The narrative world of Damages would make for a great role-playing game in which the player is forced to leave his or her conscience at the door and consider everyone a potential enemy. Lies are the real currency in this world and the biggest fools are sincere types like Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), who had most of her sincerity beaten out of her last season, or those who just lie badly like Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan). Bad liars are treated as children, forced to carry out menial tasks and play sycophant to the strong. In any case, it’s safe to assume that ruthless attorney Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) knows everything. In fact, in this imaginary role-playing game it would be safest to assume that she was the Gamemaster constructing the very narrative itself like Dr. Mabuse or Keyser Soze with all the players around her hanging by a thread.
Mabuse is, in fact, a great reference point for Damages. In any one of Fritz Lang’s cinematic adaptations of the Norbert Jacques novel, the director created a world so depraved and paranoid that the only real emotion felt was one of constant dread. Damages transplants this feeling from 1920s Berlin to 21st-century New York. In such an alienated world, you have only yourself to trust unless you’ve begun to confuse your own lies with the truth. Haunted by the effects of her manipulations, it’s unclear if Patty is free of her own mendacity. Last season, her lies led to the suicide of lawyer Ray Fiske (Zelko Ivanek) and it’s questionable whether she’s washed all that blood off of her hands yet.
The first season of Damages was a surprisingly gripping thriller that fired on so many cylinders that it revealed most of its genre brethren as feeble at best. Created by Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman, the show certainly delivered the requisite intrigue and serialized cliffhangers audiences hooked on Lost and Heroes demand. But it’s the way the writers use this atmosphere of swirling intrigue and plot twists that distinguish it from the pack. This is a show the surrealists would’ve loved. One false bottom gives way to another, leaving the viewer in a state of storytelling free fall much like Louis Feuillade’s dazzling serial Les Vampires. Of course, Feuillade was just making it up as he went along and much of that film’s enjoyment came from its very outlandishness. Season one of Damages certainly skirted the ridiculous but always managed to set its feet back on solid ground as the story strands came together.
But this seemed to be a high-wire act of sorts and the idea that the Kesslers and Zelman could do it again seemed questionable. At least not with the same characters and story. What else could they do once they revealed Patty to be as monstrous as one could imagine? The shocks of season one often spun on just how far Patty was willing to go in order to win her case against ruthless businessman Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson). It turned out that there were no lines of morality at all and we just assumed there were since she appeared to be made of flesh and blood. It was our sincerity that was being toyed with as much as Ellen Parsons’s baptism through fire.
For the second season the writers have acknowledged our new understanding of Patty as an enigma in order to tease us with what seems to be a process of humanization. Not that Patty is presented as declawed and defanged, but we are allowed a longer look at the landscape of her private life and the fears of her haunted mind. Patty’s new case involves a man who seems to be as dangerous and enigmatic as herself: Daniel Purcell (William Hurt), a scientist in possession of some very explosive information about the company he works for as a consultant and of secrets in Patty’s past. He has his own secrets as well: his continuing affair with the company’s attorney Claire Maddox (Marcia Gay Harden) and the possibility that he actually murdered his wife. Arthur seems to have survived being shot and finds himself in a private hospital wallowing in self-pity but not exactly self-examination. Ellen is now working with the F.B.I. in order to take Patty down in revenge for what she did to her and her murdered fiancé. She’s clearly grown cold and hard through her experience but it’s still a mystery whether she’s cunning enough to match wits with her employer. Besides, how much does Patty already know about her motivations? And what about the mysterious man Ellen meets at her grief counseling session, Wes Krulik, played by the sinister Timothy Olyphant from HBO’s Deadwood. This isn’t a world inhabited by random characters and Krulik is clearly playing an angle of his own. Or is he working for someone else?
The new season is set up in the same format as the first: We’re presented with a scene out of context in which Ellen seems to be talking to someone she’s finally cornered. Then we are whisked back to events “Six Months Earlier” which lead up to this moment. Ellen is ostensibly the lead character but the narrative floats around in a much more omniscient manner, allowing us to see each character from multiple points of view. This narrative device works to increase the show’s suspense by occasionally allowing us to know more than the characters do, but this often proves to be duplicitous as well. The shifting POV drives the chess-game aspect of the story. It makes us nervous that Ellen might be less clever than she thinks she is and that Patty, who has been having her followed, is about to swallow her whole. The seeds planted in the earliest episodes of the season promise a narrative as rich and complex as season one. Once again, we are presented a labyrinthine story where the actions of the wealthy and powerful have reverberations all the way down the ladder. The Kesslers and Zelman have created another juggling act of multiple narratives that must require miles of dry-erase boards and markers to keep under control. Whether they’ll be as successful in bringing it all together remains to be seen.