All good things must come to an end, and so Damages bows out with an extended 70 minute series finale that resolves both the McClaren case, and more importantly, establishes once and for all the distinction between Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne).
After delivering a largely satisfying and successful series run, does the series finale serve as an appropriate end to our beloved show? We break out the ever popular He/She said to deconstruct ‘But You Don’t Do That Anymore.’
Let’s bitch it out…
He Said (Cinephilactic)
After five seasons of some of the twistiest plotting I’ve ever seen on television, it’s tough to have everything come down to this single episode. It’s a huge burden for ‘But You Don’t Do That Anymore’ to carry: put a stopper on the Patty/Ellen relationship once and for all. And while I can honestly say that the McClaren (Ryan Philippe) case offered zero surprises en route, the Patty/Ellen scenes hummed with the same electric energy that they have always had.
Instead of immediately rushing to the end to talk about what Ellen does and how the two women end up in the near future, I’m going to take the unconventional route by taking a moment to celebrate the use of dream sequences in the series. It’s long been one of my favourite narrative techniques and Damages has excelled at using dreams to dissect the psyche of its characters ever since its inaugural season. In this final episode, there are three notable dream sequences: the opening, which once again associates Ellen with Catherine (Kiley Lidell) and then later, Ellen’s hallucination of deceased boyfriend, David (Noah Bean). TVAngie will discuss the third – set in the flashforward – in her part below.
The first expertly reinforces the fact that Patty sees both Catherine and Ellen as surrogate children, but that relationship is further complicated by the presence of her father, Lyle Hewes (M. Emmet Walsh). By introducing Lyle into Patty’s dreams, Damages demonstrates just how damaged Patty is from her childhood, something that was clearly inferred, but never explicitly addressed. With the reveal that Lyle drunkenly abused Patty and her mother, it’s no wonder Lyle carries a shotgun in her dreams. He’s an explosive, dangerous force from her past and since Patty refused to forgive him, it’s no surprise that she would arm him in her dreams. What is telling is that the weapon transfers to S1 Ellen, bloodied and battered following Patty’s attempt on her life. By this point we have a pretty good idea why Patty keeps dreaming about Ellen: she’s not only worried about Ellen usurping her (hence all the chair swapping/talk this season), she’s also subconsciously guilty for blaming her father for a lousy childhood who has subsequently ruined her grandchild’s young life and attempted to kill her surrogate daughter. Patty’s not exactly what we’d call a model parent. How ironic then that Ellen not only becomes Patty before actively deciding not to become Patty – leaving behind her law career for life as a mother and wife to – presumably – Chris (Chris Messina).
Which brings me to the second dream sequence in which Ellen grabbed a file from Kate’s (Janet McTeer) office and ended up having a discussion with her dead fiance from S1. We last saw David in the appropriately titled 5×06 ‘I Need To Win‘ and here he once again plays Ellen’s conscience. It makes sense to have the man killed in the crossfire of two women’s naked ambition to advocate for balance in Ellen’s personal life. This has been an ongoing struggle for Ellen throughout the series: S1 she neglected her family in order to impress Patty, S2 she essentially stopped doing anything that wasn’t revenge related, S3 involved Ellen maintaining a tricky moral line of using Patty to crack the Tobin case in order to benefit her own career, and then nearly the same story – minus the DA’s office – was used in S4′s Hightower storyline. Each year Ellen has become progressively more and more “Patty-like” and we always end up in a situation near the end of the season wherein Ellen has to pull herself back from the edge. In this final season it seemed inevitable that Ellen would flirt with the dark side more than ever, but it’s nice to know that the show didn’t do the expected and kill Ellen off in order to finally punish Patty with a prison sentence. I was especially glad, actually, that neither of them ended up dying or going to prison; it’s significantly more satisfying to imagine the two of them going head to head again as Patty suggests (perhaps in a TV movie a few years down the road?)
TVAngie, did you think Patty “suffered enough” from son Michael’s (Zachary Booth) death (and was that a kind of suicide or just an idiotic move on Michael’s part)? And what can we make of the “You need to win” mantra everyone associated with Ellen considering that she basically won the case by default because Patty let her?
She Said (TVAngie)
In terms of Michael’s death, I believe it served more as shock-value. It came completely out of left field, and makes no narrative sense. Why on Earth would Scully (Jeff Binder) kill Michael? Scully agreed to testify in order to get immunity and ensure that he can live a happy life with his wife and child. The detectives still have his DNA and even if Ellen didn’t survive her fainting spell, they could still prove that he attacked her back in S1 even without an ID from Ellen or Michael. Plus, let’s not forget how much dirt Ellen’s PI, Cooper (Gbenga Akinnagbe, who finally got a character name!) has on him. Killing Michael functions only to twist the knife into Patty, as ironically, if she hadn’t ordered the hit on Ellen, Michael wouldn’t have been in this predicament in the first place. Initially, I thought it was a wonderful way to “punish” Patty, but later on the dock, it’s revealed that Patty blames Ellen for bringing Scully back into everyone’s lives, proving that Patty still doesn’t get it. She’ll never take responsibility for the consequences of “winning”, instead repressing the guilt deep into her subconscious. Looks like Michael will join the cast of reoccurring players in Patty’s nightmares.
In terms of the McClaren case, which thankfully was very quickly resolved, I was surprised that Ellen considered it a “win”. After everything, I expected Ellen would want to beat Patty legitimately and in a public forum, rather than win by default. If the series had continued, I’m sure that Ellen would still need to be satiated until she got the satisfaction of besting Patty in court. Notwithstanding, the show has never been about actual court proceedings (rather its always focused on what happens before a case goes to trial). I still would have liked to see Patty and Ellen go head-to-head in front of a jury, but seeing as that’s never really happened in the history of the show, it makes sense that we don’t go through the monotony of a trial.
More significantly, I wanted to chime in on what you touched on in the dream sequences – particularly the business of Ellen being Patty’s surrogate daughter. We’re shown through Patty’s dream sequences throughout this season that Patty sees Ellen is a stand-in daughter, but this all ties back to Patty’s stillborn daughter, Julia (whom we learned about in the finale of S1). We’ve seen in seasons past that Patty carries an immeasurable guilt for her role in Julia’s death, presumably because she was consumed by work which caused Julie to be stillborn (echoed explicitly when Ellen’s doctor very plainly tells her that if she doesn’t start resting up and taking care of herself, she’ll lose her baby – a warning that almost most comes to fruition with Ellen’s faux-death). Just in case we’ve forgotten about Julia, Patty’s father pointedly interrogates Patty about it in her dream to hammer it home. He asks, “What the hell happened to your poor little baby?”, Patty protests, “I don’t know”. Her father responds, “I think you do.” We’re then shown flashes of Patty’s bloodied and hands and feet, no doubt flashes back to Julia’s untimely birth/death. Clearly, Patty can’t hide from the truth in her subconscious.
The Julia callback serve two functions: 1) To show us that both Ellen and little Catherine are substitute daughters giving Patty the opportunity to enact the parenting toward the daughter she was never able to have, thereby attempting (and ultimately failing) to reconcile her guilt over Julia. And 2) Showing us how Ellen can choose to go down the exact route as Patty (and literally turning into her) or escape it. This in turn, makes ‘But You Don’t Do That Anymore’s third dream sequence in the masterful coda, so significant. Patty fantasizes that Mother Ellen earnestly thanks Patty for steering her away from career as a ruthless attorney. In this imagined sequence, Ellen is redeemed having escaped the cutthroat world that Patty dominates. By thanking Patty “so much”, imaginary Ellen suggests that Patty is forgiven because the family life Patty denied still flourishes via Ellen. Thus Patty is able to rectify her guilt in choosing her career over her family all those years ago. Tragically, none of this real: It’s all in Patty’s head. Ellen never knocks on the car window, and fails to thank Patty for anything. The brilliant final shot of the series further cements this notion. Patty tells her driver to take her to “the office” rather than home (again solidifying the choice of work over family) before she stares mournfully into the distance, realizing that all she has left is her career. I love how the camera lingered uncomfortably long on Close’s face, just long enough to communicate the dismal solitude that is her life. Truly, this is Patty’s fitting punishment.
Herein lies the power of the series. Essentially this all boils down to a continually significant issue for contemporary women: work or family? According to Damages, you can’t have both. Although I think the series ultimately delivers a judgment (Choose work and you’ll end up woeful and alone like Patty), I still applaud its efforts to bring this issue up for dialogue and debate. Ellen’s confrontation with Chris after she turns in his source is a much better example. He’s clearly got every right to be disgusted with her (it’s laughable that she thinks she can “make it up” to him), but her retort of “Yes, I care about winning. Of course I care. I’ve devoted my life to this. It matters to me. But so do you,” is interesting. Let’s take another look at this: After at least 15 years of trying to establish herself, what does it say if Ellen were to throw it all away for a man?
I also wanted to just briefly tip my hat to Glenn Close and her stunning performance throughout this episode. She is absolutely breathtaking in the final confrontation with her father. So much raw emotion, pain and anguish, presented in a remarkably controlled performance. It’s significant that we’re shown this scene directly after Michael asks if Patty will be “hurt enough” by having her dark secrets come out in court. Close’s performance does the impossible: it makes Patty sympathetic, directly after hearing about the horrible things she’s done. It’s antiheroism at its best. Kudos also to director (and co-creator) Glenn Kessler, who gives us this amazing performance in a single, uninterrupted take.
- The hair of our lead women in the final flashforward “A Few Years From Now” is very significant. Hair is always an important marker of sexuality and approachability and the distinction between their new roles is emphatically clear in the differences in the women’s hair styles. Patty’s super short, frosted cut is crisp and unmoving, connoting power and strength, a far cry from being delicate and feminine. This is a woman who is all business. Ellen’s just-past-the-shoulder curls, meanwhile, are romantic and extremely feminine. We both think she looks radiant, and there’s an aura of hetero-normative sexuality surrounding her – not just in her role as “mother” but in stark comparison to the more severe business woman/fashion model chin cut she’s worn for most of S5. We could make an obvious observation about short hair being androgynous or even “man-like”, but that doesn’t hold any water as Close is equally as beautiful as Bryne in this final sequence.
- We never learned what actually happened in the Mont Clair hotel room with McClaren and Walling (Jenna Elfman). But let’s face it, do we really care? Although we’re still itching to know about those darn cigarettes…
- Everyone make the visual match that Samurai Seven’s (Bill Camp) killer (Boris McGiver) was also the same man who killed Rutger (and worked for William Sadler’s Torben)? I’ve also loved that Damages doesn’t feel the need to explain everything because it trusts its viewers to pay close enough attention to connect the pieces themselves
- Was anyone else secretly hoping Arthur Frosbisher (Ted Danson), Katie (Anastia Griffith), Patty’s ex-husband Phil (Michael Nouri) or maybe even Hightower president Howard Erickson (John Goodman) would return? Were you hoping someone else would show up? How would any of these people have fit in?!
- What did everyone think about the episode being split up explicitly into “Parts”? Complementary? Distracting?
- Ultimately Chris’ whistle-blowing storyline is justified, not so much because it gives something for Chris Messina to do, but rather because of what it tells us about Ellen. It’s important that Ellen ultimately disregards the feelings of David (ie: herself) as well as Chris because it proves just how far she’s willing to go “to win.” Chris’ final scene, after he’s moved out, takes place symbolically on a slope covered in garbage, which – depending on how far you want to push an interpretation – can be read as the wreckage of Ellen’s relationships, pushed to the brink by her desire to prove herself worth of being Patty’s opponent. It’s interesting that we don’t see Chris again (though we’re strongly encouraged to consider the pixie-cut dark haired child Chris’ and Ellen mentions daddy is at the VA – Veteran Affairs). If Chris is indeed still in the picture, it appears that child-rearing (read: not work) is the thing that “makes everything right”.
Phew! So that’s a wrap folks. What did you think about the finale? Was it satisfying? Any burning questions you still have? Even with such a long post, we feel like we’ve just barely scratched the surface. Sound off in the comments below so we can talk about this jam-packed finale!