Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
The era of Prestige TV has brought us many things: The rise of high concept fantasy and puzzle box mysteries, the incorporation of flashbacks and flashforwards as a frequent and legitimate storytelling tool, and the antihero as central character in cable series across your channel guide.
Shows like Mad Men, The Shield, and Breaking Bad became awards darlings by gleefully centering the stories of unlikable and often deeply terrible men, the kind of leads who repeatedly commit horrible acts—often obvious crimes!—yet are still celebrated for the scope of their personal ambitions and willingness to break the rules to get what they want. Despite this shift, however, female characters are almost never allowed to occupy this same sort of complicated narrative space, even in the world of high-end cable dramas where anything seems as though it ought to be possible.
In these sorts of shows, women can be ambitious, but not overly so, and certainly not if their personal goals conflict with those held by the story’s central man. They can be cruel, if that cruelty is accidental, reactionary, or they feel demonstrably bad about their behavior afterward. And they can be ruthless, occasionally, but only if everyone around them calls them a bitch in response and is seen as justified for doing so within the world of the show.
That is, at least, until FX’s (and later DirecTV’s) Damages came along. The high-powered legal thriller not only features a female lead who is ruthless, ambitious, and cruel, she is all of those things without remorse or apology. Patty Hewes is a woman willing to do terrible things in pursuit of her own ends and, like many of the men who came before her, doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with that.
In theory, Damages follows the story of the psychological cat-and-mouse game between Patty and up-and-coming lawyer Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), a young woman who begins the series as her protégé, but evolves over the course of its five-season run into a rival, an enemy, and something like an object lesson. And don’t get me wrong, Ellen’s journey into darkness—and her last-minute realization that she needs to fight her way out of it—makes for compelling television in its own right, but she was never the reason this show was so fascinating to watch.
No, that honor always belonged to Patty Hewes. And, sure, part of that is because Patty is played by Glenn Close, an actress with the sort of charisma and gravitas that can make reading a Denny’s menu sound like Shakespeare. But it’s also because Patty herself feels like a revelation onscreen: a leading woman who is simultaneously horrifying and fascinating, who effortlessly manipulates others into doing her bidding, who refuses to apologize for putting herself and her own ambitions first. And, who, perhaps most importantly, isn’t judged by the show she stars in for doing any of these things.
Self-righteous and emotionally scarred, Patty is both a brilliant legal mind and a truly awful person. She successfully battles greedy men and exploitative corporations, often working to win justice for those who might otherwise never hope to see it. Yet, she also burns down the lives of almost everyone she comes into contact with, whether they’re opponents in the courtroom, employees at her firm, or her own family.
Perhaps it’s not entirely correct to call Patty Hewes an antiheroine. After all, Damages isn’t the story of a once-great woman’s descent into darkness, or her attempt to self-excuse bad actions she nevertheless feels are just or necessary in some way. No, both Patty herself and the show she stars in are very forthright about the fact that she’s a nasty piece of work from her first moments onscreen. The fact that she tries to orchestrate Ellen’s death via hitman is a central piece of the first season’s plot, and though she doesn’t succeed, the show never absolves her of the attempt. Patty may never pull a trigger or swing a knife herself, but she’s at least morally culpable in the very real deaths of several people, including the man who was once her most loyal lieutenant. And she can blackmail, manipulate, and straight up lie with the best of them.
We’re probably not supposed to root for her to the extent that we do. Yet, she’s an absolute joy to watch. Patty is so much fun precisely because she’s so single-minded: in her ambitions, in her drive, in her determination to not only be the best but to have everyone recognize and fear her for it. Women on television are almost never allowed this sort of exuberant embrace of their worst selves, without explanation or apology, but Patty Hewes revels in it. Being called a bitch is a badge of honor that she wears both openly and proudly.
And despite her occasionally villainous tendencies Patty is also still allowed to win, over and over again, within the world of the show. Complicated plots are devised to bring down, punish or shame this woman in some way, and yet Patty just keeps right on triumphing with steely-eyed, unforgiving style. (And it certainly doesn’t hurt that her biggest victories tend to come over the sorts of men who are easy to loathe and who, no matter her crimes, have done much worse than she has.)
Damages doesn’t pull any punches about the emotional toll associated with Patty’s relentless pursuit of success. The series’ final scene is a sequence that underlines the painful solitude and isolation of her life; by the end of the show, she literally has nothing left but her work. But even so, Damages doesn’t really indicate that Patty would or should do anything differently, even as it acknowledges that her win-at-all-costs attitude does, in fact, come with a significant price tag attached.
Yet, despite the fact that Damages makes multiple half-hearted attempt to humanize Patty in various ways—the revelation of a self-induced miscarriage, a history with an abusive father, a difficult son whose death she is largely responsible for—none of them really stick. Mostly because Patty instinctually self-sabotages any feelings of warmth or empathy she might experience, and we as viewers love her for it.
But more importantly, much like its male-focused cousins, Damages doesn’t view its lead or her actions as something that needs fixing or forgiveness. The show isn’t out to save Patty Hewes from herself, to make her into some sort of martyr or an example of female empowerment. Rather, it simply aims to give us the kind of layered, complicated female character that had rarely been seen onscreen before. And, in that, it succeeds in spades.
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Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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