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How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth: The Season Finale of FX's Damages

"I want my ashes scattered here." - Patty Hewes

In the end, it always circles back around to that dock, the scene for so many significant--and often fatal--encounters within the labyrinthine world of Damages. As it should be really, considering that their relationship is the central dynamic within the series, we're left once more with a conversation between Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) that signals the closing of one chapter in their lives as they square off on the dock of Patty's beach house.

But a house, after all, is not a home. Patty must contemplate the fact that she might truly be alone in this world after the events of the third season and particularly its finale ("The Next One Goes in Your Throat"), written by Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman (whom I speak to exclusively here) and directed by Todd A. Kessler. Her conversation with Ellen is an intriguing one, revealing a rare vulnerability in Patty Hewes as well as the forging of a true connection between the two women.

It's uncertain whether Damages will continue past this season--studio Sony Pictures Television is said to be in talks with DirecTV about coming on to co-finance the series--though I am hoping that a deal can be reached and Ellen and Patty's story can continue. But if for some reason "The Next One Goes in Your Throat" does end up being a series ender for Damages, I'd be satisfied by the fact that we've seen their complex relationship evolve into some very unexpected territory over the last three seasons... and the tantalizing ambiguity with which we leave these ambitious and flawed women might just be the perfect cap to a such compelling and intelligent run.

So what did I think of this week's season finale? Let's discuss.

I thought that the third season of Damages offered a heady mix of a ripped-from-the-headlines case (with the Tobin family's Ponzi scheme) and deeply personal narratives that peeled away the layers of its central characters, revealing the rich, interior lives of Patty Hewes and Ellen Parsons, delving deep into their pasts to explain just who they are today.

It's not an easy feat to pull off. Damages is already a complicated narrative, due to its nonlinear format, offering two timeframes--the "future" and the "present day"--to bounce between and typically slotting in some flashbacks as well. This season saw a returned focus to the dream sequences and visions that have populated the drama from the beginning, providing a gateway into the innermost psyches of our characters on both sides of the case.

It's all the more shocking when it occurs within the context of a legal thriller, but let's be honest, Damages has always been more than that, offering one of a nuanced character study of ambition, success, greed, and what it means to need to win at all costs.

Tom. It's the latter element that Patty has fostered within her two former proteges Tom Shayes and Ellen Parsons and which leads directly to Tom's very undignified death in the season finale. Throughout the third season, we've seen a Tom Shayes that's slowly becoming unhinged as he deals with the loss of his financial status, his reputation, and finally his marriage. That Patty's eagle-eyed frequent co-conspirator would be duped by a feeder fund and have his entire extended family's fortune stolen by Louis Tobin sets off a chain reaction that leads Tom to lie to Patty and Ellen and to engage in a deadly alliance that ends with him stabbed, beaten, and drowned.

The circumstances surrounding Tom's death have been vague all season long. The cause of death was drowning but he hadn't been submerged in water long enough to affect his body. And we knew that he didn't die from the stab wounds to his stomach (and one, we learn, to his leg) and learn that it was Zedeck's enforcer Ben who was wielding the knife in this case. It was only a matter of time before Zedeck tweaked to the fact that Leonard and Albert had carried off the theft of a portion of the hidden Tobin money as Leonard was the only other person, besides for Joe and Zedeck himself, who knew of the connection between the funds and the charity. (I still maintain that it would have been a slightly better twist to have those water bottles explained, not by Tom's messiness, but by a waterboarding attempt.)

Ben attacks Tom at the loft, desperate to find Leonard after he and Zedeck became aware of the deal that Tom made with the former Tobin family counsel, stabbing Tom repeatedly in an effort to get him to talk... before Ben is felled by a bullet from Leonard's gun... and then springs back to life to strangle Lenny before getting bludgeoned by Tom with a wrench. Ouch.

That Tom would manage to escape this ordeal, stagger to a pay phone, and call Deb (telling her to take the kids and go anywhere but home) but not go to a hospital or call 911 required a little suspension of disbelief, as he goes home and is then attacked by Joe Tobin, who drowns him in the toilet.

I thought that the scene between them displayed a nice symmetry between the two men: both struggling to uphold their ideals of family, to regain what they lost and what each of them blames the other for. I found it terribly sad that Tom's nobility and his dreams should end up at the receiving end of a fatal swirlie carried out by a mentally deranged Joe Tobin. For all of his plans and his schemes, it all came down to being felled by an intruder in his house, one who saw Tom as the ultimate symbol of everything that had been taken away from him.

As for why Tom ended up in the dumpster behind Lenny's building, that's an easy answer: knowing that Tom and Lenny had a deal, Joe wanted to cast suspicion on Lenny for Tom's murder as he (A) knew the truth about Lenny's identity and (B) knew that Lenny owned the building and that the police would go looking for him.

Louis. That Joe would blame Tom for what had befallen him is the true travesty, as we learn that everything that has happened this season, all of the lies, the murder, the bloodshed has all been, not because of Louis Tobin's greed, but because of a father's love for a son who drunkenly destroyed the family fortune and had no memory of it. The entire Ponzi scheme, as Marilyn tells Joe, was set up because he had messed up and promised investors returns that weren't there, a situation that quickly escalated into outright fraud as Louis and Leonard sought to cover up Joe's mistake by paying off the investors with other clients' money, which in turn lead to the entire Ponzi scheme scenario.

While Joe believes that Louis didn't love him, the reverse is wholly true. Louis' entire life was based around making Joe happy and making decisions that he thought would better his son's life. While Marilyn wants Danielle to terminate her pregnancy, Louis lies to her and allows Danielle to give birth to Tessa and supports them financially for the rest of his life. When he discovers that Joe has destroyed his business, he takes steps to ensure that Joe will never be held responsible for any wrongdoing and goes so far as to kill himself, not to avoid trial, but to avoid any inkling of Joe's malfeasance from ever coming to life.

It's another sacrifice made for an ungrateful child, one unaware of the decisions being made without his knowledge, and it completely reverses the image we've had this entire season of who Louis Tobin was and why he killed himself, willingly giving up his life in order to save his son's time and time again.

Marilyn. Louis always put his family above all else, managing to find a way to secret a fortune for them and still find a way to take the fall for Joe's mistakes, even in death. Yet it's Marilyn who makes the wrong decision, who is unwilling to bend for her child, who becomes far too enamored of her lifestyle and the lure of the money that her husband has hidden away. She argued that Danielle should abort Joe's child and never told him that Danielle had gotten pregnant. Learning about Tessa's existence on Thanksgiving, she was furious that Louis had gone behind her back and had allowed Danielle to give birth to Tessa and supported them. And when the time came when Tessa became a threat to their financial status, Marilyn stood by and let Joe slaughter his own daughter.

Joe doesn't see Marilyn's decisions as being in his own best interests, at concealing his own wrongdoing for so long. He tells her that she is dead to him and will never see her grandson again. And she doesn't: after watching old home movies of her, Louis, and Joe during simpler, happier times, she throws herself into the East River. (Mystery solved!)

The Bag. Likewise, we learned that Leonard stole Ellen's Chanel handbag from her car in order to place the agreement and evidence in her bag (placing it in the beater car), rather than leave it with Tom and Patty, whom he did not trust entirely. But while Leonard looks to double-cross Tom, fate intervenes when homeless man Barry steals the bag (and it's contents) from the car. Tom, after being stabbed, later sees that Barry has the handbag and touches it with his bloody hand (leaving behind Ben's blood), making him promise that he'll get it back to Ellen.

Circling back around once Ellen learns that the handbag was found in Barry's possession, she's able to get that envelope that Louis had initially intended Patty Hewes to have (it now has Patty's name crossed out and Ellen's written in). Which is rather ironic, as all of this could have been avoided had (A) Joe gone to see Louis when he asked him to and (B) not taken the envelope from beside Louis' body in the first place.

The Car Accident. As I predicted last week, you can never get away with pulling one over on Patty Hewes. Jill's naivete was staggering; she rooked Patty out of half a million dollars, which she then spent on Michael with no intention of leaving him. If she thought that she could get away with it or that Patty would just let it slide, she was out of her mind. I knew that the writers would do something with the chromosome test that Michael gave Patty last week but didn't think that it would have the date of conception on it... a fact that Patty was able to use to her advantage, having Jill arrested for statutory rape right out of the very car that she had given Michael.

Patty, like Louis Tobin, made a decision that she believed was for the best interests of her child. She saw Jill as a failed mother, a criminal, and a lowlife who would drag Michael down with her, who had derailed his eduction and stolen his future. And, sitting across from her in the police station, she tells Jill that she will give birth in prison, that Michael will get full custody, and that she will make sure that he has help raising his child.

And, in an act of hubris, Patty seizes ownership of their apartment and the cherry red Jaguar that Jill bought for Michael. It is, after all, the very car that Patty is driving when she's struck by the hit-and-run driver.

As soon as Ellen encountered Michael at Patty's apartment (after driving there in the beater car that Tom purchased), I knew that the driver had to be Michael. Leaving the keys in the car, Ellen takes a phone call after discovering that the money that Leonard gave them as proof of the Tobin's fraud was in fact, well, fraudulent, and the car is driven off by someone unseen, someone who floors it and crashes it right into Patty Hewes.

But it's not a mystery to Patty who is driving the car, despite her testimony to the police. She sees Michael fleeing the scene and she knows just how much he sought to do her grievous harm, perhaps even kill her. Her decisions may have been with Michael's best interests at heart but they were just that: her decisions. She has, in a single day, destroyed his happiness and thrown his life once more into chaos.

And he is his mother's son, after all. He knows a thing or two about payback. Their collision is the ultimate dust-up, the row to end all rows, a permanent fracture in their already tenuous relationship.

The Horse. Patty is the first to admit that she hasn't been the perfect wife or the perfect mother. But she has been defined not by her maternal instincts but by her drive and ambition, her need to win, to knock down the bullies, and achieve victory and justice, using whatever means necessary. But her defining moment came in 1972 as a pregnant woman about to become a mother. Told by her doctor that her pregnancy was at risk and would have to remain in bed, Patty deliberately sought to terminate her own pregnancy so she could get out of her small town and claim her fortune in New York as a lawyer.

Julia's stillbirth wasn't an accident or a cruel twist of fate at all, but a deliberate escape plan for Patty Hewes. Walking far into the country, she happens upon a horse farm, where she encounters not only the horse (the one seen in her visions) but Julian Decker himself, here not a musician or an architect but a handyman who asks her if she is ready for motherhood, saying it's a huge responsibility. That Julian isn't her true love but rather someone she encounters at a formative moment is critical: her visions in the present day of him are echoes of a heinous act that she would rather forget. His constant reappearances, the ghostly visitations, and his promises to tear down the walls are manifestations of her guilt, her horror, the (literal) blood on her hands.

It's the thing she can't escape: she murdered her own daughter, just as Joe did his. And then she nearly repeated history by having Ellen killed. While Ellen isn't a replacement for Julia, her hysteria over arranging the hit on Ellen lead to Julia's grave at the end of Season One, a place that she hadn't returned since she left her stillborn baby behind. It's a return to the metaphoric crossroads, a reminder of the price she paid for her success, the bodies that lay in her wake.

Arthur Frobisher. Frobisher is one again undone by his vanity. After spilling his secrets to Terry (who went and told Patty), Frobisher is "visited" by Ray Fiske in the nightclub. It's his last chance to confess but he fails to take it. Ellen finally gets to see Wes, who fills her in on everything: that Rick Messer murdered David under orders from Frobisher and that he sought to protect Ellen and killed Messer to do so. Despite the fact that Ellen says that she's let go of all of it, Wes wants to see justice done for Ellen. He confronts Frobisher in his car and, at gunpoint, forces him to confess that he killed David. Wes then turns them both in, sacrificing his freedom in order to obtain justice for Ellen. It's a noble gesture that's wholly surprising, given Wes' propensity for violence. I thought he was going to shoot Frobisher but instead he looks towards the justice of the law, rather than man.

Confession. Confession is also on the minds of Patty and Joe. Patty turns off the intercom while sitting down with Joe at the police station and tells Ellen that they talked about confession. But what does she confess? The truth about Julia's death? Her attempt to kill Ellen? Or something else entirely? It's left deliberately unclear just what they talk about but, whatever it is, it's enough to get Joe to confess to killing Tom. Patty, Tom, and Ellen managed to take down the Tobin family in the end, but at a particularly high price: the life of one of their own.

Patty and Ellen. Ultimately, Patty and Ellen find themselves once more on the dock by Patty's beach house, having buried Tom Shayes. Patty mentions that she wants to be cremated and her ashes scattered there. It's a surprising conversation that's rooted in the intimacy that these two have formed over the last three seasons. After all, it's a conversation that one might typically have with a child. But Patty doesn't have children, not anymore. Julia is dead and her relationship with her son is forever tainted. She has lost Uncle Pete and Tom, her entire family. Ellen is, really, all that she has left now: the promise of the future, an emotional connection but one that's already been tested in unusual ways.

And Ellen wants to know if all of that has been worth it. If Patty's success was worth the blood, sweat, and tears that paved the way to this very moment in time. For Ellen, like Patty before her, is at a crossroads. She wants a family, she wants some semblance of normalcy in her life. She has three options: she can find work at another law firm, she can return and work for Patty, or she can quit the law altogether.

But it's that question of the price of all of this that hangs in the air between them. The long silence that follows is sharp and brutal as Patty can't bring herself to answer the question, denying the audience any sort of rubric for understanding her. There is no right reply but at the same time Patty's answer isn't vital to Ellen, not anymore. She walks away, determined to find her own answer to that question, choosing her own path, not Patty's, as she chooses a direction to leave from that crossroads.

One can only hope that these two find a way back to each other and that Damages continues for us to see just what path each of them chooses.

What did you think of the season finale? Does it work as a series finale, if Damages doesn't return? Would you be heartbroken if this is truly the end for Damages? Hoping that DirecTV coughs up some cash to keep it alive? Confused by anything? Head to the comments section to discuss.


Mimi C said…
I thought the finale was fantastic. You addressed my one quibble, Tom not getting medical help. I hope this is not the end but if it is this was a great way to go out.
Barbara said…
I think it was a dignified ending. There were answers, and there were still open ended questions, which is the way life is.
One thing nags at me--in an earlier review, the possiblility of Keith Carradine's Julian as a figment of Patty's imagination was dismissed. Now, it seems so much more likely that that's the case. If Ray Fiske can appear to Frobisher, and even muse philosophically as if to the camera in the car scene, why wouldn't a handyman from 36 years ago appear in a variety of daydreams? That seems a more reasonable explanation than that he tracked her down and sought to be awarded the job of renovating her apartment.
Bennett said…
Great ending. Brilliant season. I really, really hope the show comes back but, if it doesn't, at least this was a very satisfying finale.

Oh, and I love your description of Tom's death as a "fatal swirlie." Poor Tom!
Jace Lacob said…

No one is suggesting that he tracked her down after 36 years. Last week's episode clinched the fact that he is a "ghost" from her past and a figment of her imagination. (I even discuss that fact with the creators in my interview.)

While I discounted that as a possibility a few weeks back, I acknowledged that fact last week and here as well (referencing "the ghostly visitations" in relation to Julian Decker).

He's most definitely not "real" in his guise as musician/architect.
Dr. Spaceman said…
I thought this was a brilliant season finale, and though I'd be sad if this was the end of the show, it feels appropriate. Props to the producers as well as the talented actors for making one of the smartest, most compelling series on television.

And Jace, you're a great viewing buddy... always great insights to share.
rockauteur said…
What happened to Ellen's whole thing to Deb where she said "who else knew about me and Tom?" that didn't really go anywhere. even though it was JUST about them working on the case, but they were still working with Patty, so it didnt really quite make sense.
Unknown said…
It was a solid season (perhaps series) finale.

Martin Short did an amazing job this season as Leonard Winstone. (How far he has come from "Ed Grimley"! :o) ) I was actually glad to see Leonard get away in the end. Yes, he was a con man, and perhaps a thief (who stole from thieves), but he was loyal, and he wasn't out to hurt anyone (unless defending himself).

It was tough to watch Tom's murder, even though it was known to be coming from the first episode of the season.

A few disappointments:
- I was hoping last week's previews showing Ben wielding a knife was a misdirection. But no, he stabbed Tom. Wish they hadn't shared that in the previews.
- Wes coming in out of the blue in the last episode and turning himself in along with Frobisher was a bit too contrived.
- As others have shared, Tom going to his house wounded was pretty unbelievable. If I'm hurt and my family's in danger, I call 911 to get the cops and an ambulance, then call Ellen and Patty (my friends) on top of that.
- The excuse for the water bottles was pretty lame. I suspect it was a misdirection as everyone knew that Tom drowned but didn't show signs of being in water.

Patty's big secret was pretty anti-climactic. Millions of women have terminated unwanted pregnancies. Sure it was 1972, a year before Roe v. Wade, but the end result was the same. As cold and calculating as Patty is, I didn't buy how much it affected her. I was expecting something much more sinister - after all, this is the woman who tried to have Ellen killed.

I didn't get why Patty tried to get Tom and Ellen to stop their attempt to get the Tobins. She told Marilyn she wanted Joe. The information Leonard had on the Tobins was the only way to nail them. Win-at-all-costs Patty calls it off? Why? At first I wondered if Patty had a secret deal of her own with Leonard, or Marilyn, or someone, but she didn't. So she was going to let the Tobins go? Did I miss something?

I know some of this is nit-picking. But these kinds of things make the difference between a good finale and a great finale.
Anonymous said…
I thought the finale was excellent, and I enjoy the fact that I am one of those that never figures things out until the end.

I agree with the comments about Tom not getting help - but hey, it's drama. Need more clarification on Barry the homeless guy having such an integral part to this. Seemed kinda loose-threaded.

Here's hoping for a Season 4. Go, Glenn!
Damage girl said…
JUst one thing about this being the series finale or not: of course the season has an ending!
When I watched season 1, I thought: "god, it has an ending, how will they continue this story?". Then when I watched the 2nd season it was the same.
But the creators already said they have a story to tell until season 5. I would like to see that story till the end.

And, well, I love the show, love Patty Hewes, loved this episode as well.
Doug said…
I was fairly disappointed. It felt like the writers painted themselves into a corner, realized this could very well be the last season of “Damages” and had no where to go but to create a bunch of weird, convoluted stuff to wrap up three full seasons of narrative.

Here’s my list of grievances and plot holes (fell free to comment or pick it apart):

Tom – As other pointed, any normal person would have gotten to a hospital first, not gone home. Commenter jonahblue worded it best: "If I'm hurt and my family's in danger, I call 911 to get the cops and an ambulance, then call Ellen and Patty (my friends) on top of that." And in a very “24”-ish way, Tom getting from Leonard’s building to his house, then Joe taking the body back to the lofts seemed way too easy and convenient. Nobody in NYC notices a guy who’s on foot (I think, I didn’t see another car) and bleeding profusely?

Louis – I’m okay with the way the writers handled him probably because he wasn’t in the show for very long. However, his motivations are acceptable.

Marilyn – I just didn’t buy into her committing suicide. The writers presented her as a tough woman and a survivor. Given Joe’s extremely erratic behavior his entire life, I would have thought that she would just give Joe time to cool down and eventually he’ll allow her back into his and his family’s lives. Or get arrested. Or watch Joe get arrested. Since we never saw it, I wasn’t clear why ALL the evidence seemingly points to Joe or why Patty only wanted Joe even after Marilyn hinted that she’d confess everything to Patty. Lastly, was Marilyn actually guilty of a crime or hiding one? I’m still not clear on that one (more on that below).

The Bag – A MacGuffin. Whatever.

The Car Accident – A nice surprise twist on who was actually behind the wheel driving it. Although a little unbelievable that in NYC, Ellen would start a car, leave the door open and have a conversation 10 feet away while the car idles. An intelligent person might do this out in the suburbs, but certainly not in NYC.

Likewise Michael finding Patty so quickly and easily. In order to T-Bone a car like that in a major--and very congested--city, the timing has to be pretty damn perfect. That entire bit felt rushed. Sloppy writing on both counts.

Patty and Jill – I have a lot of problems with how this played out. I’m fine with Patty arresting Jill for statutory rape. What I didn’t buy was that Jill would think anyone would have much of a legal case on her. Jill was also presented as a smart, streetwise woman and should have realized that whatever charges were brought against her, having a good lawyer AND getting Michael to testify that 1) he lied to Jill about his age when they first met; and 2) he was deeply in love and committed to Jill would have probably amounted to a slap on the wrist in court. Perhaps a short stint in a minimum security prison at the worst, but certainly not nearly as bad as Patty played it up (a long prison sentence, giving up custody of the baby, etc.).

Lastly, how the hell could Patty legally seize ownership of her apartment and car? Jill purchased both with legitimate funds. She didn’t steal Patty’s money, it was given to her. In fact, the check Patty wrote could be used as evidence at Jill’s trial indicating either Patty was okay with Jill and Michael’s relationship even going so far to give them a nice financial gift so they could live well, or that Patty was out to get Jill away from Michael from the start with a bribe. It’s not like Jill signed an agreement or anything legal.
Doug said…

The Horse – A better twist by the writers. We knew Patty once had a daughter that was stillborn, but we never knew the circumstances. It was fitting that Patty would choose a promising career over being a mother. Upon seeing the setup, I thought Patty might try riding the horse in order to create the trauma necessary to affect the pregnancy. The "the ghostly visitations" was an interesting misdirection on the part of the writers.

Frobisher and Wes – A forced effort to wrap up a season two plot. Wes could have turned himself in and confessed long ago, but suddenly decided to come back to NYC after one call from Ellen. Ugh. This felt like it was a scene that was edited out (or written out) of the end of season two. Having to re-introduce Frobisher and come up with book and bio film just so that actor would go to Patty and spill the beans was a desperate attempt to close the book on the Frobisher character. It would have felt much more organic if this was in last season’s finale.

Confession – Whatever. Joe confessing to murdering Tom, I’m okay with that. But again, the writers never made it clear how the rest of the Tobin family was guilty of the original Ponzi scheme crime when it appeared that Louis and Leonard where the only main culprits.

Patty and Ellen – Another whatever. Did Ellen lose her job at the DA’s office? I don’t recall her being fired. If anything, she was key in bringing down the Tobin’s (or at least Joe), something worthy of a promotion I should think. Why she would be sitting there with Patty contemplating going back to being an attorney or even re-joining Patty at her firm was completely unclear. I’m guessing it was to leave things open in case there will be a fourth season.

Leonard – The writers could have made it slightly clearer that he was directly connected Albert’s actions in the previous episode. A quick scene showing the exchange of money would have been nice. Instead, Albert disappears with no explanation after leaving the charity office.

In summary, a messy, unfocused and disjointed season with a lot of filler.
Unknown said…
Wes may have just turned himself in, but if Raylon Givens (also played by Timothy Olyphant on "Justified") was there, he would have shot Frobisher on sight!
JanieJones said…
I want to thank you for giving attention to this wonderful show. I've been reading your writings for quite awhile now. I appreciate your time and attention to this particular show.

Now to the finale, yes, plot holes abound but I think KZK did a fine job with the future so uncertain and precarious.
I did have to suspend my realistic vision at times but it was well worth it.
Although, it pained me to watch Tom die even though I knew it was coming.

I have to tip my hat to Martin Short, Lily Tomlin and Campbell Scott for wonderful performances.

The final scene between Patty and Ellen, not loaded with dialogue, spoke volumes.

I will miss this show.
Take care Jace! I'll be back for some active participation on some other shows when I can.
Anonymous said…
I'm probably a little late to the discussion at this point, but could the reason that Tom didn't get medical help be because he had just bludgeoned a man to death, and would therefore me charged with murder once the police took an interest? It didn't seem like they were life-threatening wounds since he was able to walk from Queens to the Upper East (or West) Side without passing out. He may have just thought that he could bandage himself up.

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