Season Premiere: Damages – “I Lied, Too”

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“I Lied, Too”

January 7th, 2009

Damages is one of the few shows that, despite airing during the period when I began this blog, I have never honestly blogged about the show. The reason is simple: I wasn’t really doing episodic reviews back when the show first emerged, and it took me a few months to get to the final episodes of the season after losing interest in where the show was headed.

More accurately, I lost interest in the fact that the show had no idea where it was headed. The first season of Damages, for me, had two fundamental problems. First and foremost, I felt like the show was constantly battling the fact that its ostensible lead, Rose Byrne as Ellen Parsons, was far less interesting than her mentor, the fantastic Glenn Close as Patty Hewes. And secondly, it seemed like the show at its midpoint abandoned the nuances of that relationship for contrived, red herring storylines that never felt like they added up to anything substantial.

For this reason, the verdict on Damages Season Two remains out – the show knows how to start a season, and they know how to end one, but it’s going to be the middle section that causes them the most trouble. But what “The Lies We Tell” gets right has me hopeful that they are at least aware of his to solve their first problem: I never particularly engaged with Byrne in the first season, but here she is up to the challenge to portray a character who is exponentially more interesting.

With one of the most impressive supporting casts on a cable drama at the moment, the show has even opportunity to turn this strong start into a strong season: let’s just hope that there aren’t any contrived stalkers in the show’s future.

One of Damages patents of sorts is the idea that there must be a good half dozen balls in the air for the show to be able to operate. This initially seems very impressive, as it does here, but has the potential to fall apart later on. For now, it works for us to follow Ellen’s life as an FBI informant, Patty’s crisis of conscience, Patty’s charitable foundation, Daniel Purcell’s situation, Ellen’s time in therapy, Patty’s newest case, and Arthur Frobisher’s slow recovery; they split about half and half in terms of new storylines and those which are holdovers from last year’s finale, which isn’t uncommon for the series.

Of them, I have to say that I found Ellen’s storyline the most interesting, if not perhaps the most enjoyable. I was surprised at how engaged I was with the character: after being stuck with a lifeless fiancé and a largely characterless demeanor last season, Bryne has brought to Ellen a real sense of anger and vengeance that will do her a lot of good. The show’s flashforward, the bookended scenes of Ellen interrogating and then shooting someone in order to learn the truth, was so far removed from anything Ellen did last season, where her naiveté stopped being engaging a few episodes in.

I also think that she now has the benefit of being engaged with Patty more directly on a regular level: she is more her equal, and far more capable of going toe-to-toe in scenes not resulting in murder, plots of murder, or something related to any sort of felony. Similarly, her “normal life” with David was never anywhere near as engaging as the questions of forgiveness and revenge presented to her by Wes (an always game Timothy Olyphant). After a year of being saddled with a weak co-star and a wide-eyed view of the world, Ellen has become a loose cannon who her FBI handlers really need to keep an eye on, and who gets to play off of some great performers in the process.

The FBI storyline has some potential, but I do have to express my concern that the series has once again fit Ellen into one role and stuck her there. Right now, she is the unmovable force of revenge: Patty’s story of her daughter she never got to have, appealing to Ellen’s sensitive side, had absolutely no effect on her. This works in the short term, and so close to David’s death and Patty attempting to have her killed she is reacting to her lies as any grieving person would. But I think that we still need to see some range from Ellen as the season goes along: I prefer this particular period for both Ellen and Byrne as an actress, but I don’t want to see her stop growing.

Really, we see a much more movable object in Patty Hewes herself, in this episode paralyzed by nightmares of what happened to Ray Fiske and what she did to Ellen when she believed that her guilt would lead her to the authorities. It is not that Patty is wholly changed: she string Daniel Purcell along, refusing to take his case at first while in fact being very interested in the data she sent him, and in the episode’s finest moment of plotting gets Sam Arsenault’s daughter arrested on cocaine charges in order to eventually secure his contribution to her charitable foundation.

But the character has been smartly scaled back to something more human: there were points in the first season where she crossed that line between cold and ice cold, and while entertaining there needs to be some part of Patty that feels bad about what she does. Ultimately, Zeljko Ivanek’s stunning final moments, Ray Fiske’s suicide taking place right in front of her in her own office, has left an imprint that will not be easily removed from her memory.

It’s created in Ellen and Patty something closer to equals: they are both having to live double lives, Patty hiding her real anxieties to be able to maintain her cold and calculated ways while Ellen has to put on an act despite knowing that the woman she works for tried to kill her. Neither will have the patience for it: Hewes breaks down in this episode and believes that bringing Ellen into one of her secrets will somehow make up for the other, while Ellen has expressed on numerous occasions that the two-year timetable isn’t good enough for her (clearly, six months is her breaking point, no matter who was on the opposite end of those gunshots).

The introduction of a new storyline in Daniel Purcell is an interesting choice, because this is really Patty’s personal business more than anything. It’s another complication for her, and the wife’s death was obviously choreographed but nonetheless a way to bring this fairly mundane storyline on paper into this rather sensationalist world. William Hurt is the right kind of actor to bridge this gap: the whole point is that Purcell stumbled onto something he wasn’t supposed to find, and that a chemical consulting job has suddenly ballooned into something life-altering. He nicely walks that line between wanting his normal life with his wife and child and being able to ratchet up the emotion to deal with the pending conflict; I thought he was perhaps a bit too understated following his wife’s death, but nonetheless I like that they’re taking this storyline slowly.

It is not precisely clear in what ways they intend to work Arthur Frobisher into this particular series of storylines: while he remains a focus of Ellen Parsons due to his responsibility for David’s death, he is so removed from everything else that what we’re really watching for is Ted Danson playing the role that changed many people’s perspectives on his ability as an actor. From that perspective, it was an enjoyable sequence of events: seeing Frobisher face his mortality made you feel as if they were moving towards an epiphany of sorts, but his genius strategy of asking the nurse to place tubes in his nose to gain sympathy from his wife reminded us that the gunshot wound really didn’t solve anything.

As a premiere, I think the episode was a success: we got just enough information on the new characters (Olyphant’s Wes remains the most cryptic, and likely with the most prominent hidden agenda of sorts, but that’s speculation) to make us interested in their future, just enough of a glimpse into our old characters to get a sense of what kind of journey they’re on, and just enough new plot developments to create some possibilities.

I remain somewhat skeptical, though, of how beneficial the “Six Months Later” part of the storyline really is: smartly, the reveal will be much more simple this time around (“Who is Ellen interrogating?”), so it might not feel quite as contrived sitting around waiting for the pieces of the puzzle to fit together, but it almost seems so simple that it won’t really matter. At this point, we make our presumptions: they aren’t likely to kill Patty so she’s out as an option, which leaves Frobisher, or even someone else we haven’t even met yet.

But with Damages, making presumptions seems dangerous, both in terms of plot and in terms of future quality – my hope is that they can keep this momentum going, but there’s a real sense that I might not be quite so convinced in a few episodes’ time.

Cultural Observations

  • You know that you’ve got a big name guest cast when there are three separated “AND” credits. The show is now “with Timothy Olyphant and Marcia Gay Harden and Ted Danson and William Hurt.” We have yet to see Harden, who is either playing the lead plaintiff or the defense attorney, but it makes for quite the rounded out cast.
  • Not given much to do, and losing his own “And” credit to make way for the big guns, Tate Donovan seems like a bit of an afterthought this year – heck, you could say the same about last year even. He’s basically an exposition factory, which is a fine role for Donovan – the show needs some people not wrapped up in everything every now and then, after all.
  • I’m growing tired of shows using Regis and Kelly as the “look at our characters in the real world,” primarily because it always feels so fake: I expected that to be a dream sequence at one point it was spiraling out of control so quickly. It’s just such a cliché: Regis asks inappropriate questions, Ripa asks about kids and working so that the guest can volley back the lob by talking about her own balancing of three jobs at once with three kids, and I sit back and ponder whether or not putting Hewes on a far more realistic show for a lawyer (like last year’s Greta Van Sustren cameo) was just not “hip” enough for the series.

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