Damages: A Tale of Two Women

June 21, 2010
By | 4 Comments

Where to begin with Damages? Damages is one of those shows that I resisted initially, and for which that initial resistance proved to be a measure of how strongly I now feel about the show. I find this to be a pattern: I often resist the shows or the characters within shows that turn out to be the most compelling. Perhaps there’s something in these shows or characters that unsettles or sparks some type of productive resistance for me.

I can’t remember what made us decide to start in on Season 3 of Damages this past year. I watched the first and second episodes with divided attention, my phone raised and twitter list loaded to catch up on the conversations on Big Love, Lost, or Supernatural. But that state of distracted viewing didn’t last long; soon I was drawn in to this tightly woven serial mystery masquerading as a legal show. I was dually captivated by the masterful storytelling and by Glen Close’s performance of the indomitable high-stakes litigator, Patty Hewes. I was also intrigued by Martin Short and Tate Donovan, both of whom gave performances with much more subtle force than I expected. Still I found myself resistant for a few episodes to the character of the young law associate Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) who finds herself seemingly in above her head. There was a period of several episodes where I would actually decry out loud that I did not understand the point of her character, or see what she added to the series.

But I’d venture to say now (as I move back in time to race through the first season on Netflix) that my initial resistance to Ellen stemmed from my too low expectations of what a show like Damages might do with two female characters, one older and powerful and another slight, young, and pretty. I expected Ellen to be a weak, powerless character—or an overly idealized, character there for eye candy—because surely the series only had room to depict the journey of one strong, complex, flawed woman. And in that, I am happy to say I was very wrong. The core of Damages, to me is its depiction of the struggles of two strong, complicated professional women. (I’ll write another post on how the focus on female characters coincides with the series’ compelling and unorthodox aesthetic and narrative structure.)

Over the course of its serial, mystery narrative, Damages paints a portrait of a lifetime of edges and compromises, successes, ambivalences, and sacrifices faced by two different generations of women fighting to be powerful in the world on a daily basis. A rare moment where Patty actually talks with Ellen about her personal life highlights the show’s complexity on this front. In a single exchange—held over whiskey in the workplace—Patty warns Ellen that most men can’t handle ambitious women, and that Ellen must search to find a significant other who won’t reject her ambition; and yet this advice immediately follows Patty’s suggestion that Ellen give her fiancé the false sense that he’s in the driver’s seat.

I find this unexpected instance of relationship advice from Patty to Ellen especially notable—an overt moment in which we see the characters directly address how traditional gender roles do or don’t fit into their lives as professional women. This type of negotiation of the contradictions of lived gender politics isn’t something we see very much on television; though I’m drawn to shows that hint at it, or give it to us in incoherent moments; (Gossip Girl, NYC Prep, The Gilmore Girls, and Veronica Mars come to mind…)

But with Damages, Ellen’s and Patty’s experiences are our center. I’d even argue that Damages is more about the high stakes of relationships between women and the navigation of the public and the personal as women than it is about the larger legal proceedings and narrative mystery (as intriguing and satisfying as that may be). When all is said and done and the mystery is revealed, core questions remains: what do Ellen and Patty see in each other? Why do they need each other and/or repudiate each other? What does Damages have to say about the possibilities and limitations of female power, as different generations of powerful women collide, align, and recognize their likeness in each other?


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4 Responses to “ Damages: A Tale of Two Women ”

  1. Amanda Lotz on June 21, 2010 at 3:02 PM

    Hi Louisa–What did you make of the conclusion though? Perhaps it threw me because I’ve been watching since season one and have gotten drips of the miscarriage storyline from the beginning. I found the centrality of, yet ambivalence toward, the politics of motherhood this season really dissatisfying. Ellen seemed far cooler this season than in the past and it was the detachment or lack of anger about forced choices that left the story feeling empty to me.

    My earlier post: /2010/04/30/a-damaged-conclusion/

  2. Louisa Stein on June 21, 2010 at 4:11 PM

    Hi Amanda–Thanks for commenting! I wonder how much of our differing response does have to do with the fact that I came on in season three and didn’t have an additional two season’s worth of expectations and interpretations informing my response. I completely see what you were getting at in your post (which I had missed, thanks for linking!) and yet it’s not at all how I experienced that final scene or the miscarriage storyline. I found it very resonant that the season closed (as I’m guessing now they always do) with a scene between Patty and Ellen, and I actually found it refreshing that there was so much complex ambivalence just put out there and not resolved in the closing scene–so much left unspoken. I didn’t come away from the scene feeling that it simplified or vilified the choices either Patty or Ellen had to make, but rather that it tried to get at the complexities of the experiences of two different generations of professional/powerful women, with regret only one piece of personal narratives too complex to tie up neatly.

    *BUT* I hadn’t fully seen the extent of what Ellen had lost in season one–and as I’m still coming to the end of season one, I don’t yet know all the details. Perhaps if I had seen Ellen’s full journey, I would have missed that anger too.

    I’m going to rewatch that season three closer again and see how it sits with me this time round.

  3. Amanda Lotz on June 22, 2010 at 11:15 AM

    Spoiler alert (you should be far enough into season one, but it is hard to tell given the lack of a linear time line): So you watched the 3rd season without knowing Patty tried to have Ellen killed in the first? Or that Patty’s distress over the attempt on Ellen’s life (which it never seemed clear whether she was upset she ordered it or concerned that it failed) was constantly linked to the flashbacks of the (largely unexplained) miscarriage in the first season? Even in proper order (at least as presented to the viewer) the motivations of characters are hard to read—I was never sure this season if Ellen was genuinely forgiving of Patty or there was an elaborate scheme to punish her.

  4. Louisa Stein on June 23, 2010 at 4:12 PM

    Yes, exactly–I watched season 3 without realizing how much Patty was implicated in past attacks on Ellen. I knew that things had gone very badly between them, but I didn’t know the extent of it–and I still don’t know where season 2 brings them. So in some ways this is a little case study of how I’ve put together serial meaning & gender politics (perhaps incompletely) watching out of order, jumping in mid stream.

    But I think what I picked up on was, as you say, how hard to read/open-ended the motivations of the characters are–that it wasn’t clear who was doing the repenting and who the punishing, and that’s something I find very compelling.

    I think what strikes me most now that I’ve seen almost all of the first season is how complex Patty is allowed to be when she could have so easily been written off as a villain(ess). And yes, the self-induced miscarriage can be read as parallel to her attack on Ellen, or as explanation and/or punishment for Patty’s ambition, but because no character’s motiviations are ever overtly rendered, I feel that a simplistic causal interpretation isn’t forced down our throats.

    Hoping I won’t be eating my words when I’ve seen the series in full!