JKS on… Damages and Breaking Bad

The summer season of television has kicked off across the Atlantic and I’ve been on a US drama binge ever since. The idea of the summer season, presumably, is to air the shows that might be considered the ‘B team’, suitable for viewing only during the months of long days when people do, well, what with their evenings? Barbeques? Frisbee parties? Take Jacuzzis unencumbered by swimming costumes? But however people are spending their evenings, the networks are mistaken if they think that Damages or Breaking Bad take a backseat to Boardwalk Empire or even, dare it be uttered, Mad Men.

In the fourth season of Damages, Glenn Close’s chilling lawyer, Patty Hewes, and the cock-eyed pessimist Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) are looking to get under the now much less-sizeable skin of Howard T. Erickson (John Goodman) and his private military security force. In her pursuit of this juicy case, Ellen is fast becoming as much of an obsessively calculating bitch as her ‘mentor’; but if she really was that calculating would we need to have the ‘will she/won’t she’ dilemma of her working for Patty again? Shysters, in the world of Damages, at least, are sharks, so they’re only liable (libel? Ho-ho) to hunt as a pack until they become each others’ prey but, for the sake of getting ahead, wouldn’t you stick with the slickest set of teeth in the business? Both Close and Byrne are at their best when portraying their characters’ borderline sociopathic tendencies but, in different moods, Byrne sometimes gives the impression of glazing over into total disinterest; not hers with the script but Ellen’s with life, and this is either a foible that a young (highly gifted) actress needs to work out or, otherwise, it’s an extremely clever technique of illustrating how Ellen, mind, body and soul, is being crushed into somnolence by her career.

Damages is a soft target for those who lack an attention span – those manning those barbeques – or an eye for detail – those who shun the subtleties of those bathing suits – and are wont to protest that nothing ever happens and they don’t know what’s going on. How one can proceed the other is a mystery. Nevertheless, plenty has happened thus far and while one just about knows what is going on, we know nearly nothing about what has gone on. Patience is the only virtue at hand where Damages is concerned. (Intrigue aside, viewers should persist if only to see Goodman unleash the full force of his presence as a ‘bad guy’ – and when he does, if his work with the Coen brothers is any mark, he’ll leave Ted Danson’s magnificent bastard, Arthur Frobisher, and this season’s sinister Jerry Boorman, played by Dylan Baker, in his (still-)imposing shadow.)

The ‘plenty’ comes in the form of the unfolding clues toward the nature of the underhanded operations perpetrated by Erickson’s company in Afghanistan, the involvement of Ellen’s high school boyfriend, Chris Sanchez (Chris Messina), in those operations, and how far Boorman is willing to go to simultaneously ensure they remain underhanded and secure Erickson’s government contracts. In the first episode we’re also witness to one of the show’s staple techniques: the gradual revelation of a future event. This reveal does its job of engaging our curiosity but, and perhaps it’s a symptom of the age of the boxed set, it’s debatable whether a story needs to tease our imaginations with what’s to come – it could, after all, be distracting us from any deficiencies in the plot as a whole.

Breaking Bad also gets accused of being a show in which nothing ever happens. These people might be more at home watching commercials on the Cartoon Network because it’s sheer malarkey to say that nothing happens in a show where people are, even periodically, dissolved in hydrochloric acid. Or, indeed, when anything that happened in the finale of the third season happens. The real trouble with any programme that relies on a suspenseful narrative, particularly those with a small cast, is that, by the very occurrence of a new season, the viewer knows that at least one the protagonists must survive whatever scrape they’re put into. And any viewer of Breaking Bad knows that Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) were indeed in quite a scrape last year: the fact that we keep on watching, and put any reservations or disbelief to one side, is testament to the skills of the writers of shows like Breaking Bad and Damages. Don’t even touch on the question of how they manage to trick us into caring about drug manufacturers or lawyers verging on corruption; let alone New Jersey mobsters and Baltimore cops. But if we must touch on it, it’s because they invite us into these characters’ worlds of private codes of morality.

Codes that, to varying degrees, revolve around the ‘little guy’: aren’t Jesse and Walt ‘little guys’ who just got sucked into the big world of meth trying to make a buck? Isn’t it Patty and Ellen who defend the ‘little guy’ from greedy corporate hucksters? Don’t Tony and Chrissy represent a long line of Italian-American little guys who were trying to make it in the New World? Every viewer will make up their own minds: deciding whose morals are most identifiable, siding with their favoured protagonist and sometimes even with the accepted villains of the piece. (But never with the Feds.)

Of course all of the above still retain the weaknesses and faults, and many of the same everyday problems, of the little guy; which makes them comfortably identifiable. There again, people might just enjoy watching great characters get moved along by suspense and snappy dialogue.