The third season of Damages proves just how far a show can coast on the strength of its cast’s charisma. Show-runners Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, and Daniel Zelman ran into a brick wall at the end of the show’s second season, giving themselves the task of shining the spotlight again on lead protagonist Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne). Sadly, they didn’t quite rise to the challenge.
During its superior first season, Damages focused primarily on Ellen. Back then, you knew who she was and, by and large, what she wanted. While the ending of season two saw Ellen realizing that she wanted nothing more to do with megalomaniacal lawyer Patti Hewes (Glenn Close), season three has left Ellen’s character largely undefined. So many plot threads are left dangling from the previous season that Ellen’s problems often get lost in the shuffle. She barely gets more screen time than Patti, who has plenty of her own issues to work out, and by season’s end, Ellen’s troubled relationship with her drug-addict sister barely seems to matter to her.
Thematically, season three is about the sacrifices people, both pro- and antagonist alike, are willing to make for their families and how they struggle to return to an illusory place of security once their loved ones betray them. Betrayal is, after all, a staple of Damages: Everybody stabs everybody else in the back. It’s a family thing. Which is why it’s hard not to roll your eyes whenever any character begs someone else to trust them considering how meaningless that phrase is within the context of the show. After all, Patti’s strained relationship with Ellen is based on a series of deceptions. Patti tried to kill Ellen in season one, but Ellen survived and got her revenge in season two. Now, Patti confronts her own villainous nature in season three and does so in a very indirect way: by telling Ellen off.
Having resigned from Hewes and Associates at the end of season two, Ellen begins this season working at the New York district attorney’s office. She initially refuses Tom’s plaintive requests to come back to Patti, who’s now prosecuting Louis Tobin (Len Cariou), a Bernie Madoff-esque embezzler. Thanks to Tom’s intervention, the show’s two power-hungriest divas—because everyone on this show is a diva after a point—work together at arm’s length. That is, they do so until Patti thinks she’s caught Ellen in another lie, one that compromises her case against Tobin’s family. She tells Ellen off by dismissing her as a vicious social climber. Like much of season three’s events, that rebuff is only superficially about Ellen. It’s really Patti’s unconscious self-critique of everything she doesn’t like about herself.
After yelling at Ellen, Patti tries to reassess what takes precedence in her life: her career, her ideals, or her family. Each one of these three priorities has its own separate subplot that gets hastily resolved by the end of season three. In addition to her strained relationship with Ellen, Patti has to deal with an unexpected new addition to the Hewes family, a recurring nightmare of a chestnut-brown horse and her ongoing search for the Tobins’ ill-gotten money. Conceptually, Zelman and the Kesslers resolve these problems well enough, but when taken on an episode-by-episode basis, the season’s overarching plot looks seriously overburdened.
Damages was always more cohesive as a thematically united narrative than as a series of interconnecting individual stories. But season three gives especially short shrift to new characters since everything now effectively revolves around family and mistrust in some way. The most telling sign of Damages‘s recent lack of focus is the way that Zelman and the Kesslers develop the rivalry between indecisive prodigal son Joe (Campbell Scott) and surrogate son and family lawyer Leonard Winstone (Martin Short). Both men grew up in the shadow of Louis Tobin but were, after a point, estranged from him. Joe throws that knowledge in Leonard’s face in the season finale, telling Leonard that his father used to call him “his little monkey” behind his back.
Joe and Leonard’s enmity isn’t as believable as it should be since Louis’s personality isn’t particularly well developed. Generally speaking, we don’t know a lot about Louis. We know that he had an affair with Danielle Marchetti (Mädchen Amick), Joe’s ex, while Joe was seeing her. We also know that Louis stole a lot of money from a lot of people, including Tom, whose family is financially devastated thanks to Louis. Beyond that, the show’s writers don’t tell us much about Louis’s character. We don’t even know for a fact that Louis bankrupted hundreds of people for the sake of his family, as he claims: He takes that knowledge with him to the grave, leaving only Cariou’s Cheshire-cat smile to provide us with answers. That deliberate creative omission winds up seriously holding the season’s overarching narrative back from developing into anything memorable.
And speaking of absence, what’s going on with Ellen? Even Tom Noonan’s eccentric police officer had a juicier role than Byrne did this past season. Men from Ellen’s past drift in and out of her life: her dead fiancé, David (Noah Bean); Wes Krulik (Timothy Olyphant), her fling from season two; and even Josh Reston (Matthew Davis), an investigative reporter from season two that randomly resurfaces in season three for no apparent reason. People come and go and various allegiances fall apart all around Ellen. But none of these events seem to really touch her. Here’s hoping that in season four the show’s writers will remember that Ellen, as a diva-in-training, is the show’s real star.
The picture on this DVD release of Damages: The Complete Third Season often looks out of focus. The audio, however, is strong and appreciably nuanced. Though diegetic music always sounds louder than dialogue or background noises do in the show, all three are well mixed.
Ignoring the perfunctory "A Look Back" recap special and some mildly interesting deleted scenes, there are some funny bloopers and two commentary tracks featuring show creators Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, and Daniel Zelman as well as stars Tate Donovan, Rose Byrne, and, uh, Martin Short. Short's commentary for "You Haven't Replaced Me" is easily the most rewarding extra of the bunch as he's a probably an even better raconteur than he is an actor.
Damages back-slips noticeably during its third season, but never so much that the show is worth writing off.