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

Damages: “I Love You, Mommy”

Illustration for article titled Damages: “I Love You, Mommy”

From the moment that season four ended with Ellen's name showing up as the sole witness in Michael's custody case against his mother, it was clear that the legal showdown between Ellen and Patty would be a brutal, vicious street fight in which nothing is considered off-limits. But the thing about a street fight is that it's hard for either opponent to escape unscathed when there aren't any rules to follow. Sure, winning is bound to be a lot more fun than losing, but even the winner is likely to walk away with wounds that will never fully heal. "I Love You Mommy" showed the degree to which Ellen and Patty's battle over the McClaren case is going to be the type of fight in which they both walk away bloody, battered and much worse for the wear, and the claim of victory might not as soothing a balm as they're expecting it to be.

It starts out in characteristic Patty vs. Ellen fashion, with gamesmanship designed to get in each other's heads as much as advance their respective cases, if not more of the former. Patty taps Jake Stahl (who appeared in last season's "Next One's On Me, Blondie") to bring his knowledge of computers, hacking and cyberlaw to bear in the case against McClaren. Jake says that they may be able to prove that Naomi Walling didn't leak the information herself, but that someone with advanced hacking skills tunneled into the Princefield system, stole the information and made it look like Naomi had done it herself—someone like McClaren. But in order to investigate, Jake would need to examine the Princefield servers, which are now in the custody of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Patty does her best to lean on the SEC to gain access, but their concern is punishing Princefield for insider trading, not giving her ammunition for a civil suit, so they won't give her the servers for another year's time at the soonest. So, in a scene that comes at least once in every season of Damages, Patty does an interview to make her case publicly, leaving Ellen flustered and flat-footed.

When Ellen calls a meeting with Judge Gearheart to complain about Patty's tactics, he issues a gag order, ensuring that neither of them will be able to talk to the press about the case. Ellen, who hasn't had a chance to put out her statement refuting the accusations, is done a bigger disservice by Gearheart's ruling than is Patty, who gets to leave her narrative about McClaren hanging in the air unanswered. Ellen calls her on it, but by that time the damage is done. It's a nifty little scene, largely thanks to the deft way Glenn Close plays Patty's feigned ignorance and indignation upon being accused of chicanery. For Patty Hewes to convincingly sell "Well, I never!" is a tall order, and Close manages it beautifully every time, particularly since she does such a fine job of communicating that Patty isn't trying that hard to mask the manipulation. The best part for her is that Ellen knows she's being played, and can't do a damn thing about it.

Of course, the psychological warfare can't end there. When a rivalry is this intense, it isn't enough for Ellen simply to parry, she has to unleash a counterattack of her own. Given that Ellen used a similar ruse to psych Patty out in "You Haven't Replaced Me," it didn't exactly come as a surprise when it was revealed that she was behind the American Lawyer expose that paints Patty, with Michael's help, as a ruthless megalomaniac interested in the plight of the little guy only insomuch as she gets to take credit for slaying Goliath. But the scene between Ellen and Michael underscored how quickly and easily Ellen has forfeited her moral high ground, a fact she seems oblivious to. She gave quite the haughty speech to Patty in "Failure Is Lonely" about how she's essentially a better person than Patty for refusing to use Chris Sanchez as a pawn in the case against High Star. But now it's Ellen who doesn't seem to mind a little bit of human collateral, as she leverages her role as the sole potential witness in Michael's custody hearing to strong-arm him into helping her strike back at Patty. Granted, Michael probably shouldn't be in charge of a kid, and also relishes any opportunity to shank his mother. But his conversation with Ellen suggests that where Catherine is concerned, he's only interested in destroying Patty as a means of being reunited with his daughter. For Ellen to use that to her advantage, especially when the result will only be seen by legal insiders and will do nothing to repair McClaren's public reputation, shows that once again she’s resigned herself to doing things the Patty Hewes way.

But both women have become so obsessed with winning this case that there’s no cost too great, including paying a sketchy, anonymous source a cool half million dollars for a flash drive of Princefield-related information that may or may not be of value to the case. The charming guy who offered McClaren the information initially, who we now know as world-renown hacker Samurai Seven, is finally able to approach Patty about his cache of Princefield files. Patty seems uncomfortable with it initially, but goes ahead with it, even knowing that he's probably going to offer and potentially sell the same information to her opponent. Ellen is even more uncomfortable with the deal, pushed on her by Rutger and Gitta, because, ethics aside, she's in a bind financially (especially now that her mother is trying to flee an abusive husband) and would have to take out a loan to even afford the transaction. Even though there are huge downsides to the deal for Patty and Ellen, they're so reluctant to let each other get an advantage in the case, they’re all too eager to make the deal. Even Samurai Seven himself is shocked at how smoothly it all goes—at first, anyway. It proves to be an especially unwise move for Ellen, who doesn't even get the information when a mystery operative intercepts Samurai Seven and kills him just after she's transferred the funds, leaving her empty-handed and financially screwed. That's to say nothing of the damage to her credibility with her client; McClaren will hit the roof when he finds out they tried to do the deal to begin with.

While "I Love You Mommy" did a fine job of hammering home the theme of how Ellen and Patty are being eaten alive by their obsession with winning this case, it didn't pack quite the punch of the second and third episodes. This is largely to do with last week's elegant structure, which along with anything in the way of flash-forward clues, was missing from this episode. As distracting as the chronological trickery can be at times, it's become such an expected component of the show now that there has to be quite a bit going on to distract from it. This felt a bit thin, even though it did make clear that McClaren has enemies willing to go to extremes to ensure that Patty has every possible advantage over Ellen. Still, "I Love You Mommy" is rungs above what would constitute a slow episode in the unavoidable saggy middle portion of any Damages season. If the next couple of episodes can hover at this level, carrying into the final episodes, season five may end up ranking higher than I initially predicted.


Stray observations:

  • The cold open with Roger Kastle was hysterical. No one does emasculation like Patty Hewes. I wonder what kind of Supreme Court justice Patty would be.
  • Amazing scene between Patty and Jake in Ellen’s office, though I’m not sure why Jake thought Patty would be so eager to share campfire stories about the opposing counsel.
  • Herndon didn’t seem to understand that Jake was working for Patty already. He’s really out of it. At some point his alcoholism is going to screw things up for Patty.
  • I bet Catherine is like “So, um, good luck with your case and everything, but we still haven’t settled the matter of when I’m getting my sword.”
  • Michael on Patty: “If you ask my mother about her work, she’ll tell you she’s a solo crusader righteously slaying dragons. She doesn’t care about justice or corporate bullies. She’s a paranoid narcissist who manipulates the law to gain power and settle scores.” Super ouch.
  • A nitpick though: a reporter from The American Lawyer would write a damaging profile of someone without so much as calling her for comment?
  • Potential alternate titles: “I Don’t Trust Men Who Like Cats,” “It’s Not Slander If It’s True,” “Your Shine Rubbed Off On Her”