For my summer TV binge viewing this year I devoured the entire 5 seasons of FX’s legal thriller Damages. Damages makes for excellent summer TV. It is dramatic, suspenseful, sexy, funny, incredibly well acted and for the most part the stories are well told.
I would argue that the first five minutes of the pilot episode is as good as any television pilot I’ve seen. Not only is it beautifully shot, it effectively introduces the characters, structure and themes of the entire series.Where most pilots would tread carefully so as not to abandon first time viewers Damages plunges the viewer head first into its storytelling world in a way that is not immediately accessible. It trusts that its audience will want to catch up. And we do.
Damages opens with a series of city snapshots on a hazy New York morning. Symphonic music underscores moving pictures of taxi cabs, busy streets and an American flag blowing in the breeze. Smoke billows in and around these snapshots manipulated by the camera as it switches between forward and backward motion. Manipulation vs. fate play large thematic roles throughout Damages’ five seasons. As the camera finds and holds on a set of doors, a bell which seemed to be part of the background music is brought into focus as the symphony fades. The camera begins to cut closer on and eventually inside the doors in time with the bell. Inside we find a set of elevator doors and the camera continues its momentum inside. It is now clear that the bell is an elevator bell and each ding brings us deeper inside the mystery. The camera continues to cut in David-Lynch- close on the elevator doors until we can see every nick and scratch of the metal surface. There are many times in Damages where sounds, objects or ideas are split into pieces and manipulated to create mystery making ordinary things disorienting and frightening. When the elevator doors finally open we are introduced to Ellen Parsons (one of the series two protagonists) covered in blood and shaking as the film speeds up and slows down on a close-up of her quivering face. She stops and starts as she stumbles out of the elevator and down the hallway dressed only in a green trench coat and underwear. This first image of Ellen is abrupt and startling and it is impossible to differentiate which stumbling is due to the camera’s manipulation or Ellen’s own shaky footing. The camera tries to follow Ellen down the hallway, losing her many times until she bursts out into the bright colored morning. We the audience desperately want a closer view of Ellen as pedestrians do their best to look away. The soundtrack has faded into blur of sirens, car horns, traffic lights and construction eerily scoring Ellen’s confused journey through a setting that seemed inviting 2 minutes ago.
Serene music sweeps in just as Ellen is swept out of view by an approaching cab and the next scene begins. We now get a better look at our doe-eyed protagonist as she sits (with a perfectly vacant expression) behind a two way mirror, still covered in blood, while two police detectives stare back. They, like us, are trying to determine who she is and where she came from. It is a scene that the season will come back to many times as one part of the season’s two timelines. Just like the opening sequence depicts, part of the story is told forwards and the other part is told backwards.
The unconventional introduction to Ellen Parsons is succinct and perfectly sets up a character that is struggling to control her fate against those who are trying to manipulate her.
There is a short expository scene that comes next that I could do without. A title card announces that it is 6 months later. A clean and composed Ellen (fresh out of law school) is being offered a job by her mentor Hollis Nye. Her reaction of “Holy Shit” to her salary offer indicates that this would be a great opportunity. She hesitates and when it comes out that she has an interview with Hewes and Associates Hollis and the other lawyers are immediately defeated, letting us know that Hewes and Associates is a huge deal.
The scene is not necessary as Glen Close’s portrayal of Patty Hewes does all that and more. Patty Hewes introduction may not be as fancy as Ellen’s but it is just as effective. Patty’s first scene takes place in the back of a limo where Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan) negotiates a deal on her behalf. Tom tells Patty that 25 million is “their” final offer. The camera pans from Donovan’s boyishly amused face to Patty, who is staring out the window, completely calm as she purrs, “no it isn’t”. I have only spent 5 seconds with this woman but I believe her. This belief is solidified as we cut to “them” on the other line. The opposing attorney is brutish and growling demanding that Patty settle because he will beat her in court and I don’t believe him for a second. I love how the series has enough faith in its viewer to show this composed and confident version of Patty first. She has 5 seasons to play predatory, here she knows she will win. In order to invest and believe in the myth of Patty Hewes this scene is crucial. As the negotiations continue, Close effortlessly moves from coy to devastating as she demands 150 million to settle. She gets what she wants. The outraged attorney hisses at Patty “If you were a man I’d kick the living dog shit out of you.” Patty replies back perfectly, “If you were a man, I’d be scared.”
I don’t mean to suggest that the rest of the series does not live up to its first five minutes because it is filled with amazing pieces. The pieces don’t always come together for a satisfying whole but they are often beautiful and fascinating on their own.
I would be completely remiss if I did not mention Damages addicting theme song. I could listen to this thing on repeat for hours while couch dancing in my living room.