Why am I so irritated with the fourth season of the series Damages, the legal drama starring a Rasputinesque, Machiavellian Glenn Close as ruthless attorney Patty Hewes, and a lovely, doe-eyed, not-as-guileless-as-she looks Rose Byrne, on whom I harbor a difficult-to-explain, unrelenting crush?
(Actually, I think I have a crush on her character, Ellen Parsons, a bit more than the actress, but that’s not the Damages confusion that I plan to address here.)
As in the past, this season has given me a great actor, this time John Goodman, as well as a near -zeitgeist case (against a corporation stand-in for Halliburton doing black ops in Afghanistan), plus more of the edgy, shifting dynamics between its two principal leads.
What is bothering me?
The fourth season begins “three years after” the third season closed. Perhaps a good reason for this will be revealed as I progress through this season, gradually discovering more clues about the case and more details about the characters’ lives during this long interim. (Damages always holds a surprise, usually sinister, readying itself for ambush around any corner.)
Maybe the missing three years have something to do with the series being dropped by FX and then being picked up by DirecTV, though I am not sure how moving from cable to satellite includes time travel.
The three-year lapse makes no sense to me. Was the show I had been watching in the prior seasons three years behind my contemporary viewing; in other words: Was it set in the three-years-ago past? Was the 2007 season actually 2004? Or is the current season actually three years into the future, 2015, which would be a terrible idea, since we have no solid idea how U.S. troops, Hamid Karzai, the Taliban, and corporate black ops might converge in three years’ time. I don’t think we could set that even three months in the future. So when is it occurring on Damages?
Does any of this matter? Can I just sit back and enjoy the treachery, vitriol, and Shakespearean tragedy that I’ve come to expect from the show?
Am I too constrained by my rigid Western linear concept of time?
Can I not give season four of Damages the same leeway that I might give, say, this year’s sensation, The Hunger Games trilogy, which takes place in a very debatable territory like the U.S. (using geographical descriptions as allusions but avoiding naming explicit markers) at an undetermined time in the future? Can’t I immerse myself in the story without imposing temporal conditions? Can’t I simply take delight in the characters?
Can’t I just get over it?
No. I feel like Damages has been having an affair behind my back for three years, and now it just expects me to forget it. I’m a fucking Scorpio. I will never let it go.
The key word lingering from my Hunger Games musing is future. You can do what you like with the future, as long as it doesn’t completely contradict the past, interfere with the present, and isn’t going to be proven laughable within the next decade.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is still one of my all-time favorite films, one that I have dragged my ass to midnight showings just to experience cinematically.
I am no less rapturous in watching now, even though we have not sent humans past or even to the moon in over a decade since the movie was set.
At the time the film was released, 1968, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were engaging in Cold War brinkmanship that spilled into an astro-cosmonautical race to send people into space. The U.S. managed to leave the first human footprints on the moon, and who was to think then that the hyper-nationalistic race or the astounding progress in spatial exploration was to slow its pace?
I contend that in 1968 it was almost certain that we would be reaching farther into the solar system by 2001 – okay, maybe Jupiter is a little ambitious – and that space travel to space stations and to the moon would be somewhat akin to taking a ferry in zero gravity.
Note, this is coming from someone who has no problem with Pan Am (defunct since 1991) serving as the 2001 space ferry,
not to mention an unexplained monolith,
or a lengthy introduction with primates discovering what is proposed as the missing link to humanity.
By the end of the film, time itself becomes some kind of transforming, pulsing, looping, streaming prism of fantasic light.
The titular year of 2001 becomes insignificant at the conclusion.
So I’m not that fussy about time!
Except for these time lapses that are set in the present day. What is the “present day” if you can jump forward three years?
The convoluted spy drama Alias committed the same narrative atrocity years ago, when Sydney Bristow, the lead character played by Jennifer Garner, woke up from a blackout into a busy Hong Kong street, only to discover that she had two years of her life missing.
She had two years missing? What about me? Where were my two years? What was my temporal relationship to this semi-mindless espionage television program? I had thought it was a deep, meaningful relationship, but suddenly I felt not just disappointed, but deceived. I’d accept one year, maybe, but two? No. The show was already running off the rails with a Nostradamus-like figure whose prophecies were becoming a farcical focal point. Time-skipping seems minor in my file cabinet of complaints about the show, but I can’t write it off. Thank heavens I knew that J.J. Abrams had no clue how to follow a story to its conclusion – I knew better than to fall into the Lost trap when that show took off.
Actually, if time travel is at least acknowledged, as it was in Lost, I am far more accepting. I only saw a few episodes of that series, sitting with my brother, a loyal viewer who turned to Lostpedia whenever questions arose. He forbade me from asking any more of my own questions during one episode that seemed to take place on the island in some nebulous point in time, in 1970s California, and in present-day California, all simultaneously.
I wasn’t condemning, just confused and curious. My brother finally ordered me into complete silence after I posited that “the fat one has the power of telepathy.” This, apparently, did not figure into the Lost world, though it seemed quite plausible given the circumstances of the episode.
I did warn my brother that the show would collapse into an infuriating morass by the end, and he ultimately and angrily agreed after the series finale. I’m not sure time travel was at fault since that was one pop culture phenomenon I knew I had to sit out on, but I know that once you tamper with time on TV, you had better have a plan with an ending that won’t irrevocably stain the series upon conclusion.
Am I revealing some Asperger Syndrome traits in my inflexible and arguably obsessive timeline demands? Possibly. People on the spectrum do make some good points, after all. Or am I so fixated on a detail that it stops me from seeing the whole? That’s the flip side.
Still, as with soft sci-fi like Hunger Games, I am able to suspend belief, and I am able to suspend it even further if the setting is somewhat open to interpretation. The Hunger Games is sketchy about when (sometime in the future) and where (competing fan-made maps of the U.S./Panem are everywhere – and I love them) it takes place. Pinpointing geography has been carried out and critiqued by obsessed teenagers, some of whom may be learning where the actual lower 48 states are located by matching them up with Panem Districts through their forays into digital cartography.
Suzanne Collins leaves the where, and especially the when, rather open in the trilogy, so in the broad scope, the exact setting is left to the reader. I do wonder if she could have imagined just how far her readers would run with this license she had granted.
How many ways can the boundaries of Panem be gauged? As many as there are readers who understand the term “Appalachia”?
While the fans are quite busy with setting the boundaries of space, I wonder if any of the rabid readers have an equally intense curiosity for setting boundaries of time. I’ve only come across a few speculations, though at least one has adopted its own timeline with its own terminology to replace our Western millennial measurements. Readers can do this because Collins has released the power to them by omitting explicit setting in relation to the contemporary world.
Some authors explicitly remove the relation themselves. Recently I got a shipment of French books written for adolescents. My office mate, a Parisian planted in the Midwest, and I
poured pored over them, and she noted that I had selected a number of books that would fall into the fantasy genre. She asked when and where one series, La rivière à l’envers (The River Flowing Backwards – my translation until someone publishes it in English) by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, was set. I said that I didn’t think it mattered – the author just wanted us to think of another world, not another planet, but a setting apart from our own reality and history.
Another series aimed at adolescents, the trilogy by Lois Lowry, The Giver, along with its sadly neglected follow-ups, Gathering Blue, and The Messenger, seems similar, but cast into a sense of future rather than of past. The setting is undefined still relatable, almost recognizable. (And a fourth book in the series will be released in October!) I wade into these books without much question because the time and place are so far distanced from my own that I have no alternative but to accept the far-removed setting, which in turn leads me to compare fantasy and reality, and in doing so, circle back to question how I perceive and question the world that I am in, the real world, with new holes poked through by the fantasy world. In that regard, an undefined distance from the here-and-now is an asset in fiction.
My office-mate mused that these types of books, fantasy fiction, seemed popular with kids today, but that she preferred something more exact in terms of where and when – and that she could live without the fantasy component as well. I respect that, and a part of me really understands that, but I can also rather easily divorce myself from reality.
Maybe French people prefer to see the divorce documents themselves? The Rivière series begins with a prologue explicitly stating that it takes place at a time when there were no cars with airbags, no shopping centers, and not even mobile phones. Then it emphasizes that it was a place where there were still rainbows and midnight swims, as well as heartaches and hay fever, which we haven’t managed to solve even in our own world. The author explains the series’ world in relation to ours pre-emptively – before we can even formulate a question about it. In essence, “It’s like your world in elemental ways but at a simpler time (technologically); don’t fret about the rest.” I don’t really need such a prologue since I take it as a given with the genre, but I appreciate that someone else needs one. It makes me feel less extremist.
What does a French series of fantasy books written for the Young Adult market have to do with
Damages and and its maddening three-year time lapse? It’s about different genres, media, and structures. A fantasy can take liberties without rousing my ire. It is a self-contained series that I read at a pace that I choose. A switch or leap in time causes me no distress, and I will work to make the connections myself. Most TV shows that I watch and presume to be set at the time they are produced do not get the same liberty. To me, a consistent setting shows respect for the audience and its expectations for a connection to their realities. If it was made in 2007, looks like 2007, and bears significant relation to 2007, I expect it to be set in 2007, and it isn’t allowed to fly willy-nilly into the future because I am not there yet. Of course it’s make-believe; if you make me believe it, you have to stick to a reasonable timeline that matches mine.
Damages has perhaps unknowingly already put itself on a timetable. When Patty visits her stillborn daughter’s grave, we find a date engraved on the tombstone: May 24, 1972.
So how many years ago was that? What is the relationship between 1972 and now? Was it forty years ago? When is now?
Now is important, more so on Damages than similar shows.
The drama might be overblown and rather fantastical from a legal standpoint, but it’s unquestionably set in our time to capture what is happening right now; in fact, each season takes a swipe at a major legal/financial scandal that has been a running headline and lead story in both national and international news.
Season One points straight to Enron, with Ken Lay and executives dumping stock and leaving worthless leftovers for stockholders and pensioners:
Season Two turns to Enron, again, and its manipulation of energy prices through monopolization of the market and the vigorous fixing of both price and demand:
And I believe from the first few episodes, Season Four hits Halliburton and war-profiteering.
I admire Damages for looking to big-picture reality for its stories. It isn’t quite the same as the Law & Order franchises aping more fleeting and usually bizarre headlines for a single episode. Damages is one of the few programs on television that seems to be connected to major national phenomena that are twisting history. Like Patty, the writers don’t like bullies. They actually follow current events outside of their industry. Granted, they then embed tremendous turmoil for characters, a whopping dose of soap operatic drama, and a measure of suspense that led me to watching the last seven episodes of the first season spellbound in a single sitting.
As Zachary Snider, a professorial guy who mindfucks the show’s bit players on the street, points out, Damages is a drama-drenched version of real events. These events are shaping U.S. history in the new millenium. I imagine it to be a zeitgeist, a point of reference for future historians studying how the U.S. (perhaps already crumbled into a Panem at such point) viewed some of the most important events of the time as they were happening – in the context of dramatic representation. There is no distanced allegory or speculative parallelism; it’s about right now.
I think that is what bothers me most about the Damages three-year time lapse: In addition to being unnecessary, it weakens the thread to my reality and creates a new distance between what I follow in the news as a peon and what I see as a dramatic re-enactment made for peons who follow the news.
Yeah, it’s that plus my intractability on time jumps. I know it’s trendy now. I’ve read that Weeds (long abandoned by me) has done it, as well as Desperate Housewives (never watched, no interest). Is it to make things more dynamic? To add an air of mystery about the missing time? I didn’t really care when Sidney Bristow on Alias was brainwashed and turned into a robotic assassin, and she was a fucking international spy with the best wig collection in network history.
If brainwashed international secret agents in outrageous wigs and Chanel sunglasses tricked out with spy-cams cannot get me through time lapses in stories, I don’t know what can.
I do not object to tinkering with time, especially in the form of a flashback, which I appreciate when done well to complement the present narrative. Whenever Angel featured a flashback, I reveled. Angel flashbacks were like rewards for conscientious viewing, showing me what I had previously had only vague visions of: Darla biting Liam, Angelus stalking Drusilla, Spike slaying slayers. It all fit into place, like a half-told, centuries-old legend springing into the present and then receding into the past, leaving the audience that much wiser and more invested in the characters’ attachments, feuds, and continually shifting interplay.
Battlestar Galactica made some stabs at flashbacks, though I craved more, especially once the Final Five were revealed as Cylons. The somewhat deflated series finale could have been ramped up with an entire episode detailing the plan to create sleeper Cylons while destruction rained down around Earth One. Instead, we got snippets, seconds of dialogue or shaky scenery. Flashes, not flashbacks.
I still look to Angel as the gold standard for integrating flashbacks with current storylines to draw us closer and piece together a timeline stretching back to moments I thought I would only see in my imagination. And in this case, my mind’s eye came up a distant second to the desperation of Darla as she lay dying, the cruelty of Angelus, and the innocence of Drusilla, none of which were in evidence in the present, but were wholly comprehensible in the past.
My inability to access the time lapse into the future, my insistence that it is lazy and cheating, sets my mind a-wander to someone else who won’t put up with this shit: Annie Wilkes, the flourishingly insane fiction fan from Stephen King’s novel Misery. (I’ll stick to the novel here because I wasn’t a big fan of the movie. Check Kathy Bates as the title character in Dolores Claiborne if you want to see her knock a Stephen King character out of the ballpark.)
Annie Wilkes is a big fan, obsessive, demanding, and unfortunately for the author who she closely follows, unhinged enough to make him her captive, hobble him, and point his book series in the right direction under what might very politely be called extreme duress. And in regards to the right direction, I’m sure that Annie Wilkes knew where to steer the fictional fiction. Sometimes fans know better than creators.
When I was reading Misery, not long after it was published, I couldn’t tell whether Stephen King was more tightly connected to the imprisoned author, Paul Sheldon, the obvious choice, or to Annie, the antagonist. There was something about her insistence on consistency, on making a story play out as she felt it had to be, on not cheating her out, that made me suspect that Stephen King, who openly critiques other authors (good news for Hunger Games and Harry Potter fans; not so for Twilight), had more than a little Annie Wilkes coursing through him. Perhaps he wrote Misery with Annie Wilkes standing in for himself as a reader, and conversely, Paul Sheldon, the author held as her hostage, standing in for himself as a writer. Is Annie the critical reader he takes into account as he forms a story? Does Stephen King channel or consult Annie Wilkes as he drafts to keep himself in line? She is one tough editor.
I felt a bit alarmed at my own identification with Annie Wilkes when an incident from her childhood spells out her frenzied frustration with narrative laziness and cheating on continuity. She went to the theater to watch the serials (I think they must’ve been like the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials that I used to watch as a child on Sunday mornings) and followed each frame with the anticipation, the expectation, the trust, that the next one would be faithful to the last. When it wasn’t, her rage went uncontained:
“The bad guy stuck [Rocketman] in a car on a mountain road and knocked him out and welded the door shut and tore out the brakes and started him to his death, and he woke up and tried to steer and tried to get out, but the car went off a cliff before he could escape! And it crashed and burned, and I was so upset and excited, and the next week, you better believe I was first in line. And they always start with the end of the last week. And there was Rocketman, trying to get out, and here comes the cliff, and just before the car went off the cliff, he jumped free! And all the kids cheered! But I didn’t cheer. I stood right up and started shouting, ‘This isn’t what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn’t fair! HE DIDN’T GET OUT OF THE COCK-A-DOODIE CAR!'”
I am Annie Wilkes.
I become that angry.
But not all the time. Damages, after all, uses time juxtaposition as a frame for hyping suspense. Episodes almost always begin with a confusing, jumbled fragment of what will eventually form the finale, and we are left in the beginning, stunned and excited, wondering how on earth we will get from A to Z. How can the glimpse of what we are viewing in the future possibly connect to the events in the current episode? The fragments are often misleading, but they are consistent and true to the story. They successfully build suspense without sacrificing narrative cohesion.
On this count the Damages team are masters: Doris W. and I have resorted to making pacts and scheduling joint viewings in order not to burn through an entire season in one harried night to figure out the fragments – why is Ellen running around Manhattan streets half-dressed and covered in blood (S1); who is Ellen pointing a gun at while while rattling a cocktail and cocking her smoky eyes (S2); what led to Patty being purposefully broadsided in her car and what in the name of heaven happened with Tom (S3); what military torture does Ellen burst in upon and who does she see as the daylight pours in and she gasps (S4)?
I can only speak to the first three seasons, but thus far I have no qualms with the structure. In fact, I love it. Though the fragments are filled with red herrings, usually through toying with our expectations, they ultimately fall into place in the framework of the season taken as a whole. I enjoy being toyed with and outsmarted, but I am very unhappy with sloppiness and dishonesty. Annie Wilkes would nod her head in accordance at the non-chronological composition of each season of Damages.
But I think years-long time lapses between seasons would send her out to fetch an axe from the woodshed for some venting.
If I am so stern about leaping forward in time by major increments while maintaining a tight correlation to the now, why am I not so flummoxed by Breaking Bad?
If I am to consider each season of Breaking Bad as approximately one year, then it is moving in extreme slow-motion. Skyler was pregnant for almost two entire seasons, and at the beginning of S4e1 (where I am right now), the kid is still an infant.
Walt Jr. seems to be perpetually 15, almost like Bart Simpson is always
ten. Shouldn’t I be fuming about this? Truth be told, it does distract me slightly, but the slow-down doesn’t stop me cold because it serves a narrative purpose. We see the characters develop slowly, unpredictably, making ascents, and more often, descents, in what feels like contemporaneous chunks, but in reality, runs at about a third the speed of the viewers’ time.
If I have watched 40 episodes, that might translate to about 40 weeks, which is how much time it would have taken for Skyler to be a few months pregnant at the outset of Season One and still be carting around her infant daughter in Season Four.
Is Breaking Bad actually the most accurate chronological model for time and television?
one episode = one week in real time; 40 episodes = 40 weeks in real time.
Is anyone else tracking this? I would check, but spoilers lurk and abound everywhere. Even images, like Hank sitting in a wheelchair, give away what’s to come for me. I want to be conversant, but with strict limitations on my intake of information. I want to maintain my own place on the timeline, after all.
Is this more evidence of my stringently linear mind demanding a measured, linear storyline? No interference!
Just when is Breaking Bad set? 2008? 2012? This is the nitpicking lodged in the recess of my mind that holds petty frustrations. It’s a minor preoccupation, though, because Breaking Bad makes no reference to major real-world events. Its world is hermetically sealed by the writers as Walt might seal a drum of meth-making material. Both acts are to maintain the purity of the product.
In that sense, Breaking Bad shares some of the temporal freedom that Jean-Claude Mourlevat and Lois Lowry have in their fantasy series. The world exists on its own plane. It doesn’t have to follow the chronology of ours.
And Breaking Bad does fiddle with chronology, going the Damages seasonal-structural route, though more with images than fragments of recognizable action or specific plot points. Note the second season, beginning with something odd being fished out of the pool by men in haz-mat suits, and the third season, showing a man in a black fedora seemingly walking to either his doom or to someone else’s.
These somewhat surreal scenes do make sense by the finale, but the opening image is not just a tease. It encapsulates the essence of the whole season when the audience reflects upon the finale, when the image becomes a part of the narrative, though more in an atmospheric manner than a point in the plot.
Walter White and Patty Hewes exist in different worlds, though I’ve been thinking of creating a Venn Diagram to see how their characters intersect. They can both be venal, calculating, selfish, and murderous; but they are also comprehensible, and at times, sympathetic. The Walter/Patty compare & contrast exercise will have to wait. (I suppose this means I’ll need to start a diagram for their counterparts, Jesse and Ellen, as well.)
Back to basic chronology.
I’ve known what Walt was doing for the past one year – over the stretch of three years. On the other hand, Patty has suddenly been missing for three years. Which character am I going to truly invest myself in? I can’t make predictions for either one of them because I’m not as cunning – or ruthless – but I do think I’ve come closer to Walt because he moves in slow motion, even if I didn’t realize this before now.
This isn’t to dismiss Damages at all. I maintain it is one of the best shows on television. It takes me into a world of empowered corporate malfeasance, to the apex of financial fraud, to the shady, illegal operations tied to my own government. I like to feel the pulse of the show. It’s outlandish, but it’s connected to now and it’s relevant to now.
Rául, stop everything.
Look closely at the shot of below of Ted Danson, standing in for Enron’s Ken Lay (and maybe mingled with Jeff Skilling) as Arthur Frobisher from Season One.
Look at the damn date in blue at the bottom. Look at it!
The ticker on the bottom says 2001. Arthur Frobisher is testifying before Congress in 2001.
Ken Lay had to be subpoenaed by Congress in early 2002.
Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling were in found guilty of fraud and conspiracy in a federal district court in 2006. (Lay died shortly thereafter, though, as if in a Damages twist, many people are convinced he bought his way out and remains at large.)
So far, the dates more or less match. Damages debuted in 2007.
Arthur Frobisher was found not guilty in after a criminal trial, but he faced a civil trial with Patty Hewes representing pensioners as plaintiffs.
When was Arthur Frobisher’s criminal trial? What year? What fictional year? How long between 2001 until the civil suit began? Tell me how long! Do I have to watch Season One again? Was the first episode of Damages actually set a few years in the past? This sets my nerves jangling.
If the series premiered in 2007, and the civil suit brought against Ken Lay’s estate began in 2006 not long after Lay’s supposed death, then it appears that Damages is faithfully matching story to scandal chronologically. Is Damages, in its roman à clef story outline, historically accurate?
And does this affect my discontent with the time lapse?
No. I still resent being left out of three years and still consider the narrative device a form of cheating. I don’t get where we are on any timeline, despite my desperate delving into the fictional Frobisher court case for dates to match them against the real Enron case from a decade ago.
Damages has made me feel unbalanced – in an Annie Wilkes sort of way. They’ve not only tampered with the precision of their own zeitgeist, they’ve feebled the show’s sense of urgency and immediacy that makes the suspense feel visceral. We depend on what precedes to get to such an extreme.
What’s more, I don’t appreciate newborns (or not-yet-borns) who are suddenly pre-school age. I don’t like how everyone looks more or less the same despite the passage of time. And I detest how major plot threads don’t get follow-through. It makes it easy on the writers and a lazy audience if we don’t have to push forward with the scenarios built up previously.
How did Patty cope after losing Tom Shayes, which was the big build-up from last season?
What led Ellen back to the firm she’d initially been accepted by? How did her sister get straight and keep custody of her child after Ellen walked out on her? What did Ellen do after her meeting with the woman who nearly adopted her? What confrontation took place with her own mother after learning this? What exactly was the point of last season?
I imagine most of this will be addressed – it had better be, mutters Annie Wilkes – but for now we seem to be focused on what Patty’s son has been doing in three years, going from crashing cars to riding incognito in the back of limos. I think this is meant to intrigue, but it just frustrates. Strangely, this storyline does not even interest me. I’d rather see Patty in a daze of shock and open grief, and I’d prefer to catch Ellen cautiously and suspiciously approaching her parents after her vexing visit brought a disturbing revelation about her childhood. And I want to feel it happening, flowing straight out of the final scenes of Season Three. No flashbacks. Real time. As real as it can get. Now.