly-named partner to dead guy as the past and future storylines converge. The reveal of Dead Tom was a little clumsy, but no less shocking and, well, awesome. Killing series regulars has almost become banal, especially on shows as overpopulated as Lost and Grey’s Anatomy. But on a show that essentially only has three regulars, it’s downright ballsy. I don’t know how well it bodes for a fourth season, but killing off Tom is a risky decision that may reestablish Damages as a brilliant post-Lost whodunit. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Or before. Or something.
- “Dog shit! Dog shit!” I like Martin Short’s performance so far, but didn’t love the scene with the news producer. I don’t like when characters are made vaguely racist as an efficient way of turning the audience against him. The scene with Joe, when he mistakenly remembered the school librarian as a custodian, told me everything I needed to know about Winstone in a much more deft way.
- I love Tom Noonan’s weirdly hesitant line readings.
- Good for Tom and all, but I hate the sound of “Hewes and Shayes.” It sounds like a French term that only a horrible person would use in conversation.
- I know Uncle Pete is no longer with us, but it’s been made clear that Patty has a spate of investigators working for her. Would she really call the Tobin Mystery Phone herself? From her house?
- I feel like, even post-reboot, Damages seems like it would be intimidating to a first-time viewer. If anyone is trying to board the train late, I’d love to hear your thoughts.