Retrospective on Damages
A Look Back at the first Antiheroine Led Series — And one of the Very Best Series, Period
There have already been countless articles and books written about the series that have been the 21st Century the new Golden Age. From the rise of HBO to Netflix’s domination, from the astonishing comedies to some of the greatest dramas in history, it would seem that no corner of this era has been unexplored.
Yet whenever lists of the greatest series ever created are made, there has always been one series that has been, in my mind, ignobly omitted. And it’s never been clear to be why this series, that was at its peak, listed among Mad Men and Breaking Bad in so many award series has never gotten its recognition, or at the very least, a book written about it. The series is FX’s Damages, the legal thriller that was a critical branch between HBO’s domination and the rise of basic cable to meet that challenge.
And it’s hard to figure out why. It featured one of the greatest actresses of all time, Glenn Close in what was one of her greatest triumphs. It featured some truly formidable actors doing some of their greatest work. It was recognized, unlike series like The Wire and Battlestar Galactica, by the Emmys and other award shows. And there is a direct demarcation between its fate in later years and how other networks and streaming services would often pick up series that had failed in earlier incarnations. Yet for what ever reason, Damages never got the respect it deserved, either when it was on the air or, unlike other shows like Friday Night Lights, in reruns or streaming. Even the most definitive books on the era — Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised and Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Cultural Revolution barely give it a passing mention.
So, as the decade draws to a close, as someone who was a huge fan of the series to the point he scoured EBay looking for DVDs of the later seasons, I thought that it might be fitting to pay tribute to a series that was one of the greatest shows of all time, why it was important, and the reasons so many people chose to ignore, while it was on the air and afterward.
Like so many series of the new Golden Age, Damages has its roots in The Sopranos .In 2000, Todd Kessler joined the staff of The Sopranos and quickly became the staff wunderkind, collaborating with him on several brilliant scripts in Season 2 including the incredible ’Funhouse’, which it ended with the unforgettable death of Big Pussy. After being nominated for an Emmy for that episode, David Chase invited him into his office and told him that he was fired. Kessler went home to his brother Glenn, and wept, only to receive a call about writing a scene. Two days later, he came back into the office and went back to work, only to be officially fired a few weeks later.
A few years later, Kessler wrote the pilot for his own series, and shared show-running duties with his brother and Daniel Zelman. The plot centered on a terrible boss — brilliant but manipulative, van and imperial — and a young talented employee who finds herself being drawn into her web. Kessler said his work was based in no small part on his experiences on The Sopranos, and if Chase was even a fraction as horrible as Patty Hewes turned out to be, he must have been a true ogre.
In format, Damages was unlike any series that had aired on television before. The closest equivalent was Lost, which dealt with many of its characters lives in flashbacks and flashforwards. Damages, however, was slightly ahead on the latter, as Lost didn’t truly start on its playing with time until Season 4 by which time Damages had already debuted on FX.
Season 1, by far its most effective one, opens in a New York apartment building where a woman, pale and covered in blood finds herself walking in a daze out of the elevator and into the lobby. Before we can fully process, we flashback six months to learn the young woman is Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) and she is an attorney interviewing for a job with law firms. A statesman like lawyer (Philip Bosco) asks her about her last interview, and Ellen tells him it’s at Hewes and Associates. The lawyer smiles, and says that he wishes her a successful career: “If Patty wants you, she gets you.” We will learn very quickly that is the case. Even though we’ll also learn that Patty’s reasons for wanting Ellen have nothing to do with her as a lawyer.
The story of the first season splits between the flashforwards of Ellen and the case she is called into help with: a stock fraud involving industrialist Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) and managed by the law firm represented by Ray Fiske (Zeljko Ivanek) There will also be subsequent flashes back to the many secrets both Frobisher and Fiske are hiding, including one so dark that it will cause Fiske to commit suicide in front of Patty when it is revealed.
Many of the themes that will become the center of Damages have to deal with the secrets we keep and the troubles within families, most of them having to do with Patty, Ellen, and Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan) Patty’s most loyal lieutenant. (In the Pilot, he fakes getting fired by Patty for pushing for a settlement; it’s later revealed that it’s an act to give Frobisher a sign that they are weaker then they are.) Patty demands unquestioned loyalty from her employees, and their devotion is absolute. At the same time, her family situation is utterly chaotic, particularly when it comes to her teenage son, Michael, who in the first season is kicked out of a boarding school for sending a bomb threat out; he will do the same to his own mother later on.
Ellen appears to be an innocent for much of the first season, but while she appears to be corrupted under Patty’s influence, later episodes — and indeed, later seasons — will reveal that, in her own way, she is just as cold-blooded as Patty is. She is willing to sell out her own sister so that the case she is following can proceed; it will later be revealed that her sister has a drug addiction. Her relationship with her fiancé (Noah Bean) is constantly interrupted by work; its unclear if any relationship would work out given her own devotion to her job. And while her parents seem innocent and supportive, it will later be revealed that she was adopted, and they’ve been keeping her mother’s identity secret from her. Her adopted father will later be revealed to be something of a petty tyrant himself — something that we will eventually learn; she also has in common with Patty.
Much in the same way that the viewer was convinced to root for Dexter Morgan because he only hunted down other killers; the viewer was tempted to root for Patty because she used her ruthless, borderline illegal means to hunt down far worse people. In Season 2, much of her efforts would be centered on an energy tycoon and a government power broker who were working to manipulate the energy market. In Season 3, she would be tasked by the law to find the hidden money of Bernie Madoff type financer running a Ponzi scheme. In Season 4, Patty took on a Blackwater type mercenary company. And in the final season, she would fight to defend a woman who had been exposed by a Julian Assange type figure.
It was a drama unlike any before or since, a legal thriller that never set foot in a courtroom. Much of the series was about the conflicts Patty raced to bring forth the truth — at a tremendous cost to her allies, and ultimately herself. In Season 2, her marriage imploded, when she learned her husband was having an affair. The real reason she left him was because she learned he was investing in the company she was investigating. In Season 3 Tom, her most loyal soldier was ultimately killed in a confrontation with the younger son of the key figure in the Ponzi scheme. Her son Michael was her biggest source of conflict, leaving her after an affair with an older woman, trying to run her over when he learned she had his lover arrested for statutory rape, disappeared for more than three years leaving Patty to try and find him, and then in the final season, engaging in a bitter custody battle with him that finally dragged Ellen in as opposition. As Michael memorably put in near the end of the second season: “People either leave you or they die.” Sadly, he would become the final casualty of Patty’s rise to power.
If Patty had been the only figure on the series, it would’ve been more than worth watching — Glenn Close would win two consecutive Emmys for her work on the series. But Damages also had one of the most incredibly casts. Unlike most series at the time, which had one set of regular throughout the run, Damages with each successive storyline, would introduce a group of new players, each time featuring some truly magnificent actors doing their best work in years. Season 2 would feature William Hurt as Daniel Purcell, a former lover of Patty who wants to come forward as a whistleblower after his wife is apparently murdered by the company he works for. Marcia Gay Harden played Claire Maddox, the firm’s attorney with one of the most sexual garter belts I’ve ever seen.
In season 3, Campbell Scott would take on the role of Jim Tobin, the son of the financial planner, trying to come out on the side of good but ultimately giving in to his darker impulses. Lily Tomlin would play his mother, and Martin Short would do some of his greatest work ever as Leonard Winstone, the Tobin family attorney, who turned out to be playing a con of his own. In Season 4, John Goodman would take on the role of the head of the private company, and Dylan Baker, who would do some of his best work anywhere this decade, as a single-minded soldier trying to cover up a series of murders that were committed in Afghanistan. And Season 5 would feature Ryan Philippe as Jason McClaren, the head of a Wiki leaks-like organization accused of exposing one of its own whistleblowers.
For all the extraordinary work of the actors and writing, Damages was never an immensely popular success — peaking at less than a million viewers in Season 1. After the critical recognition, FX renewed it for two seasons. But when the third season ended with even less viewers, it seemed Damages run was over. Then DIRECTV, which had famous picked up Friday Night Lights from certain death three times, agreed to pick up the series for two final seasons. But whereas NBC had been willing to rerun the new episode months later, they stayed on DIRECTV. On one hand, this greatly hurt any chance a lot of viewers — me included had to see the series. On the other, this gave a series more creative freedom, finally allowing Patty, Ellen and everyone else to use the vulgarities and sex that — at that point — basic cable was still not permitted to use. The creative level did diminish quite a bit — I feel the fourth season in particular was weaker than the entire series — but it allowed viewers to have a sense of closure that, even in the Golden Age, still wasn’t happening yet.
Damages was a great series, one that along with Mad Men and Breaking Bad was representative of the shift of power from television to basic cable. So why is it not remembered or appreciated in the same way that the former two series are? In its heyday it was nearly as good — it won four Emmys and was nominated for seventeen more. And a lot of critics thought it was at the level of Peak TV — indeed, when Stephen King wrote his Top Ten List for EW, Damages would be on it three times. Mad Men never would. And it doesn’t seem to have the same life in streaming that the latter two series, particularly Breaking Bad does.
Part of it may have had to do with the fact that FX had already broken through the glass ceiling when it came to TV — The Shield, which was a far bigger and more consistent hit for the network than Damages — or for that matter Nip/Tuck or Rescue Me — would be. But none of those series were ever nominated for Best Drama. Damages was twice, and an argument could be easily made that it was far more deserving for it in Season 3 than True Blood ever was.
Another reason is that, unlike most dramas in the early rush of the Golden Age, Damages went against the formula of so many successful series. Aside from Close and Byrne, with each new storyline there were a new set of actors and characters to memorize. This would put it a lot closer to what we would now call a Limited Series than so many of the ground-breaking series. And with having to follow one major storyline per season, that may not have lent itself as well to the binge-watching phenomena that Netflix would soon popularize, and that other series — most notably Breaking Bad — would benefit from. The fact that it changed services halfway through — to one that no doubt its fans couldn’t easily find — probably didn’t help either.
Then there’s the reason that might have been the biggest problem, one that was never even mentioned when it was on the air. Patty Hewes was an antiheroine before the term became chic. And whereas fans by the millions had no problem watching Tony Soprano or Don Draper doing horrible things every week, they had a very bad habit of trolling Carmela and Betty even though they should’ve been the more sympathetic characters. And if viewers had problems with their spouses, imagine how hard it must’ve been to see not one, but two female leads engaging in disreputable and borderline monstrous behavior in order to achieve their ends. This probably wasn’t exactly what female viewers were hoping for when they wanted parity: it was easier to watch Mary-Louise Parker on Weeds or Edie Falco on Nurse Jackie do even worse things because it was played for comedy. Indeed, while there were lighter moments on the series — most of them from Ted Danson, whose Arthur Frobisher stuck around two seasons after his arc was over, but never seemed in danger of overstaying his welcome — Damages required a lot of heavy lifting that would make it a hard watch even now.
After the series ended, I read an article in Entertainment Weekly deploring the fact that the anti-heroine still was not a big thing even on Peak TV. Damages was mentioned, but the writer said that Patty turned out to be the villain of the peace, and Ellen the hero. I’ve never seen it that way. Without going into details about the ending (not enough people watched the series when it was on the air; I’m not writing this article to spoil everything), I always thought the series ended on the right note. After years of being frenemies, both Patty and Ellen made a choice near the end to try and bring the other down. Ellen showed mercy at the end, Patty didn’t, and Ellen’s reaction was far different from Patty’s. Ellen chooses to free herself from the net of Patty, and while that may seem to be a heroic action, it still doesn’t necessarily make her a good person. Even the last five minutes are ambiguous as to that. We never know if Patty won, but Ellen didn’t lose. She just chose to stop fighting.
I still think Damages ranks as one of the greatest series of all times, and deserves to be mentioned in the Parthenon with Breaking Bad and The Wire and The Americans. Buy the DVDs. Watch it on Amazon season by season. Patty Hewes was an outlier in the Golden Age, and a rarity even in Peak TV. But she deserves to be remembered in the same breath as Walter White and Al Swearengen and Vic Mackey. She would’ve thought she was better than all of them. She was always good at lying to herself.