You know what I like about you? There’s always something going on.
— Patty Hewes (Glenn Close)
A young woman, lost and bloodied, wanders the streets of New York. Picked up by the cops, she’s deposited in an interrogation room, where they observe her from the other side of a two-way mirror. They wonder whether the attorney’s business card she’s carrying belongs to her attorney or her john, wonder about her dazed state, and wonder especially about who she is. As a start for a TV series about high stakes Manhattan lawyers, the situation isn’t so remarkable. But the first few images in Damages do stand out, for their precise pacing, deep-saturated colors, and gorgeous design as much as for their storytelling.
Following a credits sequence over camera rushing through a subway tunnel, the scene is set with brief, iconic glimpses: steam rising from the street, cabs passing, a low angle of a U.S. flag outside an official edifice. Throughout, the dings of an elevator passing floors provide punctuation: when at last Ellen (Rose Byrne) emerges from elevator doors, her bloody dishevelment seems both startling and inevitable. Staggering through traffic, she’s almost hit by a cab while onlookers in the background remain unhelping, vaguely interested. Another day in the big city.
“Six months earlier,” reads a title, as Ellen, perfectly composed and facing a panel of lawyers, including avuncular Hollis Nye (Philip Bosco). They offer her a job with a starting salary that makes her gasp. Until they learn she has one more interview coming up with Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). At that point, all other offers are moot: Nye knows how good Ellen is, that Patty will want her, and also that Ellen will be unable to resist. Famously ruthless, ambitious, and slick, Patty heads a firm specializing in “high stakes litigation,” extracting huge sums of money from corporations that do wrong by their employees, clients, and other little people. Her success is costly, of course: her son is about to be expelled from school (“Kids are like clients,” she sighs, “they want all of you, all the time”) and her colleagues fear her as much as they respect her.
If Ellen’s introduction sets up her vulnerability and trauma, Patty’s is all about her slick dominance. Riding in a limo en route to the courthouse, she’s dealing with the defense attorney in a case where “children died.” Seeking many millions in damages, she rejects all the numbers her opponent names: “Spring’s almost here,” she coos, “I adore it. Rebirth. Do you think that’s because I’m a water sign?” The other lawyer tries his best to stay on message, but they both know she’ll win. Meeting at last on the courthouse steps, he submits. “You’re a real hard dick bitch, you know that?” he charges, limply. “If you were a man, I’d kick the living dogshit out of you.” She remains supremely unrattled: “If you were a man,” she says while turning away from her duly defeated adversary, “I’d be worried.”
The moment revisits the usual scenario for tough-girl professionals on TV, whether doctors, cops, or lawyers: feeling threatened, male associates attack by way of gender stereotypes. Her next target is slightly more imposing, if only because he means to fight back with tactics that approximate hers in influence and brutality. She and Senior Associate Tom (Tate Donovan), aided by an army of minions, are preparing to rip the heart out of Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), whose employees have apparently suffered an Enron-ish loss of savings and retirement funds while he has walked away with 100s of millions of dollars. Patty says upfront that she means to ruin him. Art, however, insists he’s innocent (and has recently been acquitted in a case brought by the federal government), and his lawyer Ray (Zeljko Ivanek) tries to broker a deal with Patty at the dog park (a setting she deems entirely inappropriate). When her own clients appear to want to deal rather than persist in their full-on assault by trial, Patty is determined to make the villain pay.
Only it’s hard to tell exactly who’s corrupt and who’s not at any given moment. The show offers up frequent phone calls and secret meetings, as players appear to switch sides or pay off fixers. Ellen appears to have something like a home life, with a sweet and supportive fiancé, David (Noah Bean), a first-year surgical intern, and a mostly unseen family who see her ambition as somehow foreign, if abstractly admirable. When she appears — unexpectedly — at Ellen’s sister’s wedding to hire her, Patty asserts she “understands” her background: “The problem is, they don’t have your ambition,” she says, as if this is her own situation as well, “They want you to lead, and then they resent you.”
As the premiere episode doesn’t offer much in the way of Patty’s own family (save for a peek at a husband [Michael Nouri] and a reference to the bad-behaving son), it’s hard to say whether she’s lying about this parallel or not. She is plainly cynical and manipulative: she may or may not be impressed that Rose gets her Emily Dickinson reference (“Hope is the thing with feathers”), and might just as likely be setting Ellen up by quoting someone she knows she’ll know. It is clear that Patty is not to be trusted, that her every assertion or query may be a performance to be undermined in the next scene. Moreover, both her colleagues and opponents know this (following one seemingly brilliant maneuver, Tom observes, “Maybe one of these days, I’ll stop being impressed”), as they doubt her motives and sincerity. That doesn’t mean they outsmart her, only that the series is an assembly of moves and countermoves that makes it difficult to see, much less believe in, a single moral center.
Even as Ellen appears to be the standard newbie who leads you into a seething nest of vipers, she’s also something of a schemer herself. Quick to interpret Patty’s declarations, she’s maybe too ready to confide in Tom, perhaps wrong about a relationship between David’s restaurateur sister Katie (Anastasia Griffith) and her primary investor, who happens to be Art. All these interactions are rendered in smart, layered compositions, with elements that crowd and obscure, colors that distract and focus your attention. Such plot intricacies might appear contrived, but twisting even in the first episode suggests otherwise, that the connections are only superficial and deeper implications — the more awful damages — aren’t even discernible yet.