TV: In Defence of Damages and Patty Hewes
Your Honour and respected men and women of the jury…
I am here today to make the case in defence of Damages and Patty Hewes. Originally airing on FX from 2007 to 2010 for three seasons, the show was snatched from the jaws of cancellation at the eleventh hour when DirecTV stepped in to commission a fourth and fifth season. DirecTV, you may remember, struck a similar deal with NBC to save the ratings-challenged but critical darling Friday Night Lights.
A great injustice was done to Damages when it left FX, where it fell victim to the old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’. The show went from strength to strength creatively, but viewers fell away and critical attention turned to the likes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. This gross transgression against Damages meant that some of the finest acting and smartest storytelling on TV went unnoticed, and this defence seeks some way to address this.
Across five seasons, Damages charts the relationship between high-powered attorney Patty Hewes, played to perfection by Glenn Close, and her protégé-turned-rival Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne). While each season focused on a different case and a new cast of secondary characters, the heart of the show lay in the intense relationship between these two women. Ellen starts out as a naïve law school graduate who lands a job at Patty’s law firm, and she is quickly drawn into the dark, psychological world of high stakes litigation in New York. One of the most satisfying narrative arcs in Damages was the evolution of Ellen from young ingénue into a match worthy of the terrifying Patty Hewes. Ellen and Patty are far more similar than either woman would like to admit – both driven by a need to succeed at any price, both the children of abusive fathers. It’s difficult to go into the intricacies of their relationship without giving away major spoilers, but the writers of the show find innovative, interesting ways of keeping these two women in each other’s lives. This relationship, which is the crux of the show, would be nothing without the stellar chemistry between the leads, Close and Byrne.
Glenn Close’s portrayal of Patty is unparalleled in television, a performance worthy of every award under the sun. Close’s Patty is equal parts vulnerable and terrifying, a demon and a saint. Her ruthless crusade against Wall Street malpractice is made up of her own narcissism and in wanting to stand up to bullies. Patty Hewes is the most complex character to feature on any television series I’ve seen, lucky enough to be brought to life by an actor who is in her creative prime. Any superlative you can think of to award Close will seem false or insufficient: this is the performance of her career in one of the best-written roles any actor could ever ask for.
Unfortunately we won’t see another character of Patty’s complexity on television for a long time, due to Close’s decision to move away from starring roles in TV series.
While it may be easy to see Damages as a vehicle for Close, Rose Byrne holds her own as Ellen. She plays the part in a very understated way, her Ellen a clever, cool-headed foil to the undercurrent of rage and madness that seems to bubble beneath Patty’s surface. Patty is the main character, but the show is most often told through Ellen’s eyes so the viewers are treated to Patty as the terroriser of her enemies (and Ellen) and as a women plagued by the sacrifices she has made for success.
Depending on the season, these two share varying amounts of scenes together but the screen time they do share is full of subtle, nuanced performances. Patty and Ellen are capable of bringing the best and the worst out of the other and their relationship transcends the simple mentor-mentee, hero-villain tropes to a deep psychological tug-of-war between two powerful women.
Close, Byrne and the writers should be applauded for not conforming to the ‘strong female lawyer’ stereotypes too often found in film and television. In fact, when the show aired in 2007 there was a complete lack of drama series on US television focusing on female characters. Without Damages we wouldn’t have The Good Wife or Homeland. The impact of Patty Hewes and Damages should not be underestimated for trailblazing a path for strong women in television.
That said, the gender issue is handled maturely and it never takes attention away from the Patty-Ellen relationship or the main storyline, even though it must be said that domestic violence and power relations in families and in work are an important element of the show, providing the two leads with much of their ambition.
Beyond the intense relationship of these two women, the main theme of the show is the cost of success. This is of course an inherently gendered question for both these women – can they have successful career and a family? What cost success? This is the question that consumes and ultimately divides the two women.
If the evidence presented above about the complex, dynamic relationships featured in Damages isn’t enough to convince you of its virtues, then maybe you’ll be swayed by the fact that the show turns the legal drama genre on its head.
The creators of Damages have made a conscious effort to not centre the show on the courtroom and to not move from case to case. The real lawyering is done in depositions and blackmail, in compromise and intrigue, all outside of the courtroom. Each season is a different case, all inspired by real life cases: season one is a civil suit by former employees against the fantastically evil maniac Arthur Frobisher; the second against UNR, a corporation accused of causing environmental damage; the third follows a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme scandal; the fourth sees Patty and Ellen take on High Star, a private mercenary company similar to the Blackwater scandal; the fifth and final is the final showdown between the two leads over Channing McClaren, a Julian Assange-esque figure who runs a whistle-blower like Wikileaks. Each case is wildly different to the previous and the show has a knack for attracting some fantastic guest stars. Personal highlights include Ted Danson, John Goodman and Ryan Phillipe in a career-best performance. Picking a best season of the show is difficult as each has unique highlights but it is difficult to argue against the deeply personal, dark family drama of season three and the epic showdowns between Patty and Ellen in season five.
The cases twist and turn at breakneck speed and the show plays on our ideas of truth, memory and perception to aplomb. Damages is heavily serialised and I pity anyone who attempts to join mid-season. It is also a show that demands your full attention – if you’re tweeting or reading the newspaper then you will probably miss a key piece of plot. What’s best is that Damages makes no apologies for this; it doesn’t pander to its viewers nor does talk down to them. The writing is sharp and the plot ticks along at a pace that will equally frustrate and delight viewers. The show employs a number of flashbacks and flashforwards throughout the series to build suspense and admittedly, this is not a show for the faint of heart – expect to be kept at the edge of your seat through every episode. If you’re someone who is annoyed by red herrings and misdirection then you will need to have some patience, but trust me – it will be well rewarded.
And so, Your Honour, I believe I have shown a strong case here today. Damages stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best shows on television. It brings the viewers on a journey that throws out some of the most intricate plots and complex characters and relationships on television. It deserves a spot in any top ten lists, in any award category and it is essential viewing for fans of good television everyone. And if you make it through the fifty-nine episodes of Damages, you will be treated to a finale that makes every twist prior to it all the more significant and to a coda which perfectly encapsulates the show.
I rest my case.