Jace Lacob talks to the creators of the serpentine legal thriller Damages about the show’s final season, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, and that shocking twist.
Damages, which began its life in 2007 on FX before moving to DirecTV last year, began its fifth and final season last night, promising a bloody final showdown between two adversaries, malevolent and dangerous litigator Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and her former protégé, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne).
Season 5 revolves around a WikiLeaks-esque website and issues of corporate transparency, but what fans are really waiting for is for Patty and Ellen to finally throw down against each other. One of them, it seems, may not walk away from this five-years-in-the-making battle.
The Daily Beast caught up with Damages’ trio of creators—Glenn Kessler, Daniel Zelman, and Todd A. Kessler—to discuss how they approached wrapping up the series after five seasons, Ryan Phillippe’s Julian Assange-like character, potential consequences for Patty’s machinations, and—MAJOR SPOILER ALERT, if you have yet to watch the season opener—the apparent murder of Byrne’s Ellen Parsons, shown in a pool of blood after plummeting off of a building.
In approaching the final season of the show, did you look at the full series as a five-act play, and what does Season 5 represent in broad terms?
Daniel Zelman: From the very beginning, we talked about the show being five seasons and we always knew it was going to end with Ellen and Patty going up against each other in a case. [In Season 1], we started seeing the first few minutes of Ellen’s birth into the professional world. In the second season, it’s like her rebellious adolescence. The third season is when she becomes an adult and goes off on her own; she works at the DA’s office. The fourth season is about her realizing that she can’t fully become the adult she wants to be until she separates herself from Patty, and then the fifth season is the final act of that separation and her actually trying to conquer Patty and move past her. So, from the beginning, that was an arc that we had in mind. There’s the case every season and all of that, but the center of the show has always been Ellen and Patty and their relationship, so that was always the spine of the series.
Given that Damages was picked up for two seasons by Direct TV, do you feel you have the opportunity to end the series on your own terms?
Glenn Kessler: We’re very grateful, because, as Daniel said, we always conceived the show as a five-act play or as a five season arc, and obviously when one enters into the television world, you never know if you’re going to get that opportunity or not. So when DirecTV picked us up after the third season, and we knew we were going to get two more, we knew that we would be able to round out the relationship between Patty and Ellen and take them to a full sense of closure. That’s a huge thing as storytellers: to know in advance the time you’re going to be given to tell the story. It was very important to us to provide closure for an audience that’s watched the show for five seasons and to go back and to have an opportunity to draw elements from the first season and what we call mythology, or the origin story between Patty and Ellen. We’re hoping that we’ve created something that’s very exciting, very visceral, and very satisfying for someone who’s committed to have followed the series from start to finish.
The season opener has a number of callbacks to the first season—the elevator, Hollis Nye’s business card, the cops, and that Statue of Liberty bookend. Should we feel a sense that we’re coming full circle?
Glenn Kessler: Absolutely. All the elements you mentioned—the bookend, Hollis Nye, the card, and Ellen’s recollection of being warned, and by the end of the first episode ripping up that card and in effect very purposefully deciding to ignore that warning and proceed in a war against Patty—all of that is very much intentional.
The episode’s final image is Ellen’s corpse in the alley, presumably after being pushed or jumping to her death. Did you feel it necessary to end the series with Ellen’s demise, given how the show began?
Daniel Zelman: We felt it necessary to begin the final season and also end the series with a bold stroke, if not several bold strokes, because it totally defines the show. There’s always been that extreme heightened element to the show. Patty killed the dog in the pilot and Ellen’s fiancé was murdered in the first season. In the second season, Ellen was standing across from Patty holding a gun on her, and the third season Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan) was dead, as we learn at the end of the first episode. It’s something that we feel is the signature of the show.
Ellen is the central figure of that bold stroke, as in many ways the whole show is about Ellen, or at least Ellen is the protagonist in the sense that she is the character who we relate to in the beginning. She’s the character who goes through all the changes. Patty is more of a constant. She’s Patty Hewes in capitals, and she’s a fully-formed character when we meet her. And she’s the rock that Ellen is forced to pound her head against for five seasons. So the idea that Ellen’s space is what we focus on is something that’s very much in keeping with the whole journey of the series.
What is Ellen hoping to find among the evidence from David’s case? Why reopen those wounds now?
Todd A. Kessler: As the fifth and final season, part of the story is Ellen really coming to terms with her relationship with Patty, and so looking into David’s murder and what that means and how that has motivated Ellen over the seasons. Oftentimes people have asked us, “How could Ellen possibly have gone back to work for Patty if Patty tried to have Ellen killed and Ellen lost her fiancé?” and all of those elements are in play in this fifth and final season. We advance the story far down the field from anything that has come before in this season.
It would appear that Patty is back to her “take no prisoners” mentality starting with the murder of Jenna Elfman’s Naomi Walling. Has she not learned her lesson at this point?
Todd A. Kessler: Patty has learned her lesson and she’s writing the textbook on it. Patty is Patty, and that’s something that we have continually tried to portray and explore about how her life functions without having her be a character that is redeemed or takes redeeming actions. She’s learned from the past. Something that we will see and experience for the first time in this season is that we meet Patty’s father, and that will bring a lot into focus for the character of Patty over the course of the season.
Is this season then an opportunity to explore a sense of consequence for Patty?
Todd A. Kessler: And also for Ellen. In the third season, which we thought may have been our last, Tom Shayes was killed and it was very important to us to drive home the theme that people can lose their lives. So much of the series has been about the theme of, what price success? How far are people willing to go to satisfy their ambitions professionally? While, yes, it’s in a heightened world and people actually lose their lives, we feel that thematically everyone who’s ever worked for a boss or even been a boss, you make personal sacrifices for your career: missing birthday parties, engagement parties, etc. In the first season, Patty makes Ellen late to her own engagement party as a test. All of these things are chipping away at one’s identity and one’s personal life, and, while most bosses don’t try to kill their employees literally, figuratively they control their employees’ personal lives and make great demands on their time. The consequences that Patty and Ellen experience as a result of their relationship are unique to them, but we feel they are specific in ways to all of our lives.
What are you looking to say this season about technology, information, and transparency in corporate culture?
Daniel Zelman: What we’re interested and have always been interested in is power dynamics, and when it comes to power dynamics, secrets are very important. Information is very important. Who can keep secrets? Who has the worst secrets? Who has the most to lose if their secrets are uncovered? And so there definitely is a thematic relationship between Channing McClaren (Ryan Phillippe) and his organization, McClarenTruth.org, someone who goes around unearthing secrets, and the relationship between Patty and Ellen, which is a relationship of secrets. Patty’s biggest fear is that Ellen, who knows Patty’s worst secrets—that Ellen and Patty both blackmailed Ray Fiske in the first season, which led to his suicide, and that Patty tried to have Ellen killed—has power over Patty. That makes Patty very nervous and uncomfortable. The thematic relationship is more along those lines than it is specifically about commenting on technology, but of course the technology is what it is; secrets are harder to keep than ever, and information is harder to keep private than ever, and that’s something that Patty Hewes is probably not thrilled about.
Should we view Channing McClaren as a Julian Assange analog?
Glenn Kessler: Certainly. Like much of the world, we followed the Julian Assange story and some of the interesting conflicts that arose with the work that he was doing with WikiLeaks. It absolutely was something in the news that we were investigating between the fourth and fifth seasons. Some of the issues in his life and some of the professional things that he had tried to accomplish were the launching points for us to begin conversations about crafting our very loosely-inspired version of Assange, Channing McClaren. First and foremost, we were interested in those issues of WikiLeaks and transparency and as one starts to delve further and further into the work that he’s doing, conflicts of interest do arise and different agendas are being served than might first seem so at the surface. That made it a very fruitful topic and environment for us to explore.
Todd A. Kessler: We’re in no way trying to tell the Julian Assange story. What we’re doing is taking scenes that are intriguing to us about transparency and the concept of subjectivity. Anyone who makes a documentary knows there is no true documentary, because it’s all subjective of what you show and how it’s edited. While Julian Assange may be for transparency, Julian Assange himself has even said that he had a suitcase full of secrets that could be released if he was ever arrested. One of the topics of conversation that came up as we were conceiving of this season was, “Well, why would someone like Julian Assange hold on to those things only to be released if he were arrested, as opposed to having them released as soon as he had them?” So it becomes very subjective, but we are in no way saying that this is the Julian Assange story or trying to even aspire to tell the Julian Assange story.
Is there any chance of a final appearance by Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) before the end?
Daniel Zelman: We’ll just come right out and say, no, he is not in the final season. We adored his character and we talked about it and we thought about it, but every time we talked about putting him into the season it felt a bit gratuitous just to have him in the season, and we didn’t want to do that to his character. When we last saw him, he was being arrested for David’s murder. As a refresher, at the end of Season 3, Timothy Olyphant’s character basically turned himself in and in doing so, all but turned in Arthur Frobisher and he did that for Ellen. So knowing that Frobisher was arrested, we felt like that was really the end of that storyline and as I said, we thought about it, but in the end thought better of it.
Will the series’ conclusion offer a satisfying resolution for long-time fans of the show?
Daniel Zelman: We feel pretty confident. Of course, you can never know, and everyone has their different experience with the show. Maybe there are people who root more for Patty and other people who root more for Ellen, but we weren’t looking for a conclusion that was anything other than satisfying on the level of character. To us, the most important part of the show has always been Patty and Ellen, although the plot is resolved and we don’t leave plot threads hanging. What’s always been important to us that is at the end of every season an audience gets a complete journey.
Todd A. Kessler: One final point to put on that: The DNA of Damages and the Patty/Ellen relationship over five seasons has been something that we’ve really appreciated the audience engaging with and standing by and hopefully being entertained by. The series finale—the actual episode and the last images—we feel really do honor and do justice to the final life of the series.