FX Network’s Damages owes its critical success to two significant elements within its run: the terrific dynamic between its central performers, Glenn Close and Rose Byrne and the non-linear format of the show’s narrative arc. The development of these two characters, cold, narcissistic high-stakes litigator Patty Hewes and naive but determined young attorney Ellen Parsons was captivating to watch: as the shift of power between mentor and protege, each with conflicting personal perspectives on family and career, would create an understated, but an electrically tense dynamic between the two. The non-linear format of the show allowed for an exciting opportunity to mislead and manipulate the audience’s expectations of the narrative and the character’s fates. The show proved, at times, to be genuinely surprising, even shocking as revelations of the ‘present day storyline’ would change a perception on the retrospective ‘six months before’ and certainly kept the viewer fervently wishing to get to the next episode as quickly as possible. Several months after the initial broadcast dates in the US, it was all I could do here in the UK to prevent myself from finding and watching the next episode online, initiating an agonising week-wait for the following episode on the BBC.
However, the show’s original excitement and intensity began to fade into the second and third seasons: the unique format becoming formulaic and predictable and while the performances of their top-profile cast remained excellent, the characterisations were often clumsily two-dimensional. The central theme of the show, the nature of power and corruption, the conflict between personal aspirations and professional ambitions was slowly reduced into convoluted plot-lines, repetitive exchanges of dialogue, surreal, even absurd, sequences and, at times, pure histrionics. As the relationship between Patty and Ellen started to strain believability, even after shifts in their affiliation with one another, the show relied on perfunctory twists to keep the ongoing narrative intriguing for its viewers. As FX Network dropped Damages back in 2010, there seemed little chance the show would be reprieved (it had critical success, but was not a commercial breakout for FX) or, with several character arcs resolved, fewer opportunities for the overarching narrative to develop further.
It was a surprise therefore that the Audience Network (formerly known as DirecTV) acquired the show last year and immediately commissioned a fourth and fifth season for the legal drama. While the two principals and all three writers (Daniel Zelman,Glenn and Todd A. Kessler) have returned to the project, the latest season of Damages has shifted its context from corporate and financial malfeasance to the clandestine operations of the US private military contracts in Afghanistan. Though the controversial subject of private military activities in the ongoing ‘War on Terror’ might seem an apt topic for the writers to evoke within Damages, as the series has drawn inspiration from the 2001 Enron scandal and Madoff’s 2008 Ponzi scheme, the context is remarkably infelicitous for this particular drama. With the aforementioned aspects of the series already appearing laboured after three seasons, what might have potentially (though doubtfully) refreshed the show has unfortunately proved that Damages’ appeal has been exhausted and that the conclusion, confirmed to be the fifth season, can unfortunately not come too soon.
The issue of the context is vital to establishing one of the greatest missteps of this season. While Damages has been suited to the insulated, elitist world of corporations, financial and legal institutions, which provided the perfect backdrop for the manipulations and deceptions between the characters, the US military-industrial complex does not fare so well with the same premise. Instead of the twisting subversions between the characters, the show unfortunately thrusts itself into the ‘action-packed’, which though has been sparingly used in the past, has never produced the show’s most engrossing scenes. Perhaps if the show was orientated around the police, as with the recent series of the Danish The Killing II which has a similar storyline, then these elements might seem credible but instead the relations between the legal and military structures are entirely unbelievable. The need to raise the stakes on the last season has pushed the show into an area that, personally, I do not think it can portray or remotely comment on. It’s hard to know, despite being entertainment, what Damages does have to say about its central theme: does it critique the notion of power or sensationalise it? Even worse, in this particular instance, is the vagueness around the topic of war it brings into the series. It might allude to the infamous reputation of private military corporations like Xe Services (formerly known as Blackwater) or the rising militarism and nationalism of the far-right in certain parts of the United States, but it remains extremely obscure, even ambivalent, about the implications of this very contentious debate. It is the primary problem with evoking this highly charged political, moral and ethical context within such a drama. Damages, due to its format and genre-type, is forced to be evasive rather than assertive on the issues it uses. This is not to say that what Damages dramatises in terms of actual issues of underhand CIA interventions and the accountability of private military contractors is particularly untrue, it is becoming more obvious in today’s independent media how accurate a perspective this is, but it deals with it on a superficial level as it tries to juggle the other elements of the drama.
As both Ellen and Patty get drawn into the case, each fighting over what is of primary importance (Ellen’s wish to save her old friend who is a defected soldier but proven a liability to Erikson’s company or Patty’s desire to see Ellen’s career succeed so to find the heir to her fiefdom), the show’s non-linear format seems uninspiring and routine and the ‘present storyline’ plot unfolds to be pretty inconsequential for the viewing of the past storyline. While played with genuine magnetism and conviction by John Goodman and Dylan Baker, their characters become hackneyed caricatures by the end of the series: Goodman’s Howard Erikson is a rather typical jingoistic nationalist who is equally gregarious and vicious, while Baker’s Jerry Boorman is a callous, reclusive maverick CIA Agent, whose backstory unfolds into drama reminiscent of soap-opera. It is one of the unfortunate facets of Damages that often emerged in the past seasons. The attempt to present moral ambiguity or complexity in the character’s motives is portrayed through rather obvious juxtaposing intentions, but while the first season handled this with some deftness, later seasons proved to be all too patent in presenting the conflicts in their personalities. While it might be arguable that this represents the schizophrenic attitude afforded the greedy and powerful, it often conversely comes across as weak and unconvincing writing, despite what the actor makes of it.
Even the moments that the writers could afford a deeper exploration of their protagonist seemed to be wasted. While searching for her estranged son Michael, who later files a lawsuit against her for custody of his daughter, Patty attends a therapist. Maybe I have been spoiled by HBO’s magnificent series In Treatment, but these brief interludes add little to exposing more of Patty’s internal troubles and inevitably reveal nothing to either the character or the audience. Which is an opportunity missed, as the writers had plenty of material from the last three seasons to make this one subplot a rare break for Patty to reflect on her personal grievances, her inability to form proper relationships, her desire to be in control. Instead, it appears irrelevant and is thrust in to seemingly give Patty something to do while Ellen attempts to pursue Erikson. By the end of Season Four, Ellen’s mixed relationship with Patty merely becomes a segue into the final season, which will inevitably pursue the only avenue this series has left: pitching the two against each other. While this was certainly a nice, if not predictable, twist to the season finale, it did indadvertedly expose that Damages might be finally ready to close its doors.
Though I feel I might have been overtly critical of the season, highlighting its failures due to the preceding seasons’ exhaustion of both format and characters, I hope this will not deter viewers to at least watch Damages. There are some stellar performances, especially the leads, and at least in the earlier seasons, genuine authenticity to the twists and shocks that the narrative delivers. Unfortunately as the show has proceeded, it finds itself as limited as Fox’s House on where it might go next and what it might do, other than wearying the non-linear chronology element. Like that particular show, Damages has tipped toward the implausible and even the ridiculous in order to keep the show ‘fresh’ and the audience tuned in. Unfortunately, if often has no other purpose than to reveal its really working its notice. As a long-term fan, I shall be checking in for the final season, it deserves that much, but whether my enthusiasm and engagement with the characters will be lifted remains to be seen.
Damages will no doubt be repeated on The Audience Network Channel at some point in the near future. Seasons One to Three are available separately or together on DVD in Region 1 and 2, with the Region 1 release of Season Four available soon. For European and UK viewers, Season Four might be found online by other means.