In my write-up of last week’s episode, I talked about how the overall success of a Damages season is directly linked to how interesting the season-long case is. And that’s still true, but I fear I gave short shrift to the flash-forward mystery, which is never enough to rescue an otherwise tepid season on its own, but can contain the damage in seasons where the case starts to lose steam. The first season towers over the others because it’s the only time the writers nailed both the time-shifted plot and the case; between the Arthur Frobisher case (complete with a mole) and the layered puzzle of David’s murder, the attempted hit on Ellen, and Patty’s implied culpability in some or all of it, there wasn’t time for anyone’s attention to wane.
Season two botched both the flash-forwards and the case, because as far as the flash-forwards went, it was hard to imagine an outcome in which Patty actually died, which took the stakes out of her at-gunpoint tete-a-tete with Ellen. Meanwhile, the High Star case of last season is one of the most interesting the show has taken on, but from the first episode, I couldn’t force myself to care who was dead underneath that hood. I did care about what happened to Tom Shayes in season three, because he was a character I’d invested in, so when the case against the Tobins sagged, I had Detective Huntley’s investigation to float me through. While the premiere found my optimism tempered with a lot of caution, “Have You Met The Eel Yet?” put some of the wind back in my sails.
This is not because I’m suddenly absorbed in the case against Channing McClaren and his merry band of Internet anarchists (though the case did start to show signs of life this week.) It’s because I am suddenly absorbed in how it came to be that Ellen is lying unresponsive and askew with blood seeping out of the back of her head in an alleyway. Granted, I don’t believe Ellen is dead. I can think of no bigger middle finger to an audience (one that, in this case, was loyal enough to follow the show from one network to another) than to kill the lead character they’ve been made to root for again and again. There’s a point at which narrative bravery becomes contempt for the audience, and if the writers went so far as to kill Ellen, they would also be killing the show’s legacy for the few people still interested. But this flash-forward mystery isn’t working because I want to know whether Ellen is dead or alive; it’s working because I want to know the emotional effect losing Ellen—or thinking she’s lost her—would have on Patty.
Yes, Patty tried to have Ellen killed herself in the first season. And yes, their relationship has been superlatively toxic—even at its highest points—and never more so than now, with them pitted against each other in arenas both professional and personal. But if there’s a path to redemption for Patty Hewes, it runs right through Ellen. If the writers mean to show us that Patty has achieved something approaching emotional growth since we first met her, I can’t imagine them doing so without demonstrating how devastated Patty would be if she thought she could lose Ellen, her protégé, her nemesis, her spiritual daughter, and the only person who knows her darkest secrets and remains part of her life anyway, even if it’s as a fierce, spiteful adversary.
There’s never any value in reading too much into the snippets of story we’re fed from the three-months-later thread, but despite Patty’s stoicism in the interrogation room, I have a hunch that as the season approaches its end, we’ll see a different side of Patty. We’ll see the Patty who melted down at the beach house after getting the call from Uncle Pete telling her that Ellen had been silenced, or the one who castigated Ellen after her continued dealings with the Tobins resulted in Tom’s death. As Damages likes to remind us from time to time, there is such a concept in Patty’s world as a price too great to be paid for winning a case or vanquishing a foe, even if that concept is ill-defined and a constantly moving target.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself here, because “Have You Met The Eel Yet?” is still at the point where Patty is too busy figuring out how best to carve Ellen up to think much about what Ellen means to her. Ellen tries valiantly to get the case against McClaren dismissed for reasons that sound totally valid: his apparent lack of motive in spilling the details of Naomi Walling’s sexual trysts, and the difficulty in holding him culpable for her actions regardless of how the information got out. Judge Haring gives Patty a week to produce evidence linking McClaren with Naomi, which Ellen reads as being a bit too generous, starting Ellen down a path of paranoia and overzealous gamesmanship that results in her shooting herself in the foot. After she leans on Haring to recuse himself from the case, thinking he has an inappropriate relationship with Patty, she later finds out that she misjudged the situation entirely, and in doing so, ceded home field advantage to Patty.
It was a classic Damages twist, albeit one that, in this case, gave Patty far too much credit for being a genius puppet master. Much of what led to the case being tried before another judge—Ellen’s initial suspicion, her interview with the potential associate, Rutger obtaining the damning information she used as leverage—had nothing to do with Patty at all, and using the bits that Patty was involved to suggest that she engineered the whole thing was, to be generous, a stretch. But it was still fun, if not entirely plausible, and laid out what will hopefully be a theme for the season: Patty and Ellen’s myopic obsession with besting each other and the havoc it wreaks on the very case they are using as their playing field.
But while Patty relishes her opportunity to gloat, she doesn’t exactly have the upper hand yet. For one thing, Ellen has information Patty doesn’t about McClaren’s connection to Naomi. Thanks to an intrepid investigator played by Gbenga Akinnagbe, Ellen is able to spot McClaren in a dark wig, going to meet Naomi in a hotel room—a detail that Patty’s point man Bill Herndon (who’s hitting the hooch again) missed. And now Ellen has a secret weapon in the form of Kate Franklin, a former colleague of Patty’s who seems to have as much of a wealth of knowledge about Patty’s past as does Ellen. As a team, there’s no telling the harm they could inflict, which is why Patty was so eager to woo her away from joining Ellen’s team. The muted scene in which this was negotiated was an all-too-brief remind of what makes Damages so much fun at times, the pursed-lip rage that roils beneath the surface of seemingly polite conversations. It’s clear Janet McTeer is going to make a delightful addition to the Damages family.
While I’m complimenting guest star performances, I think I might be warming to Ryan Phillippe’s performance as McClaren, or at least parts of it. McClaren is far different from any of the powerful men we’ve seen at the core of a Damages case before. The others, like Frobisher or Erickson, displayed a smug confidence at the beginning of their respective seasons, when the demise of their empires was impossible for them to fathom, before unraveling into impotent, furious messes as Patty and Ellen tightened their vise. McClaren is another animal. He’s absolutely smug, and convinced of his singularity, but he also immediately recognizes what a major threat the fallout from Naomi’s death is to his work and his reputation. Because of this, McClaren ricochets back and forth from cocky hacker playboy to terrified tyrant, and while Phillippe does the former with ease, I’m still not totally buying his tantrums. But we now have a framework of what to expect from Phillippe, so time will tell whether he’s able to capitalize on my lowered expectations of him.
- The scene with Ellen’s potential new hire was fun, as he dug for dirt on Patty’s past. “What about the time she got a PI to dangle a witness out a 20-story window to get him to talk?”
- The final blurred shot of a man peering over the ledge Ellen apparently plummeted from can, I suppose, be used to make the argument that Ellen is absolutely still alive. But who knows?
- Patty uses her phone call to try Ellen’s cell phone. Hmmm.
- Potential alternate episode titles: “I’m About To Go Drop A Bomb In The Can,” “Put It Out, Douchebag,” “Start Twisting And The Freak Comes Out,” “The Pleasure Of A Little Leverage”