Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Damages: “But You Don’t Do That Anymore”

Illustration for article titled Damages: “But You Don’t Do That Anymore”

What punishment is appropriate for Patty Hewes? What amount of suffering would be enough to right all she’s done wrong over the years? It’s a tricky question to answer, because as antiheroes go, Patty is far from the worst of them. Granted, she did order the murder of poor, furry Saffron. And yes, she also ordered the execution of Ellen Parsons, in spite of her emphatic denial. She’s an unbelievable bitch and an unparalleled manipulator, and as Michael said in his interview with American Lawyer, she’s a complete narcissist. But… that’s about it. Which isn’t to say that these aren’t major transgressions that Patty should be made to answer for, but how exactly should she answer?

Patty certainly doesn’t owe the karmic debt of, say, a Walter White or a Vic Mackey. And she’s not a traditional antihero either. She neither started out innocent and slowly migrated to the dark side as in Breaking Bad, nor did she start out as the main character whose villainy was excused because the story was being told from her perspective, as in The Shield. Patty is technically the main character, but the audience sees the story primarily through Ellen’s eyes. This has always made Patty closer to being a straight-up villain to Ellen’s heroine, even as she works tirelessly to get justice from the soulless corporations that victimize the marginalized masses. From the moment we saw Patty toss Saffron’s collar into the lake, giving us confirmation that Ellen was descending into a snake pit much as Hollis Nye warned her, Patty became the show’s macro-villain. While the focal point always shifted to the guest bad guy of each season, it was clear that at some point, Patty would have to pay.

Patty could never be too much of an evildoer beyond season one, because it would have gotten harder and harder to justify Ellen’s continued involvement with her. So after the events of season one, Damages became more about the psychological tug-of-war between the two women. To the extent that the audience wanted to see Patty’s comeuppance, we got bits and pieces of it, as it was shown again and again the hefty cost Patty had paid for her relentless pursuit of success. But as the final season wound to a close and the attempt on Ellen’s life came back into the foreground, it was obvious that there was an even worse fate awaiting Patty.

Still, I’ve had a difficult time trying to imagine what that fate might be. The biggest clues to how the show’s creators had imagined resolving Patty came in “The Next One’s Gonna Go In Your Throat,” the season three finale that was meant to double as a series finale prior to DirecTV swooping in at 11:59 to stay the show’s execution. That episode ended with Patty and Ellen on the dock, and Patty revealing to Ellen that she had intentionally brought on her daughter’s miscarriage, then refusing to answer when Ellen asked if it was all worth it. It would have been an ending that certainly rebuked all the Patty stood for, but stopped short of bringing her to justice for her crimes. That was also the episode in which Arthur Frobisher was brought to justice though, so that might have been considered enough justice for Ellen that Patty was let off the hook.

“But You Don’t Do That Anymore” had to deliver enough of a blow to Patty to make the audience feel like she’s truly paid for the turmoil she’s put Ellen through over the years, but something too extreme—like killing her—would have seemed excessive. I loved the way this finale hit that mark, as well as the way it resolved the relationship between Patty and Ellen, juxtaposing the tragedy of remaining on the same trajectory for the former and the triumph of charting a new course for the latter. It wasn’t an unqualified success, though, because as much as I enjoyed where the episode wound up, the getting there wasn’t without its flaws.

The biggest issue, of course, is the weakness of the McClaren trial. After an entire season of build-up to this amazing trial that would put finally pit Patty and Ellen against each other, we instead got two minutes of Patty finally admitting she had no case, followed by a dismissal. Perhaps this is what I should have expected; the Damages team has always prided itself on making a legal show that gets around the cheesy tropes of law procedurals by skipping the courtroom setting entirely. Still, after Patty and Ellen have gone to so much trouble to square off against each other, right down to turning their clients into pawns when they tried to make the whole thing go away, it was more than a little disappointing to see the entire thing swept away with such haste. It was characteristic of a Damages finale, though, as the cost of dangling so many threads until the last possible second often leads to a lot of abruptly answered questions. And some questions are never answered at all. We’ll never know what happened to Rachel Walling or whether or not Torben and Herreshoff were eventually brought to justice. Do I care that much? Not particularly, but it’s hard to feel like I’ve been asked to consider these people as characters rather than cogs in a story machine, only to later watch as the writers treat them as cogs.


There was one character who made a lasting impact, though, and that’s Rutger Simon, who toppled Patty’s case when he decided to try to flee the country, but also showed that Ellen’s freefall from the heights of moral superiority still wasn’t complete. After finding out that Rutger had switched sides (and destroying her office in a Pattyesque fashion), Ellen tipped off Torben to Rutger’s betrayal and basically told him to do whatever was necessary to ensure that Rutger wasn’t a threat to her winning her case. As this came after she turned in the whistle-blowing soldier who gave Chris the information about military malpractice that went up on McClaren’s site, Ellen was running the risk of becoming an even bigger villain than her mortal enemy. As much as I’ve never warmed to the device of having a character run through a conversation with a dead person, I did like the scene between Ellen and Ghost David, in which he tells her that they might not have been compatible after all. He wasn’t ruthlessly ambitious like Ellen; he just wanted to be happy and thought pursuing medicine might get him to that goal.

Ellen’s obliviousness to how much havoc she was causing is evident in a scene with Chris, when she confronts him about having moved his stuff out of her apartment, and is obtuse when he suggests that hers was a betrayal they might not be able to recover from. “I will make this up to you,” she says, with a sickening certainty. “I’ll make things right. There’s always a way.” The subtext to all this is “But if not, fuck you, I’ll move onto the next case.” Ellen can’t make the case that she cares about anything except for beating Patty. Not Chris’s trust, not Rutger’s life. Nothing can get in the way of the goal. At that point, her evolution was complete. She has become Patty Hewes.


But even “winning” the case wasn’t enough for Ellen, who was still eager to trot out Patrick Scully at the custody trial to top off one victory over Patty with a second. The way the show has treated Scully has bugged me for a host of reasons, but this episode in particular took some pretty unbelievable liberties with its handling of the character. It wasn’t enough that The Detectives Who Only Work On Ellen Parsons Stuff bent the rules to run a DNA test to identify Scully, then passed that information onto a probably vengeful civilian. Now, they take it in stride when Ellen tells them that she’s got Scully under her thumb, and that she and her investigator (whose name is apparently Waleed Cooper) can handle it through the trial. What difference does the custody hearing make to the detectives, who should only want to close a cold case? It doesn’t make any sense, except for the purpose of keeping Scully on the loose and available for the writers to use when they need to.

That time came when Scully visited the sins of the mother upon her son. I’m totally in love with the karmic symmetry of having the same man Patty hired to kill Ellen instead kill Michael. How we arrived at that point, I’m far less in love with. For one thing, as I mentioned last week, we’ve never had a solid idea of whether Scully was a low-level criminal who got caught up in Patty’s web, or some sort of soulless, virtuosic hitman. The answer seems to be that Scully was what the writers need him to be from one moment to the next. After telling Cooper how he’s worried about Ellen because Crazy Patty had him kill a dog for crying out loud, moments later, he’s shooting Michael for reasons that make no sense at all. If Scully’s goal was to get back to his wife and child, I’m not sure how shooting Michael gets him any closer to that.


Granted, Scully thought Ellen was dead or close to it, and that the immunity deal she had promised him was dying with her. When Michael threatened to turn him in if he didn’t testify in the custody case, he was stuck. He could testify to having tried to kill Ellen, leaving him exposed to prosecution, or he could decline to testify and get turned in anyway. But could Michael really prove that big a threat to Patrick with Ellen dead and Patty uncooperative? And wouldn’t Scully just have been better off testifying and taking his chances? I don’t see how successfully completing a new murder is a good plan for escaping the rap for an old attempted murder. I hate that I have to make these quibbles because, again, I did really like the idea of Michael ultimately paying the price for Patty’s misdeeds. (This is in no small part because I’ve still never quite warmed to Michael, and seeing him shot dead was the fulfillment of a desire that only partially waned over the course of this season.) But there had to be a better way of getting there, a way that didn’t turn Scully into such a convenience.

The twist that I loved was the ultimate reason for Ellen being laid out in that alley. After ignoring her doctor’s wishes to take it easy and get more rest, she finally fainted, at which point we discovered that she was pregnant. There’s more symmetry here, as Ellen is essentially making the same choices as Patty had made before, pursuing her desire to win and succeed at any cost, including that of her unborn daughter. But rather than making the tragic choice that starts her on the path toward more tragic choices, Ellen finally puts it all together and decides to veer from Patty’s path before she can do any more damage. In their final scene on the pier, Patty forces Ellen to take responsibility for essentially ordering Rutger’s death. But Ellen doesn’t run from the responsibility in the same way that Patty—still—refuses to take the blame for trying to have Ellen killed. And it’s this acceptance of the havoc she’s wreaked that allows Ellen to walk away from the practice of law before it takes any more from her.


The coda that followed was absolutely beautiful, and was almost enough to make me forgive some of my quibbles with the way the rest of the episode shaped up. A few years later, Patty runs into Ellen, who is out at a store with the daughter she could have easily lost in that alleyway. There’s a brief, cold acknowledgement, then Patty goes about her way. To have Patty get lost in a fantasy of her former protégé chasing her down to thank her for everything was absolutely heartbreaking, as she tells her driver to take her back to the office rather than home. Meanwhile, Ellen takes her daughter to find Chris, and gets one last glimpse of the life she was lucky enough to avoid, and Patty sits in the back of her car, alone, with nothing and no one to show for all her work.

Stray observations:

  • Having Ellen stand up to her abusive father wound up being a great choice. He was still lurking around as a possibility for having pushed Ellen over the ledge, and it also suggests that having an opportunity to stare down the family bully much earlier in life is part of what enabled her to move past the compulsion that ultimately consumed Patty.
  • Glenn Close had scene after amazing scene here. She absolutely killed the scene between Patty and her father, and that facial expression that closed out the series was deeply affecting.
  • I thought dividing the episode into parts was arbitrary and a little bit precious.
  • I wish the series didn't have to end after a season with a case that didn't come together in the end. To a certain degree, I think I'd have been just as satisfied with "Failure Is Lonely" as a series finale, custody case cliffhanger included.
  • Thanks for reading folks! I hate that I’ll no longer get to write about Damages, but all good things must end.