A Creature of Will and Intellect
The third series of Damages began as Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) hit the headlines, again. This time she has been court-appointed to track down the billions in assets swindled from investors by a Madoff-like Louis Tobin (the excellent Len Cariou). At the same time, though Ellen (Rose Byrne) seemed safely ensconced in the DA’s office, the need to build a criminal prosecution against Tobin suggested that she and Patty were once more destined for a dangerous professional intimacy.
The first two episodes have revealed that once again, the series offers the televisual equivalent of an ice-cold, expertly shaken martini sipped in the darkest corner of the bar at the Plaza Hotel. With her ash-blond hair, pale pink lipstick, and androgynous shirts, Patty is ever a creature of will and intellect, her body simply the machine necessary to move her from triumph to triumph.
As she begins her decimation of the Tobin family, she basks in the admiration of her peers and colleagues, not least her solicitous lieutenant Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan). By turns tender and dispassionate, and always watchful, he lives and dies by his boss’ rhythms, but also knows enough to survive without her if he has to. Donovan’s subtle performance rendered Patty’s decision to add Tom to the firm’s masthead both poignant and threatening, as he pondered her possible reasons. Did she fear that he would jump ship? Was she recognizing his loyalty, as she claimed? Had he earned this recognition or was it simply an opening gambit in a lethal chess game? Their exchange indicated a disjunction between mind and mouth so compelling that the show’s eventual revelation (per its time-jumping structure) of Shayes’ future murder came as something of an anti-climax.
Other surprises—climatic or not—seem built into the casting this series of Lily Tomlin as Louis’ wife, Marilyn, and Martin Short as Tobin legal retainer, Leonard Winstone. Close-cropped and graying, Short is almost unrecognizable without his trademark grin, but his familiar, jerky physical energy animates Winstone’s elegant grey suits with just enough violence to suggest the ruthlessness required of a man who advises America’s biggest swindler. Tomlin is similarly low-key, her face struggling to express any emotion beyond shock yet unable to contain an anger so virulent that its sources seem decades, rather than months, deep. That we don’t know Marilyn’s precise backstory is typical of Damages, which relies on its performers to round out and make compelling unexplained details—expectations, desires, and damages.
Such deliciously scant past plotting allows for all kinds of allusion in the present. As with other epic prime-time dramas at their peak (NYPD Blue in its first series comes to mind), the writers and directors of Damages work as suggestively at the contingent as they do at the major plot lines. In a few deft scenes, for example, the show has captured the creepy intimacy of the rich and their help, both before and after Louis’ arrest. At the Thanksgiving dinner where Louis apparently revealed his financial depredations to his family, the servers’ white-gloved hands silently slid food into place, as the camera pulled back to reveal each diner isolated in a tundra of gleaming space, with no less than three servants silently waiting for the next command. Viewers learned more about the trauma Tobin’s family felt at his betrayal in this one scene than in any of the more overtly bitter exchanges that surrounded it.
Along with this frankly riveting melodrama, Damages also raises thematic questions that underscore its interplay of ambition and desperation. Patty and Ellen’s complex relationship as mentor and protégée exposes the emotional and physical extremes of a rite of passage (for the less experienced) and exercise of power (for the more experienced). In the opener to this third series, Patty and Ellen enacted the ambiguity of separation. Ellen acknowledged her loss, even as that loss was empowering. And Patty seemed reconciled to her erstwhile student’s apparent independence, even as that independence marked the triumph of the mentor’s training. Their now longstanding relationship merges both parental and sexual intensity, hinted at in each woman’s dogged persistence and curiosity about the other, while the script leaves open spaces for viewers to indulge their own emotional legacies.
On a much broader palette, Patty’s actions, rather like those of Jack Bauer in 24, dramatize the fundamental contradiction at the heart of any democratic society. When one’s enemies will play every single dirty trick possible, how does one win without transgressing familiar moral imperatives? Both shows peddle a brutal realpolitik of necessity in the pursuit of the greater good (and personal survival, of course). But they also force audiences to confront their own complicity in accepting the benefits of such actions without acknowledging responsibility for their execution. “Behind closed doors” operates as a convenient fiction for both those who take action and those millions more who benefit from it. The selective blindness that saves human beings from acknowledging barbarity is rarely more visible than it is in Damages.