The latest season of Damages on FX ended with a 90-minute finale that somehow managed to wrap up all the season’s loose narrative threads and even some of last season’s, for good measure. With rumors that Damages has been losing viewership and might not be renewed, the finale might be the last time we’ll see Glenn Close as Patty Hewes, the wily, steely lawyer who even though this season was working for the good guys, always manages to seem like she’s on the wrong side of the law.
Despite a snarky column in Salon.com not long ago that suggested none of the women acting on Damages can move their foreheads, I don’t think Botox has reduced the power of Close’s acting. She might not be able to disturb her forehead’s preternatural smoothness, but Patty has always been a character whose unruffled demeanor is part of her chilly allure.
Close plays Patty Hewes with her mouth: that straight line her lips form when she’s resolved, that wrinkle that sneaks into her upper lip when she sneers, the way she opens her lips to various extents to indicate other nuances of Hewes’s not very wide range of emotion . . . these small things let Close evoke this ball-busting woman’s tremendous power.
Even her eyes don’t really seem to change from moment to moment, although when she watches those opaque flashbacks that kept popping up this season play out behind the hole she punched in her condo’s wall, she sometimes tears up a bit. But the water never, ever trickles down her face—she’s way too controlled for that.
Patty Hewes is one of my favorite television heroines, not because she’s fun to hate—on the contrary, I like Patty for how horrible she is, for how willing she is to jettison all the pieties about women and all the conventional presumptions about appropriate gender roles. Last season, after she caught her husband (Michael Nouri) cheating on her, she discarded him from her life in a rage-full fury.
But as they shared custody of their old dog (and of course their teenage son, Michael), the couple began to spend relaxed, casual time together again, which lead the man to think perhaps he had another chance with Patty. No such luck. Just as her husband began to feel comfortable in her presence, and entitled to the forgiveness that unfaithful men these days seem to expect, Patty turned her always ready knife and kicked him bleeding back to the curb.
One of the series’ highlights has been that it’s women, not men, who have the only chance of rattling Patty’s proverbial cage. Her relationship with Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), her protégé, nemesis, and perhaps daughter-substitute, hinges on their distinctly homoerotic attraction/repulsion for one another. Ellen began the series as ambitious but naïve, and wound up losing her fiancé, David, in the bargain. (He was viciously murdered for convoluted reasons that still aren’t clear, even though the finale revealed who killed him—which we already knew by now.)
David’s murder hardened Ellen and forced her to hone her own killer instincts. With Patty to emulate, she learned at the feet of the master. The two women have taken turns playing cat and mouse in each episode this season, with Ellen’s loyalties never quite clear. Her stint as an assistant district attorney was marred by her own perverse willingness to bend the law for her own gain.
She set Patty and the District Attorney (an always disappointed, cynical Ben Shenkman) against each other, insisting she was scheming for one while appearing to scam the other, and vice versa. Neither of them trusted Ellen, but where the DA found her machinations abhorrent, Patty couldn’t help but admire the monster she created.
The new female lawyer Patty hired this season couldn’t hold a candle to Ellen, even though she was clearly willing to drink the blood Patty spilled around the firm. Patty hired the woman capriciously, and fired her just as impulsively, drifting into a reverie during their last meeting that ended with Patty telling the astonished young woman that it “wasn’t working out,” that she should empty her desk and leave the building. Patty’s mercurial affections kept her staff and her family on edge, wary, watchful, but aware they could never catch her with her guard down.
Pity her son Michael’s girlfriend, Jill, for instance, the significantly older woman who seduces the young man when he’s really just a boy. Jill thinks she can play Patty’s game, and exhorts her for $500,000, pretending she’s willing to be paid off to get out of Michael’s life. When Jill stays, spending the money to buy Michael a Jaguar and the two of them a three-bedroom apartment big enough for their soon-to-arrive baby, Jill gloats that she can play hard ball just like Patty.
Fat chance. By the finale’s end, Patty sends Jill to prison for statutory rape, forcing the woman to relinquish her parental rights to Michael’s child forever. Patty always gets what she wants, even if her son retaliates by trying to kill her with a borrowed car.
This season’s plot followed the Bernie Madoff story’s template, creating a parallel family called the Tobins, whose patriarch runs a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme (it turns out) to protect his ne’er-do-well son, Joe, who’s a drunk and a failure at his father’s business. In characteristically labyrinthine narrative turns, the show led viewers in one direction only to pull us instantly in another, as we tried to fix the blame and responsibility for the corruptions that pollute the Tobin’s lives and that haunt the vulture-like lawyers who circle them ever more tightly.
Patty represented the families whose lives were ruined by the Ponzi scheme, but even on the side of righteousness, Patty’s sleazy methods make her look villainous. Ellen played her own angles in the DA’s office, and Patty’s law partner Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan) was implicated on both sides, since he lost his family’s and his in-laws’ fortunes in the Tobin’s house of cards. Once Louis Tobin’s scheme was revealed, the three principles worked through a series of feints and punches to track down the money they knew the family had stashed away.
The story’s impenetrability makes it difficult to track, but the details hardly matter, since the characters created this season proved fascinating whether or not their motivations and objectives were crystal clear. Impeccably cast (by the Emmy Award-winning casting director Julie Tucker), the Tobin family modeled the peccadilloes of the fabulously wealthy and corrupt. As the dissolute son, Joe, Campbell Scott beautifully played the man’s Oedipal complex and his determination to head his family at all costs, despite his own utter inability to do anything right.
Len Cariou (who starred in Sweeney Todd on Broadway) played Louis Tobin, who ended the season as a hero, even though he took his own life early on to escape his prison sentence. The incomparable Lily Tomlin played the Tobin matriarch, Marilyn, the dyed-red-haired Machiavellian wife and mother who will do anything to maintain the standard of living to which she’s become accustomed. She, too, was prone to the underhanded wheeling and dealing that distinguished her family’s business.
The information she revealed and withheld had much to do with who lived and died this season. In her own final act of volition [spoiler alerts to follow here and below!!], she sat sodden with alcohol and amused herself by watching old family movies, then, without a trace of self-pity, took a taxi to the East River. In the next moment, we saw, in an extreme long shot, her body falling from a high bridge to the water below.
The final agent of the Tobin family’s destruction was their trusted lawyer, Leonard Winstone, played against type by a clenched-jawed Martin Short. Turns out that Lenny, too, had been living a lie; the kid from a bad family in straitened circumstances stole a new identity and passed himself off as a lawyer. Although we never got the details, we learned that he’s spent 30 years conniving and advising the Tobins.
When his weasel of a father turned up to blackmail him, threatening to reveal his fraud, Winstone uses the old man to turn against the Tobins. Through a lucky quirk of fate, in the gory finale, Winstone managed to walk away with his life and a good chunk of the family’s money.
The series’ wrap-up was a bit too pat, as though the producers knew the episode might be the show’s last. Plot points that seemed dense and complex for the last 13 weeks were resolved too obviously, easily, and quickly, which made the last show a bit of an anti-climactic disappointment. Tom Shayes’s death was the only one that lived up to its hype, since we’ve known almost from the first episode that he dies at the end.
In Damages’ typically frenetic flash-forward and -back structure, which made all but the most salient details difficult to absorb and the timeline impossible to track, the detectives investigating Shayes’ murder insinuated variously that Patty, Ellen, and others were to blame.
The season’s best reveal was that Joe murdered Tom for endangering the Tobin family’s future and its fortune. After a day of public drinking from a brown-paper-bagged bottle, Joe showed up at Tom’s house, beat him up, and then drowned the already-bleeding man in his own toilet. The scene’s gruesome camera work and editing focused on Shayes’s feet, kicking and twisting, his shoulders pinned over the toilet’s bowl, his head deep in its well. Scott performed virtuosically as the drunken, out-of-control, utterly inept and misguided Joe, shaking his head vigorously to try to clear it as he methodically disposed of Tom’s body.
But when Joe is brought in to the police station at the end, it’s Patty who interviews him, who revels in forcing him to accept certain truths. She turns off the intercom into the adjacent viewing room while she cajoles Joe to admit his guilt. When Ellen asks how she got him to divulge to his crimes, Patty says cryptically that they talked about confession, implying that she made a connection with the shattered man based on shared spiritual burdens. Many key moments like this were also treated cavalierly, even though they had inspired deep speculation and curiosity throughout the season.
Damages’s last scene took place by the ocean, outside the city, where Patty and Ellen attended Tom’s memorial service. The two women stood together at the end of a long wooden pier, windswept physically and emotionally, staring out into the water, their faces as impassive as ever. Ellen told Patty she wants to ask her a professional question, which got the older woman’s attention. As Patty turned toward her, Ellen said Patty’s achieved everything she ever wanted in her career. The younger woman asked what Patty thinks Ellen’s next move should be; should Ellen come back to work for Patty? Work in another firm? Leave the law altogether?
Patty didn’t answer immediately, and for some reason, the women began to talk about Patty’s first child, a daughter who was stillborn. Ellen knew about the child, but not why she died. Patty said that losing the child, although difficult, enabled her to take a job at a New York law firm, where she was the first woman ever hired, and was able to begin her inexorable climb to the top.
In one last revelation, it turned out that the cryptic flashbacks Patty had all season when she looked through the ragged hole in her apartment’s wall—which were somehow related to David Carradine’s mysterious, brief appearance this season—turned out to be from 1972, when Patty was first pregnant. Her pregnancy had complications, and her doctor ordered her to stay on complete bed rest. But in the flashback, we saw Patty ignoring her doctor’s admonishments and walking—heavily pregnant—down the long lane of a horse farm where, presumably, she rides, and lost the child (who’s perversely named—Julia—given that she arrived stillborn).
Ellen wants to know if it’s worth it, what Patty’s done to realize her brilliant career. When Ellen posed her question, we saw Patty flash to an image of herself, distraught, wiping leaves and dirt from Julia’s gravestone and keening like Medea. When the brief image faded, Patty stood still on the dock, struck mute. Ellen watched her for a moment, then murmured good-bye and walked away. As Ellen left, Patty turned to watch her disappear down the dock.
Although they didn’t meet one another’s gaze in this scene or many others, the two women were profoundly and desperately, wordlessly and knowingly connected, Ellen as the daughter Patty terminated, now enlivened and eroticized by Patty’s own longing.
What a shame, though, that such a vivid three-season portrait of a powerful, compelling, untraditional woman had to end on such a banal, predictable note. Damages proposed that Patty sacrificed her child to pursue a career that she couldn’t, in the end, say was worth it. To damn this fascinating, gender-perverse woman as finally just a “bad mother” ends what was a fun, Grand Guignol series with a conservative, moralizing kicker.
Consigning a woman who’s better at being a lawyer than she is at being a mother to the purgatory of regret and maternal sorrow is a cheap shot, an easy way out for a series that always did seem to be more complicated than it turned out to be. If Damages returns for a fourth season, I hope Patty and Ellen can proceed into their mutually corrupt, ruthless future without worrying about the kids they left behind or never had.
The Feminist Spectator