The legendarily ruthless Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) has been hauled out of her apartment in handcuffs and is under interrogation. Her former protégée, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), now her courtroom rival, has gone missing, and the detectives want to know what she was going to say. “If she’s missing,” says Patty, staring them down with a cruel-looking poker face, “I guess we’ll never get a chance to find out.” Those tuning in for the fifth and final season of Damages, however, can rest assured that they will. This scene, after all, is one of the show’s many flash-forwards (three months into the future), and while it certainly looks as if Ellen is dead, pushed from the roof of a building, possibly at Patty’s behest, creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman are known for their red herrings. They’re the real master manipulators, not Patty, who in the second episode of the season tricks Ellen into removing a judge who’s actually on her side.
Previous seasons of the show have taken their shots at scandals inspired by Bernie Madoff and Blackwater; this final season ups the ante by conflating a banking scam with the murky legality of a WikiLeaks-like website. The gritty behind-the-scenes violence that’s long been a staple of Damages, especially now that it’s uncensored on premium cable, has also been increased as well. Naomi Walling (Jenna Elfman) leaks information about her bank’s insider trading to McClarenTruth.org, only to end up being outed as the source—perhaps intentionally—by the site’s founder, the charismatic Channing McClaren (Ryan Phillippe). Soon after, she’s brutally murdered, but not out of revenge: Her death is made to look like a suicide, all in the hopes that her daughter, Rachel (Alexandra Socha), will press a wrongful-death suit against McClaren. And while this alone might be dark enough, Damages cuts deeper: Not only is Naomi humiliated and murdered, but her case is nothing more than leverage for Patty, who, by arranging for McClaren to be represented by Ellen, has ensured that her son, Michael (Zachary Booth), will no longer be able to call Ellen as a character witness in his attempts to win custody of his child back from his mother, as that would be a conflict of interest.
This plotting may seem tangled on paper, but the show’s time-skipping narrative is surprisingly easy to follow, thanks in part to each episode’s focus on easily recognizable legal proceedings (for example, one week is pre-trial, the next is a deposition) and the use of repetition and ominous imagery to highlight important bits of business, similar, though less subtle, to the excellent cinematography on display throughout the similar time-hopping Breaking Bad. Moreover, while both the case and the overarching, series-wrapping plot are filled with twists and turns, the so-called “facts” of the show, though you never feel as if you can seriously trust anything, they’re not what drive the season, something Patty’s all too happy to rub in Ellen’s face: “Things aren’t always what they seem,” she says, explaining that their case won’t be won by facts, but by one of the two of them. For longtime fans, this is especially thrilling: Watching Patty and Ellen outmaneuver one another in and out of court is a special sort of wish fulfillment. (It helps, too, that in the five years since Damages premiered, Byrne has become a much more confident actress—one more capable of standing toe to toe with an all-time great like Glenn Close.)
However, while the show’s certainly grown more tightly plotted in the last several seasons, especially after cutting the number of episodes down to 10 and reducing (often via murder) the number of secondary characters, Damages is still suffering from some seemingly needless bloat. Ellen’s mother, Deniece (Debra Monk), shows up out of the blue in the third episode, and actors Judd Hirsch and John Hannah are badly used as expositional aides for Patty and McClaren. Having to wait for long-term payoffs can also be frustrating: Bill Camp plays a hacker who’s so ill-defined in the first three episodes (who’s he offering to help exactly?) that his scenes feel pointless. The one exception is Kate Franklin (Janet McTeer), a former lawyer who Ellen hires—after a 25-year layoff—based on her shared animosity for Patty. McTeer is hard to read not because her scenes are poorly written, but because her motivations keep shifting. In other words, she’s perfect for a show about the gray lines of legality.