Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Film on TV - Damages Third (and Final?) Season Finale

The third and possibly final season of Damages came to a brutal end last night, almost quintessential in the knowledge that these might be its final moments. As an expensive, award winning series with a dismal viewership and little chance of returning (unless the fine folks of DirectTV come through with a last minute save, as they did with Friday Night Lights), the future of one of televisions most interesting and accomplished dramas looks bleak. But for a show defined by the dark and dreary elements of desperate people living desperate lives, what outlook could be more appropriate?

Indeed, the death rattle of Damages’ 13th Season 3 episode, “The Next One’s Gonna Go In Your Throat”, shook strong last night as the series moved in for the kill shot. Three years worth of storylines were wrapped up, in a tightly maniacal puzzle pieced together as only Damages knows how. Characters were nudged to the brink of hell, then pushed over with a shrug, as if their demise was written in destiny. Because it was.

(Spoiler alert – don’t read anymore if you haven’t seen the final episode, or plan on watching it)

It’s hard to say which downfall most appropriately summarized a show defined by downward spirals. Could it be Campbell Scott’s shattered Joe Tobin? A once proud and potentially honor-bound man crippled by his alcoholism and the destruction of his family?

Could it be Ted Danson’s delusional Arthur Frobisher? A man who outran his past as long as felt like it, then succumbed to it once he became too comfortable, too lazy to survive?

What about Martin Short’s Leonard Winstone, who proved the most capable at scheming by episode’s end, flying away with both a bag full of money and his life intact, rewards for being both the best liar and the most honorable in his loyalty?

Then there’s Tate Donovan’s poor Tom Shayes, who survived multiple stab wounds and betrayals only to die with his head in a toilet, drowned by a disgusting broken Joe Tobin in possibly the most horrible and incredible scene the series has ever produced.

So many damaged people. So many ruined lives. Timothy Olyphant’s mentally unstable cop, who showed up just long enough to capture Frobisher and turn himself in. Ditto Zeljiko Ivanek’s Ray Fiske, popping in as the ghostly reminder of the finality to this story. And Lily Tomlin’s Marilyn Tobin, who decided she couldn’t wait for her ending, drank herself suicidal and nose-dived off the Brooklyn Bridge.

But of course, at the bloody pinpoint of it all is the fantastic and intimidating Glen Close as Patty Hewes, the matriarch of this dysfunctional family. The eldest son, Tom, was too desperate and stubborn to heed her warnings, too proud to take her money, too determined to win out over evil…too much the man she molded him to be.

“People either leave you, or they die,” her son Michael’s words echoed through her head. “Those are the only two endings possible.”

Michael (Zachary Booth), however, chose option 3 – “Kill Mom.” In the final episode we found out it was he who crashed into Patty’s car, driving Tom’s dummy vehicle, after Ellen left it running outside Patty’s apartment (only Damages can build up a mystery to be so forgivably contrived). Patty had put his baby momma in prison for statutory rape. You mess with the bull, bitch, you get the horns. And you thought that stone statue of a bull in the commercial brakes was just there to look cool, didn’t you?

Of course, the family daughter already considered the "Kill Mom" option, then decided to stick with the demented mother figure, despite the fact Mommy put a hit out on her in season 1.  Rose Byrne’s Ellen, the Patty in training. What would be her fate? Which way would she go? Which way, ultimately, would Patty push her?

The possibility still hangs in the air, off the dock from Patty’s summer home, as does the potential for another stellar season. Damages wrapped up like a good mystery novel, presenting us with sensible and possibly predictable resolutions. It worked hard at convincing us up to the very end that we didn’t really have all the answers, even though we mostly did. And that’s what a good mystery does – it wraps up the right way, allowing the importance of the characters, their cause and effects, to outweigh the revelations of their endings.

If this is indeed the final session of Damages legal and moral court, it should be remembered as a fine dramatic series, not as complete as The Shield, or as groundbreaking as The Sopranos, but as the perfect example of Film on TV. Damages ebbed and flowed with the air of theater and the deliberations of film, allowing its top-notch actors to breathe tangibility into its deeply and memorably fleshed-out characters, and daring to take time for the quiet moments television so rarely allows. The final scene of Damages’ third season was essentially 10 minutes of quiet contemplation, while simultaneously heavy with revelation. Patty’s abortion-by-miscarriage. Ellen’s position as Patty’s surrogate daughter…and the implications of Patty guiding Ellen towards the same demise she once guided her stillborn Julie to. “With all that you’ve accomplished,” Ellen asked, “was it worth it?” Patty had no answer – she’s too far down to the rabbit hole to ever really know.

But for a show that’s struggled to find its audience, its funding and its national recognition as one of the finer programs on TV, the resounding answer is “yes.”

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