UPDATE (7/19/10): Damages has been saved by DIRECTV! Two more, 10-episode, seasons will air starting 2011, but only on DIRECTV, not FX. Lower rated than DIRECTV’s other rescue operation, Friday Night Lights, I suppose exclusivity was the only way it would happen. (DIRECTV shared Friday Night Lights with NBC).
Damages is over, ostensibly for its third season, but almost certainly — save a miracle — for good cue miracle. The writers of the show appeared pretty aware of this reality, wrapping up the series’ mysteries — Arthur Frobisher’s murder of Ellen Parsons’ fiance, the mystery of Patty Hewes’ first child — and concluding, fittingly, on an ambiguous note. Ellen asks Patty if her career in corporate law was worth it. Patty doesn’t answer.
In the end, Damages was more than a crime drama, it was more like a long-running miniseries, an opera in three discreet acts, wrapped up neatly in the series finale with death, catharsis and the possibility of a new beginning. Ellen will probably leave the legal practice, but if she doesn’t, we hope she will become a better version of Patty Hewes: fighting for the weak, but without all the drama.
Damages was nothing if not complicated. So what did it all mean?
Damages, despite appearances, is not about how the rich are evil, but rather how they are weak. In global, competitive marketplace, Damages argues, corporations and the people who run them are governed by fear, personal weaknesses, relationships and, of course, greed. Representations of greed are a staple in corporate drama, and it’s very appealing — Wall Street is the classic example. But Damages rarely focused on greed, it focused on flaws. The best dramas about corporate power get this. Michael Clayton is a solid recent case: Tilda Swinton’s nervous, uncertain portrayal of a murderous general counsel, motivated to break the law to preserve her job and the company, embodies this weakness of those who pull the strings in society. The final credits of Damages feature lyrics from Leonard Cohen: “everybody knows…the poor stay poor and the rich get rich.” That much is true, but who is better off? We know the game, but do we know the rich?
Patty Hewes is a heroine, in the traditionally nontraditional sense, but she is also just as flawed as they people she demonizes. In the finale, as she reveals her secret, we finally learn she, indirectly, thwarted her first pregnancy, unable to chose to stay in a small town with the father of her child or move to New York to pursue her career. Her inability to truly rely on and trust the people stems from her own insecurities, her knowledge of what she’s capable of and her guilt over what she’s done. The great twist at the end of the series, the person who attempts to kill her, isn’t some hired goon or former adversary, it’s her son.
She is, ultimately, on the side of the good, so her flaws and the hardened personality they create, make us giddy. Her targets, however, are puerile, lily-livered and short-sighted.
Walter Kendrick was perhaps the show’s most poorly-constructed villain. He was too evil, arrogant and one-dimensional to register any interest from fans and is one of the reasons the second season is generally considered the least compelling. Still viewers saw how Kendrick’s feelings for his subordinate and his fear of losing his company drove him to the extremes that eventually did him in. The demands of being a public company are enormous, and the system encourages excess and risk-taking, given the intense need to show growth quarter after quarter. That kind of environment fuels fear (though clearly not murder, necessarily).
The first season saw Arthur Frobisher as an irresponsible, reckless and hapless CEO responsible for billions of fraud and the loss of thousands of jobs. Arthur never really came off as a mastermind. He is more like playboy, or even just a boy, trapped in a world he couldn’t quite handle. Yes, he did it, and he even ordered the murder of an innocent man to protect his secret, but he was also a man blinded by the walls surrounding his life, too concerned about saving face among his family members to see the full repercussions of his actions. In season three we saw how self-indulgent and small-minded Frobisher really was. He was a brand of George Bush, someone who should have never left the frat house but somehow got handed the keys to the kingdom.
Meanwhile Frobisher’s lawyer, Ray Fiske, was a spineless closet-case who’s role in the entire intrigue involved covering up an illicit affair and protecting a man he barely knew.
THE TOBINS AND THEIR LAWYER
By far, Damages most consistent and stirring statement on the weakness of the rich was the Tobins, a family fashioned after Bernie and Ruth Madoff, who perpetrated the largest Ponzi scheme in his history (it seems the writers simply gave up trying to come up with an innovative corporate scheme).
In the beginning of the season, we were led to believe the family patriarch Louis Tobin was the evil mastermind (and adulterer) scheming behind the backs of his unknowing family members. By the series finale however we learn it was the innocent-seeming Joe Tobin was caused the entire mess and his father was merely protecting him.
See, Joe was an addict and a man of little conviction, eager to impress women and earn the respect of his father. He had made a bad investment and his father used other funds to cover it up. It got out of hand. Meanwhile Joe had also gotten a woman pregnant but was in no state to be a father. Both his mother and father supported the woman and her child, both of whom would eventually become pawns in the Ponzi scheme. Once Louis Tobin confessed the truth of the fraud, all the family’s wounds opened. The matriarch, left to protect the family, kept the lies long enough to ensure her family would get the money. But the uncertainty over who was who’s mistress and daughter led the slowly-unraveling Tobin daughter to commit murder, the once-moral son to order murder, lie, betray and turn against nearly everyone close to him to protect a family who all the while was merely trying to protect him.
The remarkable thing about the Tobin story in Damages is its simplicity: billions in fraud and several lives are lost all to protect the psyche of an emotionally weak son.
Leonard Winstone, the Tobins’ lawyer and a collaborator throughout the entire saga, ended up being an ex-con who faked his identity to make it into high society. Instead of telling the truth the family’s fragile son, he keeps the secret until it was too late. His eventual fall paves the way for Patty to solve the mystery, but he leaves New York alone, estranged from his father and the family he dedicated his life to.
If Damages taught us anything it showed us how the megarich are petty, motivated by personal problems of miniscule importance, blinded by a life of comfort and leisure and ultimately fearful of loss, of money, family and luxury. The rich and powerful are not like you and me. They may in fact be worse, because they fail to understand how their flaws impact the lives of others. The misuse of wealth in Damages isn’t (always) conniving and proactive, it’s reactive. Its players respond to the smallest and, in the grand scheme of the many lives it can influence, most infantile of catalysts: fear.
Note: Looking at the pictures above, is there any question why the series struggled in the 18-49 ratings? No judgment, as a show about people at the top of their careers, it needed older actors.