Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Damages Season Premiere: Is This the Show’s Mad Men Moment?

Like Mad Men, Damages won plenty of awards in its first season, but only an obsessive cult took to its sadism, complexity, and Jacobean intrigue. As we navigate the labyrinth, we’ll calibrate what drives the smackdowns, scheming, and about-faces: How will Justice fare against Vengeance? In this cesspool, can the greater good win out amid so many personal vendettas? Cultists can skip to our special in-depth premiere recap. For newbies, we've provided a show primer, minus a bulging file folder of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and plot points.

Newbies, Start Here…
Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) is a carnivorous NYC litigator who fights for the downtrodden, nine-figure settlements, and her own booby-trapped ego. Last season, her firm defeated a billion-dollar corporation’s corrupt, inside-trading CEO, Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), in a massive class-action lawsuit. The road to that settlement was strewn with rusty nails, for everyone — including bushy-tailed protégé Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), manipulated by Patty for her connection to key witnesses.

At the end of the hellish evidence search, Ellen narrowly escaped a knife-wielding assassin (probably hired by Patty) to discover her husband’s fiancé’s pulpy corpse in the bathtub (bludgeoned by Frobisher’s henchman). Patty blackmailed her opposing counsel, who promptly shot himself in front of her in her office. Ellen, still in Patty’s employ (!), has vowed to help the FBI take Patty down and, with Patty’s firm, nab Frobisher for killing her fiancé. Like all great villainesses, Patty is filled, beneath her titanium shell, with anguish over her casualties and unnamed old tragedies.

Cultists, Skip to Here…
This episode introduces a softer, warmer visual palette than last season (which had a stark, grainy, look) and a lighter, occasionally funny approach. (“I’m very concerned about her well-being,” Patty chirps melodiously to an underling charged with spying on Ellen.) It may just be a palate cleanser before things hit the fan (again), but the frothy gallows humor was a nice way to ease back in.

Ellen, now a vampy, bouncy-haired young widow less inclined to smile, is antsy to help the FBI “destroy” Patty for (allegedly) trying to kill her. Problem is, she’ll have to work in Patty’s employ for the next two to three years as the Feds entrap her through an elaborately concocted infant-mortality case. Patty, suffering multiple post-traumatic stresses, finally confesses to Ellen: She had a stillborn baby girl 30 years ago and was visiting her grave the day Ellen was attacked. Ellen, so calcified, doesn’t believe a word of it and maintains to her FBI thugs that Patty “tried to kill me.” So now we’re not even sure if Patty actually put a hit on Ellen after all. Is Ellen deluded in her grief? Misunderstanding her prickly boss? Hungry for payback of any kind? The episode is bookended by a scene six months ahead, in which Ellen swigs whisky and sexily shoots someone off camera. How quickly Ellen seems to have morphed from dim-witted ingénue to brittle vigilante with a side ponytail. Justice, Vengeance: It’s a draw.

A national hero for bringing down a greedy billionaire, Patty’s a guest on Regis & Kelly (!) to announce her new charity for starving kids. But her primary donor retracts all his money; he’s been tapped for a Senate seat by the Republicans, who dislike Patty’s Erin Brockovich–ish cases. Patty retaliates by leaking his teenage daughter’s cokehead habits to the Post. Stripped of his political chances, the tycoon comes crawling back; this time, Patty’s name goes first in the foundation’s title. It may be a guilt-assuaging charity, but score one for the kids, Patty — and Vengeance! Where Ellen is hardening, though, Patty is newly vulnerable, needy for other people’s money and approval.

After failing to screw thousands of employees out of their pensions, Frobisher survives being shot in the gut by his old janitor. He’s holed up in a fancy hospital where he receives no visitors, eats from an IV, and wets himself. “I’m the most hated man in America, and you’re being nice to me!” he weeps to his private nurse. Ellen, attending group therapy, has I Spit on Your Grave–style revenge fantasies about Frobisher (who, remember, had her fiancée murdered). She even poses as Frobisher’s wife to visit him while he sleeps — but doesn’t put a pillow over his face. This time, Vengeance loses, as Ellen keeps a cool head; Justice wins as we see a disgraced CEO pee himself and cry. She confides in a hunky group-therapy member (Timothy Olyphant) that revenge just isn’t her. We’re not so convinced and already grow weary of the sexual tension between these two wounded, widowed (or nearly widowed) young things…

Then there’s Danny Purcell (William Hurt), an estranged, creepy old boyfriend of Patty’s, who comes out of the woodwork with an unexplained blow-the-lid-off-an-industry case (something about chemicals?) for her to represent. Patty refuses to help him until his wife turns up dead one night, Danny himself nursing a head wound and weeping. Is he the father of her stillborn child? Did he kill his wife? Will Patty do a solid for her ex and bring down another corrupt conglomerate — or is it more complicated than that?

Photo: Courtesy of FX