Often times in television, the people responsible for the progression of the show aren’t made aware that their time is up and thus the audience is left with unresolved questions and huge cliffhangers, or conversely each season of a show is nicely wrapped up in a little bow just in case and then reopened awkwardly the next season when they get renewed for another run. Damages is one of a rare breed of show, one that was aware that there time was up and so they made sure to bring everything to a resolution — only to then be picked up by another network and placed back into the fold for a few more seasons.
Creators Todd Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman believed that the third season of their legal drama was going to be its last, as FX made it plain to them that they wouldn’t be picking it up for another afterwards. So, through plenty of awkward contrivances and returning characters, they made sure to resolve the lingering questions that had been opened in the first few seasons with a pretty unfortunate season three finale that thankfully didn’t end up being the close of this great show. Instead, DirecTV picked up the show for two more seasons, which not only gave the trio more room to evolve its characters and their dynamic but also gave them more time to bring things full circle to what they wanted the end to be.
With the wider range of abilities that this new network afforded them (cursing!), Damages stepped up its game with their excellent fourth season, leading into these final ten episodes which saw the inevitable showdown between the veteran Patty Hewes and newcomer Ellen Parsons come to its climax. The fifth season was structured similarly to its predecessors, with a primary case bringing in a bevy of recurring guest stars while the more overlying elements of the Patty/Ellen dynamic were woven through that core narrative.
This season’s case was one of the weaker elements of the overall run, and probably the least interesting one the series has ever had, with the somewhat dated premise of a Wikileaks-esque website run by Channing McClaren (Ryan Phillippe) being put under fire after the death of their most recent whistleblower, Naomi Walling (Jenna Elfman). As McClaren is sued by Walling’s daughter (who hires Patty as her lawyer), McClaren goes to Ellen for his defense, as she is starting up her own firm and is looking for a big case to make her name. Ellen sees the potential to go after Patty one-on-one in court and she takes it, setting the stage for the big showdown that the whole series had been building towards.
Unfortunately, the payoff was not in the cards for this season, as Zelman and the Kesslers were less concerned with making the case interesting and much more concerned with building the parallels between Ellen and Patty that have been growing throughout the series. The case felt very much like background noise throughout the entire season, never being particularly interesting and being played out by the dullest set of actors the show has featured yet (looking at the names for the cast it’s not really a surprise, as they are a significant step down from the usual roster the show puts together).
What began with a promising few episodes, giving the season’s trademark glimpse into the future with what looks to be a scene of Ellen dead in an alley a few months from the present day, quickly began to wear out its welcome as the episodes became less intense and more focused on plots that held no real weight for the overall narrative. While the showrunners seem more intent on bringing everything with Ellen and Patty to a head (something which they ultimately weren’t able to do), they still had to give the case the proper twists and turns to keep it going and it felt like their attention wasn’t properly in it all the way.
To their disadvantage, the things that they were more focused on felt like they didn’t have much to do with anything — oddly placed subplots like a marital dispute between Ellen’s mother and father came seemingly out of nowhere and only served as either red herrings for her eventual fate or overly-labored and redundant attempts to draw further parallels between her and Patty. The focus on the family element of both of these women could have had more of an impact if these things had been able to develop gradually, but they come on so forcefully in this season that they don’t have any room to grow organically.
While there were moments that worked very well, particularly all of the truly effective dream sequences (this show has always been the best with those), overall it felt like the tone wasn’t ever established well and with such a weak case it was hard to get too invested in the overall narrative that drove this season. Glenn Close and Rose Byrne continued to deliver some of the finest work on television, but a lot of the supporting ensemble struggled to keep up — likely due to their weak material. The members of the ensemble who did manage to impress, reliable actors like Judd Hirsch, M. Emmet Walsh and Chris Messina (so pleased they kept him on after his monumental work in season four) gave solid performances that were often not given enough time to develop their characters properly. Hirsch was giving one excellent scene after another, until he all but disappeared from the final few episodes.
Usually, a show being given the knowledge of their end date prior to its occurrence is a very positive thing. I’ve always believed that no show should last longer than five seasons (there have been a few exceptions to this belief), and the team here was given two whole seasons awareness of when they had to conclude their saga by. Damages, however, is a rare case where it seems like maybe the knowledge of the end was ultimately a negative thing on the quality of the program, as it led to an abundance of focus in some areas that really weakened others and those areas that got the most attention ended up building to a disappointing lack of a payoff. I can’t say that I hated this season in the way that I did season two, but after the return to brilliance of three and four, this final season was definitely a disappointing conclusion to what has been at times one of the best shows of the past decade.
01. I Love You, Mommy (5.04)
02. You Want to End This Once and For All? (5.01)
03. I Need to Win (5.06)
04. There’s Something Wrong With Me (5.05)
05. I Like Your Chair (5.09)