Welcome back to Judge Erich Asperschlager's courtroom, Ms. Hewes.
Our reviews of Damages: The Complete First Season (published February 13th, 2008), Damages: The Complete First Season (Blu-Ray) (published February 2nd, 2008), Damages: The Complete Second Season (published January 19th, 2010), and Damages: The Complete Fourth Season (published July 12th, 2012) are also available.
"You want to end this once and for all?"
It's common for modern television shows to have unlikeable lead characters. Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Francis Underwood all walk the line between sympathetic hero and despicable villain. It's a difficult balancing act that keeps audiences on edge and allows the series' writers to build rich, complex character studies. There are shows with unlikeable characters—and then there's Damages. Created by Glenn and Todd Kessler, and Daniel Zelman, this legal thriller series about a ruthless attorney and her embattled protege is nothing but unsympathetic people acting in selfish, despicable ways. After three seasons on FX, Damages moved to DirecTV's Audience Network for two more, ending with a fifth and Final Season that uses the knowledge that it would be the show's last to build a satisfying conclusion to a story that began in Season One.
Facts of the Case
After the contentious conclusion to last season's High Star case, the professional and personal relationship between Patty Hewes (Glenn Close, Mars Attacks!) and Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne, X-Men: First Class) is over. Ellen's last order of business before moving on to her own firm and a new life is to testify against her former boss in the custody case brought against Patty by her son, Michael (Zachary Booth, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) over her granddaughter. Shortly before that trial is to begin, however, Patty and Ellen end up on opposing sides in a case involving Channing McClaren (Ryan Phillippe, The Lincoln Lawyer), owner of an infamous WikiLeaks-style website, and a whistleblower (Jenna Elfman, Dharma and Greg) whose identity is revealed alongside evidence of insider trading at one of the country's biggest banks.
There's a lot of promise in this final season, with Patty vs. Ellen on opposite sides of the courtroom for the first time. The results are…okay, I guess. Close and Byrne are always fun to watch. They give powerful, convincing performances here, drawing on their characters' full history in the ultimate showdown. Even so, their interactions and manipulations don't live up to the craziness of seasons past. They play straightforward mind games with each other, trading maneuvers that put each team ahead for a while. The twists and turns of the season are centered around revelations about McClaren, his associates, Wall Street bigwigs, and what really happened in the aftermath of the leak. The supporting cast is peppered with recognizable faces. Guest stars Ryan Phillippe, Jenna Elfman, Judd Hirsch, Chris Messina, Janet McTeer, and William Sadler (channeling his Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey Grim Reaper) all deliver solid performances. No one matches the powerhouse duo of Ted Danson and John Goodman, but that's largely because the main focus is on Ellen and Patty.
This Final Season is more focused than the previous season. Damages has always teetered on the brink of too many double-crosses and secret agendas, and Season Four fell deep into that hole. The writers may have finally learned their lesson, delivering a season that keeps audiences guessing not because they couldn't possibly anticipate how characters would act but because information is held back for dramatic effect. This more standard mystery structure leaves room to weave in the conclusion to the series-defining struggle between Patty and Ellen.
Although I enjoyed the first three seasons, Damages is an exhausting show. Everyone is shady, duplicitous, and wholly unsympathetic. Patty Hewes might be the primary villain, a manipulative sociopath hiding her true face behind the veneer of social justice, but most of the characters are just as bad. Ellen Parsons has been transformed over the years in Patty's cold shadow into someone who is just as driven, just as detached, just as obsessed with winning at all costs. Because neither character seems able to be truthful, we learn most about what really drives them through dream sequences. Too much, perhaps. This season doubles down on the themes of parents and children that have dominated the show, continuing the custody battle from last season and even cramming in a subplot with Ellen's parents.
The show's signature flashforward structure returns, pointing to a definitive ending for the series. The actual finale brings things to a shocking close, but fans will have to decide for themselves whether the climax is satisfying or just a cheap twist. That same question could be asked of the series as a whole. Has anyone really changed over the course of five seasons, or is Damages just a well-acted exercise in manipulation and melodrama? With characters this opaque, it's hard to tell.
Damages: The Final Season arrives on DVD with a beautiful 1.78:1 transfer. The series has always had high production values, and switching networks did nothing to change that. The 5.1 audio mix is standard TV stuff. It's clear and well-balanced with occasional surround effects. Bonus features are spread across all three discs, with four minutes of goofy outtakes on disc one, and a hefty 41 minutes of deleted scenes.
If you've stuck with Damages for this long, chances are you'll enjoy its Final Season. It balances a twisting mystery that evokes recent high-profile web leaks with the conclusion of the battle between Parsons and Hewes that began as soon as Ellen set foot in Hewes & Associates. There's a lot packed into these 10 episodes. It's not as wild a ride as previous seasons, but the efficient storytelling is a welcome change from the bloat of Season Four. Those who weren't able to watch the season when it aired have good reason to pick it up on DVD, not least of which is a collection of deleted scenes that adds almost another episode's worth of content.
Damaged, but not guilty!
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