Why Glenn Close’s Character on Damages Is One of TV’s Best

Slate's Culture Blog
July 12 2012 1:41 PM

Character Studies: Patty Hewes, Damages

damages
Glenn Close as Patty Hewes

Courtesy of DirecTV.

Warning: spoilers abound.

Near the end of Season 2 of Damages, as Patty Hewes’ latest legal coup winds down and a huge energy company prepares to buckle, the fearsome lawyer wakes late one night to loud laughter and wafting cigar smoke coming from downstairs. She heads down to investigate, and the laughter dies. First we see Patty’s ex-husband, summarily dismissed by Patty after she learned he had an affair. The camera then pans slowly to reveal a veritable gallery of the men she has destroyed: Uncle Pete, her slain ally; Michael, her embattled son; Ray Fiske, a closeted lawyer who took his life after Patty threatened to out him; Tom Shayes, her fired legal partner; and Walter Kendrick, the CEO of the company she is preparing to gut. “I thought we took care of this bitch,” Kendrick says.

Then, in a sly, underhanded joke, her fraught protégé, Ellen Parsons, summons her to the kitchen. Patty wants the men to leave. “They won’t leave. People will always be there, waiting to put a knife in your back,” Ellen tells her. “They hate you. Everyone hates you.”

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The sequence is a dream, of course. The men in the scene are casualties of just two seasons of Patty’s elaborate schemes—and there have been two more seasons since, strewn with many more lives destroyed. The fifth and final go-around got underway last night on DirecTV’s Audience Network, where it landed when FX gave up the series after the third season in 2010. This season’s Wikileaks-inspired storyline racked up one high-profile death in the first hour alone, a swift reminder that we're back playing Patty's brutal game once again.  

It would be imprecise to call Patty an anti-hero: She’s more of a straight-up villain. Granted, Patty’s causes are ostensibly noble: suing a billionaire for insider trading, say, or a lawless military contractor for all his human collateral. And her legal acrobatics are always ingenious and fun. But as the show’s elliptical storytelling makes clear—the series employs frequent flash-forwards with lots of obvious foreshadowing in the present—Patty’s primary concern is herself.

This kind of exuberant villainy is rare for such a prominent female character. What’s more, Damages has resisted the temptation to punish Patty for her sins. After the first season, a number of plans have been hatched to bring her down, but without success. Flashbacks and bourbon-fueled stories from her past—a nasty father, a self-induced miscarriage early in life—have humanized her somewhat, but not to much purpose. Patty’s ruthlessness is precisely what’s appealing about her. She’s merciless and she doesn’t apologize, and for a woman on televsion, that’s a rare and glorious thing.

The final season has been set up as the climactic deathmatch between Ellen and Patty, but it’s clear who has the upper hand. In one amusing scene early in the season, Patty meets with the Julian Assange-like figure played by Ryan Phillippe, and he tries to convince her to represent him by suggesting her influence is waning with age. “You’re an old woman,” he says. “You only have a few years left until my generation unseats you.” Patty is amused. She gives him her signature stare, and after a brutal pause, she begs him off. “I’ll take my chances without you,” she says. Then she files a crippling suit against him.

Judging from the first couple episodes, this final season may be the show’s strongest since the first. Here’s hoping it ends the right way, with Patty, steely and unperturbed, marching on to her next target.

Unfortunately, the new season of Damages is only available to DirecTV subscribers, but the first three seasons are available to stream on Netflix, and the fourth season is on DVD.

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