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The Photograph: Repressed Memories on "Damages"

"Ellen, my husband is gone and my unemployed teenage son is about to be a father. I think you might want to ask someone else for family advice." - Patty

I don't know about you but I screamed aloud at my television when the screen faded to black at the end of this week's cliffhanger-laden episodes of Damages ("Tell Me I'm Not Racist"), written by Todd A. Kessler and directed by David Tuttman.

It was a scream derived not from frustration but from an excruciating anticipation for the next installment of this quicksand-like legal thriller. Over three seasons, we've come to know these characters intimately, but this week's episode seemingly pulled the rug out from right underneath us, revealing that we'd been standing over a bottomless pit all along.

In an episode that was seemingly devoid of the future timeframe or flashbacks (or was it?), this week's installment marked a major turning point for Damages as a series, as we may have learned a vital clue about Ellen Parsons, something that has lurked at the very center of the series since the pilot episode and a major reveal that many people have wondered about ever since.

Is it a red herring? A coincidence? A long-buried family mystery? Or will Ellen's attempt to rattle the skeletons in the Parsons' closets result in Patty's protege discovering something about herself?

So what did I think of this week's brilliant episode? Let's discuss.

I've been raving about the third season of Damages since it launched earlier this year. It's been a supremely strong season, filled with the sort of whiplash-inducing plot twists that made the original season such an original and compelling drama series. In that initial season, Damages stood out as a first-rate thriller whose roots in legal drama were marked less by courtroom outings and more by the deadly and ruthless battle between two adversaries, each willing to do whatever it took to win.

This season has fulfilled the promise of the first season, offering us not only a intricate jigsaw puzzle of an overarching case but also deeply personal storylines involving the home lives of our three lead characters--Patty Hewes, Ellen Parsons, and Tom Shayes--and a riveting nonlinear storyline that directly places the characters in jeopardy in a way that recalls that amazing opening sequence from the pilot where a blood-covered Ellen flees Patty's apartment dressed in a nightgown and a coat.

The death of Tom Shayes has raised the stakes in more ways than one and, should this be the end of the line for Damages, the third season has offered a pitch-perfect swan song for the series, combining a ripped-from-the-headlines case, swirling eddies of doom, and revelations about characters that we've thought we'd come to know inside and out.

Not so.

This week, we learned that Ellen Parsons might not be who she thinks she is. Long-buried memories of her childhood have come back to the fore, thanks to a series of Lynchian dreams that have unlocked something inside her. Dreams have been a vital part of Damages since the very beginning of the series, with many of the characters--from Patty and Ellen to Frobisher and Ray Fiske--revealing essential truths about themselves via their subconscious.

That thread has carried over into this season with both Patty and Ellen experiencing the unconscious lure of an invisible thread, yanking them back to uncomfortable truths from their earlier years. The mysterious horse which Patty keeps dreaming of, now that the walls she's built up are crumbling around her, continues to crop up while Ellen herself experiences an uncomfortable and jarring deja vu.

Ellen. Is Ellen Parsons adopted? She's never quite fit in with the rest of her blue collar family and the chasm between them has only widened since her sister Carrie was arrested for intention to sell narcotics. But failing to fit into a family doesn't necessarily equal a lack of blood; it's not the first time we've seen first-hand how lucky Ellen has been to escape her ignoble roots. But there are several intriguing developments in this episode: Ellen dreams/recalls an incident from her childhood, in which she was at someone else's house and then helped an unknown woman stir some tomato sauce on "her stool." (It's significant that Ellen first believes she's visiting Patty and the dream house at first recalls Patty's palatial apartment and there's some correlation between the fact that she has confused these two locales and these two women.)

Next, Ellen uncovers a photograph of the woman from her dream, a picture in which this unknown individual holds the very same flowers Ellen had been carrying in her dream. Why does this image strike a chord with her? And why is it mixed in with other childhood photographs? Photographs which, very interestingly, depict Ellen as a young girl many times over... but never as a baby.

Confronting her mother gets her nowhere. Ellen's mother is startled by the photograph--visibly in fact--but tells Ellen that the woman was her babysitter when she was younger and was named Annie or something. It should be infinitely clear to anyone who has ever watched even a single episode of Damages that Ellen's mother was lying to her face.

Carrie, meanwhile, doesn't provide any further information. Despite Ellen recalling that Carrie used to claim that she had been adopted as a child, Carrie denies it, saying that she was only teasing her... but her reaction to the photograph says anything but that as she expresses concern that Ellen showed their mother this picture. Just what are they all hiding? Could Ellen be adopted? Could her mother have met some untimely fate?

Malcolm meanwhile uncovers Annie's identity and an address, which is itself significant. My first instinct upon watching the episode was that (A) Annie was Ellen's mother, (B) Annie was dead, and (C) Annie had been killed in the car accident in Arlington, Vermont that involved one Arthur Frobisher and which killed a young woman in the early 1980s. The dates certainly match up. If Annie had been killed and Ellen given up--or taken--by another family, she would be young enough not to remember much about her biological mother.

It's also significant because we still haven't learned the truth about that car accident... and Arthur Frobisher has only just come back into the picture now. Coincidence? Perhaps but I can't shake the fact that Frobisher and this woman are connected and that the fateful car accident might also involve Patty Hewes herself. Longtime viewers might recall the scene at the end of Season One where Frobisher asks Patty just what he did that has made her hate him so much. She never answered it aloud but it points to their paths crossing at some point. Did Patty know Annie? If she is/was Ellen's mother, has Patty known this all along? Could it explain just why Patty kept tabs on Ellen and offered her that job? Why she wanted her to break things off with the Parsons? Hmmm...

But there's the matter of the address that Malcolm has tracked down for Ellen, one that is 100 miles outside of Manhattan. If Annie was dead, Malcolm would have told Ellen that upfront. (There's no reason for him to conceal it from her.) And he hardly would have given her an address for a cemetery. So is Annie alive then? And if so, why is she so significant to Ellen that she would feel drawn to this woman and begin an investigation into her identity? Curious...

Tom. Tom, meanwhile, completely sold Ellen out this week and surely ended her career at the district attorney's office... which could be why, in the future, he and Ellen were launching plans to start their own firm. (She's all but finished at the D.A.'s office now that Gates knows that she has been dealing with Patty behind their back and likely stalled their case against the Tobins.)

But Tom's rationale is entirely personal: he's on the hook for supporting his family, his parents, and his in-laws and Deb isn't exactly realizing what sort of dire straits they're really in. Tom's attempt to broach the subject of selling the lake house falls on deaf ears; Deb just doesn't really get how much financial trouble they're truly in. Which will make Tom's inevitable death all the more painful.

I'm a bit thrown by the fact that (A) Tom is so willing to let Ellen take the fall against Patty should word get back to her that Tessa was approached by an attorney, and (B) that he's so entirely focused on getting his money back that he nearly blows their entire case by alerting Tessa to the fact that Danielle was likely murdered by one of the Tobins. It's way too soon to be showing their hand to Tessa, considering they've already caught her in one lie (about spending Thanksgiving with her mother) and Tom is lucky that Ellen was able to save his hide again by prompting Tessa to call Patty for protection against the Tobins... pushing her right into their hands.

Not that it quite worked out that way. Despite Ellen engineering the perfect scenario to get Tessa on their side, Tom's little confrontation scene led Tessa to the D.A.'s office, outed Ellen, and led the Gates to swoop in and arrest Tessa at the end of the episode, leading our lawyers without their star witness. A major problem, considering that they now suspect that Tessa's trip to Antigua on Thanksgiving wasn't an attempt to move money down there but to begin to bring it back. Not good.

Patty. I loved the scene with Patty and Ellen on the couch, which served as a sharp callback to the first season of Damages. Here, Ellen asks Patty for advice about what she should do about her family and what Malcolm has turned up about Carrie, leading Patty to jokingly say that she's the last person who should be giving Ellen advice about her family, given how hers turned out.

Still, the implication is clear: despite what has passed between them--betrayal, murder attempts, mind games--these two women respect each other and have forged something akin to a real friendship between them. I think it even takes Patty by surprise, the companionship, the bond she feels with Ellen, the sort of relaxed easiness of their drinks on the sofa and discussions of renovations. Over three seasons, the mentor and the protege have become almost equals now. So much so that Ellen knows to keep her secrets close to the vest; she doesn't tell her about what's really going on with Tom, despite his fury at Patty's decision not to pursue Tessa earlier.

But Patty isn't one to go out without a fight, even if the plaintiffs are looking to have her replaced. So much so that she tells the judge that she's willing to circumvent his authority and the courts to pursue her own leads in the Tobin case and recover the victims' money. She's right: if she locates that fortune and is able to provide the Louis Tobin's victims with restitution, no one will care how she did it or with whose authority. The ends justify the means with Patty; we've seen over three seasons just how much that's true and what lengths she is willing to pursue to achieve her goals.

It's a lesson she's taught to Ellen as well; her protege nearly tampered with a witness (or worse) in order to get her sister Carrie off, but Ellen changed her mind in the end, allowing Carrie to sit in jail and receive the proper punishment for her crimes. One can't help but see that Ellen has taken on board Patty's ruthlessness but with a distinct perspective of her own that colors her decisions. While the courts will punish Carrie, she too exacts her own punishment on her sister, withholding her help after she lied to her.

Leonard. But it's not just Patty and Ellen who deal with their own familial issues. Leonard Winstone's own issues come home to roost at precisely the wrong time. Leonard's con man father Albert Wiggins isn't pleased that his son has stopped sending him checks, wondering pointedly if the mailman is stealing from him or if he's just racist. But the threats don't stop when Leonard--with his favorite prostitute--tells him that he won't ever start paying him; instead, they escalate as Albert shows up at Leonard's office while he's with Marilyn Tobin.

It's not good for a number of reasons. Leonard's belief that he's a member of the Tobin family is being sorely tested once again and it's safe to say that if he's exposed as a fraud, as a small-time grifter and reformed low-life, the Tobins won't stand by him. He claims that the Tobins are clients, family, and not marks but Albert won't listen: he wants a piece of the Tobin fortune himself.

Is it a good enough reason as to why Leonard, in the future-set timeframe, is seen assisting Tom and giving him money? Does he figure that he can weather the imminent destruction of the Tobins if the money is found but not if he's exposed? And, as I surmised last week, is it Leonard who jumps off the bridge? Curious.

I'm also still puzzling out how the Tobin's money, Stuart Zedeck, and the African charity are connected. We learned that Zedeck is on the board of Marilyn's cause celebre and he votes to not allow her to take a trip to Tanzania in order to keep some major distance between the Tobins and the charity. But is that how Zedeck and Louis Tobin kept the fortune hidden? By moving it through the charity and into the Bank of Antigua? Hmmm...

What did you think of this week's spectacular episode? Agree with the above theories? Think Annie could be Ellen's birth mother? Still wondering about the connection between Frobisher and Patty? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Damages ("All That Crap About Your Family"), Patty strikes an unusual deal after her star witness is arrested; Arthur Frobisher reveals too much of his past.


Anonymous said…
What about the pictures that were discovered of Danielle with a young Tessa and a baby boy? I can't remember who discovered them, but shouldn't they be important as well?
Anonymous said…
What was the name on the grave site from season one? Does anyone think that it way play into this season?
Anonymous said…
The promo for next week's episode was hard for me to watch. Patty is shown, with tears in her eyes, accusing Ellen of betraying her. I have a feeling the writers will make me suffer with this new plot development until the last moment of the last episode. Argh!
Maya said…
This was an incredible episode and your write up was fantastic too! I completely agree that this season had been just as strong as season one and I can't wait to see where it's all headed.
Doug said…
"...the third season has offered a pitch-perfect swan song for the series, combining a ripped-from-the-headlines case, swirling eddies of doom, and revelations about characters that we've thought we'd come to know inside and out."

Wow. This season, especially the last two or three episodes, is having just the opposite effect on me. I'm bored to death and think/hope this will be it for Damages given the low viewership levels.

I was a big fan of the excellent first season… loved just about every minute of it. I watched the good, but not great, second season and noticed the show had lost some of its razor sharp focus and cracks in the various plots were beginning to form just about everywhere. And now, for me anyway, I can safely say the wheels have completely come off the Damages wagon. It’s officially a mess of a show with little direction or purpose.

The big early reveal (Tom Shayes being dead) was not a jaw-dropping, I-gotta-see-how-this-happens hook for me. His character simply wasn’t developed fully enough in the first two seasons to warrant a strong emotional reaction. The Tobin case is probably the most boring thing the showrunners could have come up with and I’m actually having trouble mustering up ANY sympathy for the plaintiffs. Crazy, right! The case of the season arc is supposed to one of the reasons we tune in. Not this time. Even the Tobin family and their associates are written as flat and lifeless, despite hiring some great actors to play them. And what’s up with the random, clumsy Frobisher insertion? That character and his story was done after the first season and bringing him back now just reiterates how little tread there is left on that particular tire.

The episode on Monday (with only two more left) was a disaster with characters doing things completely unrelated to the case or other core characters. Ellen trying to help her drug dealing sister and then giving up and leaving the city to look for her old babysitter/possible mother? Ugh. The Tobin lawyer Leonard spending most of the episode dealing with his father who wants hush money or a piece of the Tobin action? Huh, what... why force this on us now? Isn’t the show supposed to be building to the big climax with lots of exciting revelations and twists?

It feels like the showrunners fully expect another season and are already laying the groundwork for it instead of ratcheting up the level of interest to conclude this one. After these last two episodes, I'm done with this show for good.
Anonymous said…
"I'm done with this show for good."

Suit yourself. I'm really enjoying this season. I couldn't care less about whiney Tom's fate, but I've been following the relationship between Patty and Ellen with delight. Their interactions (which are too few and far between) are the sole reason I still watch the show. The first half of the season had them behaving like old lovers who still had feelings for one another. Now, they're sort of in neutral ... but, with only three episodes left, I have a feeling their journey together will get more exciting very soon. I can't wait to see what happens. I hope Patty and Ellen finally become an amazing team by the very end of the show's run.

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