With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.
In the final season of Damages, Todd and Glenn Kessler’s riveting legal thriller, master manipulator Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) tells her protégé-turned-target-turned-rival Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) that her favorite cases are the ones in which all the facts are up in the air. This little admission is more than a testament to Patty’s mastery of the law. It’s a nod to her resolve, which she’s demonstrated time and again by who and what she was willing to sacrifice; the woman who regularly represents David against Goliath isn’t thrown by a seeming lack of evidence. It’s also another one of Patty’s mind games. As they go through all the pretrial motions in a case that was somewhat inspired by Julian Assange (the details of which, as Patty notes, aren’t all that important), the blue-chip lawyer is trying to undermine Ellen’s confidence. Given their complicated relationship, she might also be imparting another lesson. Luckily for Ellen, this one didn’t involve attempted murder. But there was always next time (not to mention the first time).
Patty’s and Ellen’s struggle for power fueled this Emmy-winning drama, which premiered July 24, 2007 on FX. Along with The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me, Damages became a charter member in the cable network’s dramatic heavyweight lineup. But the series always stood out from its programming brethren, in part because it snagged an A-list actress like Close, who’d guest-starred on Shawn Ryan’s crime drama, to play lead. Shorter runs and limited series formats now allow stars like Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Susan Sarandon to come and go and get awards recognition as they please, but when Damages debuted 10 years ago, its 13-episode order was an extraordinary commitment for an Oscar nominee to make. Early on, though, it didn’t appear to be much of a gamble: FX quickly gave the series a two-season renewal after the first one wrapped in October 2007, and Close won back-to-back Emmys.
What also quickly set Damages apart from other cable dramas was the incredibly flawed, impeccably dressed woman (eventually women) at its core. The cover-ups, firefighting, and God complexes of The Shield, Rescue Me, and Nip/Tuck, respectively, made for compelling TV, but they also skewed very male. Joely Richardson, CCH Pounder, and yes, Glenn Close didn’t get lost in that din thanks to the strength of their performances, as well as the fact that their roles often served as counterpoints to all the bravado. But until this point, the allowances viewers were making for morally compromised characters mostly benefitted difficult men like Vic Mackey, Dexter Morgan, and Dr. Gregory House.
The age of the TV antihero was well underway before Patty Hewes ordered the murder of her new hire and broke that mold. There had been female antiheroes on shows like Weeds, but Damages’ avenging-angel attorney was singular in her embracing of what were perceived as negative qualities (for women, anyway) while eschewing that same value system. Patty was at the top of her game and never let anyone, not even her longtime collaborator Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan), forget it. She wasn’t just a cold, calculating career woman, though; Patty had a superficially happy home life, though even that began to unravel as soon as she kicked off her feud with Ellen.
But Damages featured more than just a female analog to those difficult men; it had two of them, once Ellen Parsons had some of the naïveté knocked out of her via said murder attempt. And the Kesslers never scaled back their nefariousness or misdeeds, or labeled either exclusively a villain, though they did declare one a winner by the show’s end. They also kept the power structure almost exclusively female, despite the fact that the two men didn’t have women in mind when they first conceived of this most unusual mentor-mentee relationship. Men would pop up as clients, lovers, allies, and second-rate enemies, but Patty and Ellen kept their sights trained on each other. They saved their best digs for each other, laid their most intricate traps for each other. Ellen adopting Patty’s techniques didn’t make her a clone—it made her Patty’s equal. And Close and Byrne made Patty and Ellen a duo for the ages, showing the same enmity and grudging respect for each other as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Or, for a more contemporary example, imagine Cersei Lannister taking Sansa Stark under her wing on Game Of Thrones—that was Patty breaking in Ellen.
Although it did eventually render a judgment on Patty’s win-at-all-costs philosophy, Damages helped its female co-leads flourish while behaving badly in a way that hadn’t been seen on TV before. Here we track their ascension—and descent—across 10 episodes.
1. “Get Me A Lawyer” (season one, episode one)
Damages’ premiere is a tense and thrilling hour that sets the tone for the rest of the season, kicking off with an unseen bang (well, bludgeon). When we first meet Ellen Parsons, she’s stumbling out of an elevator, covered in blood, then teetering along the New York sidewalk in heels and a trench coat. The sight is enough to jar even the most jaded of Manhattanites, who are all around her. But director Allen Coulter, a Sopranos alum, takes us through all the paces of Ellen’s dizzying fall from dream job offer to murder suspect—and target. The multiple flashbacks and timelines, which were only intended to last through the first season but ended up sticking around through the series’ conclusion, build the mystery element that became part of the show’s M.O. But it went beyond the murder and attack; like Ellen, the audience doesn’t know what they’re getting into.
2. “We Are Not Animals” (season one, episode seven)
By the end of the pilot, we have a sense of just how far Patty will go to win a case, including taking on an associate (Ellen) just for her personal connection to a witness. While she still has her doubts about Ellen—and her longtime associate, Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan)—Patty’s also savvy enough to see her potential. Ellen in turn starts playing Patty’s game, bending the rules, covering her tracks, and even manipulating the same family member she sought to protect. Turns out, Ms. Hewes’ machinations make up the most twisted albeit effective training program. But there’s a deeper lesson here, one that goes to the very heart of the show: Even as she plots against her, Patty is teaching her unfortunate padawan that she doesn’t have to be at the mercy of someone else’s whims. She’s teaching Ellen the game while trouncing her, which is, for Patty, almost an act of kindness.
3. “Burn It, Shred It, I Don’t Care” (season two, episode two)
Patty’s tutelage comes at a high cost—at the start of season two, Ellen’s thwarted an attack on her life, which she’s convinced Patty ordered, and she’s also mourning her fiancé. Her grief and need for revenge drive season two, which earned the most Emmy nominations of the series’ run. As furious as she is, Ellen’s picked up a thing or two and is now working with the FBI to take Patty down (seems her strong-arm tactics aren’t all above board). Spying on Patty turns out to be easy; Ellen started leading a double life as soon as she accepted the job offer in the series premiere. She practically squirms when talking to Tom about the sense of justice we develop as children, because she realizes how warped her own has become. As the central relationship grows more complicated, Rose Byrne steps it up, adding more dimension to her portrayal of a wide-eyed novice. Ellen’s not a full-blown cynic yet, but Byrne shows us the wear on her psyche.
4. “They Had To Tweeze That Out Of My Kidney” (season two, episode eight)
Like so many cinematic informants before her, Ellen’s starting to fall under the spell of the world she’s infiltrated. It’s not just the chic wardrobe and upscale housing, which she could have obtained working for Hollis Nye (Philip Bosco), a well-respected lawyer in his own right. But for the first time, she wields real power—over Patty, Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), and anyone else who’s hurt her. In the season’s “present,” Ellen’s even trying to get a confession from Patty at gunpoint. But series creators Todd and Glenn Kessler always maintained that forgiving her once-and-future boss would prove much more effective at beating Patty. There’s a certain power in letting go of something, as well as in demonstrating that you’re above the feud that’s threatening to take over both of your lives. “They Had To Tweeze That Out Of My Kidney” walks Ellen back from the abyss, though not for long.
5. “It’s Not My Birthday” (season three, episode five)
The crime drama sensibilities become more pronounced in season three, which features the show’s strongest guest cast ever, including Lily Tomlin, Martin Short, and Mädchen Amick. But it’s Campbell Scott who all but utters the words, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” as he plays Joe Tobin, the seemingly respectable son of a Bernie Madoff knockoff. His struggle to steer clear of the family business isn’t quite what it seems—nothing on Damages ever is—but it mirrors Ellen’s, who has a brief return to the straight and narrow working in the district attorney’s office. It’s not long before she’s knee-deep in the particulars of a Ponzi scheme right along with her former mentor, though. “It’s Not My Birthday” previews the legal battle that will dominate the fifth season, placing Patty and Ellen on different sides of the aisle. It’s also the first time we see cracks in Patty’s facade; she has dreams that fuse her guilt over ordering Ellen’s murder with that of intentionally bringing on a miscarriage in her 20s to keep from squandering a big opportunity. There’s also the revelation that her own son wants her dead, which is yet another reminder of the many casualties in Patty’s personal life.
6. “The Next One’s Gonna Go In Your Throat” (season three, episode 13)
Damages’ third season was its last on FX, so this finale was constructed to act as a series closer as well (before DirecTV swooped in to save the day in July 2010). “The Next One’s Gonna Go In Your Throat” brings an end to the Tobin drama, in which the sins of the son were visited on the father—Louis Tobin (Len Cariou) used a Ponzi scheme to cover up his son’s incompetence. Such an outsize act of love escapes the usually astute Patty, who comes as close to reeling as we’ve ever seen her when she realizes her son T-boned her in a rage after she sent his girlfriend and the mother of his child to prison for statutory rape. “People either leave you or they die,” her son, Michael, snipes at her. “Those are the only ways it ends with you.” This prophecy comes true by the end of the finale, then comes back into play after the move to satellite TV. Patty and Ellen stand at a dock, the former coming close to coming clean, though not about wanting her protégé dead (in true Patty fashion, she attempts to walk this back later). Ellen could but doesn’t hold anything over her old boss; instead, she asks Patty if everything she did to accomplish what she wanted was worth it. There’s no response, leaving this “first” series finale as open-ended as the one two years later.
7. “I’d Prefer My Old Office” (season four, episode three)
What is it that keeps bringing Ellen and Patty back together? There’s no lack of opportunities for Ellen at this point, because working for Patty Hewes has opened lots of doors for her; and working at Hewes & Associates is such a coveted gig that Patty’s not lacking for applicants. Well, on the one hand, game recognizes game; on the other, despite their attempts to bury the hatchet, they still have something to prove to each other. Patty believes her ruthless way is the only one that works, while Ellen is desperately trying to convince herself there’s an alternate route that still leads to success. So their intermittent partnership is back on again in “I’d Prefer My Old Office,” which pits them against paramilitary group (and Blackwater stand-in) High Star, headed up by John Goodman. Ellen and Patty’s truce is both convenient—there’s bigger fish to fry, etc.—and a culmination of the preceding seasons. But because they’ve been down this road before, Ellen tries to maintain some boundaries, at one point refusing to take Tom’s place (that is, his office) at Patty’s firm.
8. “The War Will Go On Forever” (season four, episode eight)
As always, the big court case here, which involves a rogue military operation in Afghanistan, is just the backdrop for Patty and Ellen’s ongoing battle of wills. But they’ve temporarily set aside their differences to expose the operation and the cover-up. Their egos are on the back burner, too, as Patty and Ellen make a great team, seamlessly trading off motions and depositions in “The War Will Go On Forever.” Fittingly, Close and Byrne look more like equals than ever; the Oscar-nominated Close hadn’t exactly been carrying Byrne’s weight up to this point, but her devilish yet polished portrayal of Patty was instantly more memorable than Byrne’s work as an increasingly disillusioned ingenue. By the end of this shortened season (DirecTV handed out a 10-episode order), though, Ellen is almost as nuanced a character as Patty, and that’s thanks to Byrne.
9. “Failure Is Failure” (season five, episode three)
Now the end really was in sight for Damages, as DirecTV declined to pick up the series for any more seasons. So the show threw in a bit of everything for the central case—a little WikiLeaks, some insider trading, and a sex scandal, as well as Ryan Phillippe and Jenna Elfman as guest stars. Phillippe isn’t particularly convincing as a conflicted hacktivist type, but “Failure Is Failure” stops short of putting his character on that pedestal anyway. He’s just another flawed being in a world of them, trying to disguise his baser instincts as a crusade. But because we’ve already seen that play out to greater effect in Patty’s and even Ellen’s storylines, he feels a little superfluous. Besides, the more compelling fight is Patty vs. Ellen, round two or 13 or 2,000. They’re on opposite sides again, but after being sold out and having her victory snatched by Patty at the end of last season, Ellen decides to really play dirty, inserting herself in Michael and Patty’s custody battle over his daughter (Patty’s granddaughter). She volunteers to testify, putting her back in her on-again/off-again nemesis’ crosshairs.
10. “But You Don’t Do That Anymore” (season five, episode 10)
The real war on Damages was always happening outside of the courtroom, so even though Patty folds (albeit for good reason; her witness is dead, after all) early on and lets Ellen win the MacLaren case, closure is still a ways away. Ellen’s descent into Patty-ness is so steep here that she’s practically in a free fall for most of the episode, making promises to her loved ones that she only plans to keep as long as they’re convenient for her. “All I care about is my case,” she declares at one point, and the fact that she could be quoting Patty is thankfully not lost on her. The episode wraps like the season three finale, with the two women standing side by side on the dock—one with leverage, the other seemingly out of moves. And that’s when Ellen has the revelation that this game could go on forever, with her and Patty trying to one-up each other. And as great as winning feels, she wants something else, so she walks away from all of it. The happy ending in the epilogue is one of TV’s hardest earned—although years have to pass before she’s strong enough to ignore Patty on the sidewalk, Ellen hasn’t just survived her old boss; she’s literally passed her by. But there’s still some sympathy for the devil, as the camera sits on Glenn Close’s face for nearly two minutes, capturing a range of emotions that includes pride, disappointment, and finally, determination.
And if you liked those, here are five more: “Sort Of Like A Family”; “Trust Me”; “There’s Only One Way To Try A Case”; “You Haven’t Replaced Me”; “Have You Met The Eel Yet?”
Availability: The full series is streaming on Hulu, and as of September 5, will be available on FX+.