Tuesday, 2 October 2012

In Praise of Women: Delayed (Long-ish) Final Season Thoughts on Damages

I’m going to review the final season of Damages
…But, you don’t do that anymore.
I know. I know.

How long has it been since I’ve done legitimate work in the way of television reviews? A while, but I’ll press on.

A few months ago while making the rounds, getting press for the final season of Damages I read a fine interview with Glenn Close on Patty Hewes’ trajectory over the five seasons of the show (LINK). The interviewer quipped that without the flaw “grayness” in which Patty lives successful female centred shows like Homeland and The Good Wife might not have come to fruition. It’s a bold claim to make, especially considering Homeland and its multiple Emmy wins last Sunday – but it’s not one I find over exaggerated. Glenn Close, always a woman of wise words, said something very timely when she won her first of two Emmy’s for her work on Damages. In the token acknowledgement of her fellow nominees she accredited them for helping to prove that
 “…complicated, powerfully, mature women are sexy and high entertainment and can carry a show.

And, she was right. In a field of Sally Field, Holly Hunter, Kyra Sedgwick and Mariska Hargitay only one of those nominees wasn’t working in a typically “male” oriented job. The steps seem minor, but I’d like to think every year another season of The Closer was booked or Damages won some award it only pointed to the viability of the female performer not only as a lead for a show, but in a job which challenged the audience’s views on what women could do. And how.

It’s one of the reason Damages has always intrigued me. It’s created by KZK (Daniel Zelman and Glenn and Todd Kessler) – a trio of males, yes. But, Damages has always been a show with a firm grip on its roots as a tale of two divergent then concurrent (then divergent again) women. And as the final, thorny, season began it was nice to see them focused on returning to those roots. I say, thorny, for even after three years of consecutive top nod mentions from the Emmy’s Damages suffered from cripplingly low ratings. After the third season Fox cancelled it, forcing them to move to direct-TV with a limited audience base. When the excellent fourth season netted a lone Emmy nomination (for Glenn’s work) it suggested that time away, and a new network, hadn’t been kind to the show. Out of sight, out of mind and whatnot.

Damages MO of a case a season had been so firmly honed the Julian Assange-esque case of the final season made me immediately sceptical, especially since as much as I like Ryan Phillippe and keep hoping (oftentimes, against hope) that he’ll become a good actor – he was no match for the giants who had before him on previous seasons. Overtime, it became clear, though that the case of the season was itself merely a distraction for the Patty/Ellen tensions keeping the entire series afloat. It was finally time for all those overwhelming demons to be exorcised. One of the best motifs this season was the recurring use of dreams. Even more than the usual focus on the flash-forward, dreams became a significant part of this season. They’re a difficult thing to make organic on television, but the way they existed not for the shock factor but as imperative glimpses into the minds of Patty and Ellen.
 Why Patty was such an important tragic figure, her trajectory and more after the jump...

And, because the case itself was so slight it gave Rose Byrne and Glenn Close ample opportunity to delve into personal realms of their characters we’ve only seen slivers of before. There was a slight stumble in the middle of the season (“I Need to Win”, “The Storm’s Moving In”) but in the final three episodes KZK did something I wish more shows would do in their final moments – it rewarded long-time viewers. The final moments of the show featured nods to moments as far as season 1 of the show – re-examining character motivations, giving us key glimpses into the minds of our lead characters and rewarding us with a payoff that was earned, moving, necessary and heartbreaking.

Throughout the season I kept worrying that KZK might choke when it come with dealing with the inevitable comeuppance which was to come to Patty. Damages never started out like a Breaking Bad for example where over time we watched a “good” man go bad (Walter) and it was never an ensemble based show like Boardwalk Empire which gave us enough distance to not be saddened at the potential bad end to a protagonist (Nucky). The show has always developed through the lens of Ellen, but the focus has always been on Patty. So, how could Patty pay for her crimes but still not be lacerated in a way that would be too much for invested viewers? For Patty has never been a Tony Soprano, her crimes have always been more mind games than carnage and the payoff of her – regal, and alone – at the top at the end of the show was the best punishment.

That shattering final “dream” of hers where she imagined Ellen “thanking” her for exists "as a fine paradigm for all Patty hoped to accomplish in her life. Last season during Patty’s brief stint in therapy her therapist astutely observed that she was at that age where she wanted to leave something tangible behind as a representation of her career. The hope, against hope, that ultimately Ellen would be grateful for the time with her was the final sliver left for her to hang on to. The powerful reveal that it was all imagined, made for a decisive close. Patty Hewes came to a lonely end, not because KZK were implicitly pointing out that a woman in a business position could only end up alone (like a few naysayers have injudiciously opined). Patty’s hubris was always her inability to reach out to those around her. Her childhood with her father irrevocably broke her and that scene with her father (a certifiable Emmy reel if there ever was one) uncovered so much of the damage in the women. I could see a director taking that tale and transposing it on to a man with alacrity but significant kudos to KZK and, Glenn, of course for having it done through a woman. For me, Patty Hewes represents one of the finest tragic heroes of the last decade of television: sometimes vile but never too despicable for us to care and ultimately undone by herself.
Rough patches be damned, it’s been a great ride.

Other Random Bits
 -In a run of great episode titles taken from dialogue, the almost blithe "But you don't do that anymore" of the final episode from Ellen's daughter was excellent.
-Both Ellen and Patty had defining moments this season (with top notch work from Rose and Glenn) opposite their fathers, facing the women overcoming implacable men in a deft way. Kudos
-Debra Monk's brief appearances as Ellen's mother throughout the season have been well appreciated, with particularly fine work this season.
-I will admit I wish Janet McTeer played a more significant role, but her mere existence was so enough. The woman is such a treasure.
-I didn't put as much focus on her in the write-up but Rose Byrne was truly fantastic on this show, especially in the past season. May she go on to even better things.

Damages Season 5: B+
Series Grade: B+/A- 
Best Episode: “I Like Your Chair”A-
Am I one of the last few watching Damages or did you tune in for the final round last month?


dinasztie said...

I was so blown away by this season. Great Glenn really knocked it out of the park. The last episode was just unbelievable, especially her scene with Patty's father. It was, in my opinion, Great Glenn's finest moment on the show and one of her best acted scenes ever. But that last look... my God.

Rose was amazing as well. I hope Emmy notices.

I'm also kind of disappointed that McTeer didn't get more to do. The end of the case was sort of anticlimatic, but that gave time to Patty and Ellen.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

daniel i can't imagine glenn not getting that fifth nomination for the show, but i really hope they remember rose. she's grown into a great performer, it'd be a shame for them not to notice.