When “Damages” began five years ago, it was a sharp legal serial wrapped in a pulpy thriller. With a gripping season-long case and nonlinear storytelling devices, “Damages” was poised to be a breakout star. Throw veterans Glenn Close and Ted Danson, plus on-the-rise-star Rose Byrne and a slew of high-caliber recurring acts into the mix, and it looked like production trio Glenn and Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman had an insta-classic on their hands.
The only other people on this planet who enjoy a good mindfucking more than Patty Hewes (Close) are the series’ writers. They love to twist a knife into their viewers’ sides, only to pull it out and reveal it was an estranged half sister all along. The show takes every opportunity to rug pull, and the constant sleight of hand makes it impossible to ever accurately predict what will happen.
But what made “Damages” incredible became its fatal flaw. Its rigid narrative structure — deeply dependent on flashforwards, flashbacks and dream sequences — became tedious and superlative. By its third season, all the gotcha moments made it nearly impossible to meet any new “Damages” revelation with anything other than ambivalence. And for a serialized thriller that thrives on leaving its fans in a stupefied state of WTF each week, that’s a serious problem. FX lost faith, and the show was cancelled until an eleventh-hour rescue by DirecTV’s Audience Network.
In its fifth and final season, “Damages” gets back to its roots, with welcome callbacks to season one like fluttering pigeons and altering green and orange flashforward filters. The case of the season involves a wrongful death suit and a Wikileaks-like scandal with arrogant Channing McClaren (Ryan Phillippe) as the Julian Assange stand-in, but for once, the case doesn’t really matter. The second Ellen (Byrne) decides to take on Patty head-to-head, McClaren and the case become irrelevant — good news for Phillipe, who can’t quite keep up with the usual impressive level of acting expected from series regulars (granted, following a season peppered with Chris Messina, John Goodman and Dylan Baker is a staggering task).
The finale is the culmination of everything “Damages” faithfuls have ever wanted: a final showdown between Patty and Ellen. It doesn’t come in the form of the McClaren case conclusion, which is admittedly anticlimactic. But courtroom spectacle has never been the show’s thing — the psychological warfare between Patty and Ellen has. And Michael’s custody case is their chance for one last battle. Ultimately, Patty is finally punished for the event that the entire series hinges on: her order to have Ellen killed in season one.
At the onset, it seemed like “Damages” would be about the starry-eyed, fresh-out-of-law-school Ellen Parsons transforming into Patty Hewes 2.0. And the series finale suggests as much, perhaps a little too neatly with Ellen attempting to induce a miscarriage — exactly what Patty did as a young woman and the explanation for much of the character’s psychology. But to sum up “Damages” as a story of a protégé turning into her teacher would greatly undersell the complexity of the series finale. Even though Patty began as the series’ anti-hero of a protagonist, it’s Ellen who grows the most, and it’s through Ellen’s eyes that “Damages” uncoils all of its psychological underpinnings. It may have been tempting for the writers to wrap up Patty’s demise with a huge cathartic, road-to-redemption bow, but the fact that she’s still delusional, narcissistic Patty in the end is a brilliant — if dismal — way to leave the character.
It’s a far from perfect farewell, with a few pacing problems (the episode is broken inexplicably into parts) and absolutely no urgency to any of the moments involving Rutger and McClaren. David’s ghost pops in to insipidly explain exactly what Ellen is thinking, and the dream sequences serve — as usual — little purpose other than scaring the viewer shitless (Catherine Hewes is definitely a demon spawn, yes?).
But the finale also features some of Byrne and Close’s best work ever, with both heartbreaking and explosive scenes for each of their characters. It’s hard to believe Byrne was an unknown when the series began (come on, where are her Emmys!)
Other than instilling a constant fear of elevator dings in its viewers, “Damages” leaves in its wake the indelible image of one of the most intricate and volatile working relationships ever seen on television. Machiavellian at times, near-psychosexual at others, the Patty-Ellen dynamic has been a thrill ride well worth the tedious time it took to arrive to a sense of closure for their epic struggle.