Thursday, December 08, 2011

Damages: The Five Seasons

Damages is a high-stakes litigation thriller, but don't fear the clichés. Hardly any action takes place in the courtroom, and despite the flashforward technique it's impossible to predict the end games. There are no righteous melodramas, no cheap victories. Suspense is wrung out of depositions, bickering strategy sessions, and complex relationships, particularly that between the two female leads. For whatever reason I always imagined Glenn Close as being someone like Patty Hewes in real life: cold and ruthless, champion of the oppressed, mostly for prestige, but also because she (like her protégée Ellen Parsons) despises corporate bullies, even though she's an outrageous bully herself. She demeans her subordinates, fires people on a whim, divorces her husband, disowns her son, and has his girlfriend thrown in jail. And for desert she tries having her favorite employee Ellen killed. I love Patty Hewes.

If her character is too colorful to be true, her lawsuits are based entirely on real-world events. Season 1 is inspired by the Enron and WorldCom scandal of '02, season 2 by toxic dumping and price-fixing on Wall Street, and season 3 by Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme in '09. Season 4 then moves out of white collar crime into the Afghan war, the demon now being a private military contracting firm working with the CIA to perform illegal extraction activities and torture, getting soldiers killed on dangerous missions with no payout benefits for their families. It's a very dark season, and in some ways my favorite, though nothing can top the tight and relentless suspense of season 1. Finally, season 5 takes its inspiration from Julian Assange's whistleblower website WikiLeaks, devoted to exposing corporate and government fraud. In an eerie way, the fraud victims of seasons 1 and 3 resonate loudly in the midst of the Occupy Wall Street movement: the 1% can join the 99% at a moment's notice.

The dramas are character driven, with fair ball played to the good and bad guys, though of course there really are no good guys when dealing with high-profile lawyers, least of all Patty Hewes; co-protagonist Ellen Parsons is the one we're meant to identify with, though my favorite character is actually Tom Shayes. As for the corporate assholes being sued, they are truly assholes, yet sympathetic (with the exception of toxic-dumper Walter Kendrick in season 2, whose character really isn't fleshed out enough). We get to know their families and are pulled in by pathetic attempts to justify themselves and make good out of foul behavior. Ted Danson has become legendary as Arthur Frobischer (season 1), the billionaire who kills his company, dumps his stock, and leaves all his employees destitute. Campbell Scott is just as convincing as Joe Tobin (season 3), who initially despises his father's criminal activities only to get sucked in after his suicide, and "do as he must" for the family. There's a not-so-subtle Godfather theme running through season 3, with Tobin a tragically realized Michael Corleone; I could never have imagined he'd have what it takes to murder Tom Shayes in the final episode by drowning him in a toilet bowl. John Goodman is flawless as Howard Erickson (season 4), the private military contractor who is willing to have his own men tortured and killed to keep things quiet; inwardly tormented, he desperately tries to convince himself of the lesser-of-evils through religion and scripture. For that matter, the CIA stooge played by Dylan Baker is also as much sympathetic as despicable, having, as we learn in the end, launched an illegal operation for no other purpose than to rescue his own son fathered on an Afgani woman, then murdering his fellow soldiers in the field when they refuse to extract a 12-year old. As for Ryan Philippe (season 5), some think he was miscast, but I thought he made a perfect Channing McClaren, the self-absorbed computer geek who protects corporate whistleblowers, until one of his clients is exposed and murdered.

Each season escalates the bizarre relationship between Patty and Ellen, who maintain a guarded respect without ever really trusting each other, especially after Patty tries to have Ellen killed in season 1. Some have charged that Ellen's willingness to have anything to do with Patty after this undermines the show's credibility, but the unlikely relationship is the whole point, and is handled believably in its dramatic context. There's a difference, after all, between hyper-realistic and unrealistic. An example of the latter would be Luke and Laura from General Hospital, still rated the #1 soap opera romance of all time, but fundamentally incredible: Laura is raped by Luke and falls in love with him. That's evidently an appealing fantasy to many women (according to a study in '04, 52% of all Harlequin romance novels published that year involved the plot of a heroine falling in love with her rapist and transforming him into a more decent man), but Ellen Parsons is no Laura Spencer equivalent. She does not bond with Patty so soon after being almost murdered. She's driven by revenge to take Patty down throughout the entire second season, and even when she is able to transcend herself by forgiving Patty, it's as much a self-serving forgiveness as a self-empowering one -- and she certainly never goes back to work for her. In seasons 3 and 4 she allies herself with her former boss to exploit the resources of Hewes Associates for her own gain, partly out of respect for Patty's goals which align with her own, but also because she now has a certain power over Patty knowing her worst secret. As the show writers have said, there is something mythic about the power of forgiveness and what it does to people in unforgivable cases, and that's really, as I see it, the key to Damages's success. Without it, it would be a just another legal thriller.

Indeed, this is why seasons 3 and 4 are so compelling: there is a constant subtext to everything Patty and Ellen do in the wake of the failed murder and abandoned revenge. They never speak of the ugliness again, but it hangs between them surreally as they use each other for their own ambitions. They oddly like each other for all their contempt. I knew things were going too smoothly in their season-4 team up against High Star, however, and Patty's betrayal in the final episode was inevitable when Ellen tried throwing the case and cutting a deal to save the life of a soldier. Where season 3 ended on uncertainty ("Tell me, Patty, is everything worth it?"), season 4's epilogue points ahead to renewed conflict, as Patty, on rotten ice, extends a hand of partnership to Ellen, only to have it spat back for her treachery.

Season 2 is somewhat an anomaly. As mentioned, the corporate villain is too one-dimensional, partly due to lazy writing, but also because there wasn't room enough to flesh him out. The season is all over the map. The toxic-dumping storyline is supplemented by that of the William Hurt character who murdered his wife; he also happens to be (wait for it) the father of Patty's 17-year old son. Then there are dangling threads from the previous season, with way too many returning characters. Much as I love Ted Danson's performance, bringing back Arthur Frobischer was a mistake, and I didn't buy him hiring Patty who so vindictively destroyed him a year before. Nor did I like the romance between Ellen and Wes -- the dirty cop planted in her grief therapy sessions to get close to her -- not so much because the concept was bad, but because Timothy Olyphant can't act his way out of a bag. No, the most engaging plot of season 2 is the one we didn't get enough of: Ellen's revenge on Patty. Even here there's a problem, however, because while obviously understandable, Ellen's fury and decision to work with the feds to bring Patty down is perhaps too believable, and thus less interesting. It's the volatile alliances of the other seasons that sell Damages so well, though there are some admittedly tense moments when Patty suspects Ellen of being a mole. That being said, the wrap-up to season 2 is brilliant, and I really thought Ellen shot Patty. All seasons use the flash-forward technique to paint a puzzle of imminent catastrophes, but season 2's piecing is the most clever.

With the resurrection of Ellen's intent to bring Patty down in season 5, I was worried it would copy the errors of season 2, but it turned a great payoff and kept things tense and unpredictable. The bottle-episode (seven) is actually my favorite of the series, in which Patty takes the opportunity to fuck with Ellen's mind, claiming she never tried to have her killed. Damages has always been about the divide between perception and reality, and even if the reality on this point is clear to us, Ellen suddenly harbors a real doubt as Patty throws her the bone of Pete, who "may have acted on his own". Patty's explanation for her season-2 confession, forced at gunpoint, seems oddly plausible in this light, and she certainly has nothing to lose by this last-ditch attempt to mess with her protege, who intends to expose Patty's crimes when they finish the McClaren case. As for the finale, it was everything I hoped for, landing the unexpected shocker of Patty's son getting killed, and wonderful closure on the dock, with Patty, astonishingly even by this point, gloating over how she manipulated Ellen into evil choices in the McClaren case -- which of course don't hold a candle to her own evils. Ellen's ultimate decision to let go of her need for vengeance, and for a career which has killed her integrity, is reached after so much patient plotting, and holds believably to Damages' mythic theme of forgiveness.

Season 1 -- 5 stars
Season 2 -- 3 stars
Season 3 -- 4 ½ stars
Season 4 -- 4 ½ stars
Season 5 -- 4 ½ stars


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