Editor’s Note: The TV landscape is filled with male antiheroes, from Nicholas Brody to Walter White, but what about the women? This is part three of a series of five articles exploring flawed female protagonists and how their bad behavior makes them so interesting to watch. It’s presented in partnership with Netflix and its new original series “Orange is the New Black” (all episodes available July 11th, only on Netflix).
When a woman is in a position of power and doesn’t shy away from asserting herself, she’s often labeled a “bitch.” And Glenn Close’s Patty Hewes of “Damages” has been called a bitch more than her fair share of times. An alpha female with her own law firm, Patty takes on high-profile clients, usually ones swindling the poorer masses at their feet. She doesn’t balk at bending the law in her favor to get what she wants, as she calls in various nefarious favors, or resorts to blackmail — even murder.
While Patty has certainly done monstrous things in her day, she isn’t entirely a monster. Due to Close’s consistently brilliant performance on the FX/DirecTV drama, as well as the rich, psychologically dense history the show’s writers have given her to work with, Patty is intriguingly flawed and frequently rouses viewers’ sympathies. Sure, she takes her job way too far sometimes, but she’s had to work hard to get where she is in the world, and being a woman, she probably felt she had to overcompensate to surpass her male contemporaries. Patty has had a lot to overcome since childhood — she was raised the daughter of a judge who physically abused her and a weak-willed mother. While she clearly identified more with her father career-wise, she used said career to go after bullies like him.
Like a contemporary Lady Macbeth, Patty is often at war with the fact that she was born a woman. Specifically, Patty has had to battle with both the biological and metaphorical effects of motherhood in opposition with her career. Patty’s relationship with her son Michael (Zachary Booth), for instance, is one fraught with conflict, since Patty effectively chose her work over being a loving mother. As a result, her son grew to bitterly resent her, even carrying on an affair with — and subsequently impregnating — a much older woman. As evidenced by this affair, Michael clearly suffers from Patty-induced mommy issues.
It can be argued, however, that Michael is less Patty’s victim than he is Patty’s clone. Like his mother, he’s manipulative and crafty and resorts to illegal activity to reach his goals. He can change his entire disposition on a dime to cater to what the public expects of him. After Michael tries to kill Patty via hitting her automobile, he flees to Boston with nothing but a car that he stole from a friend. By hocking it for drugs and wearing a suit, he becomes a successful drug dealer overnight. As occupations goes, it’s decidedly not a good thing, but it is easy to make Michael’s situation analogous to any of Patty’s cases. She turns scraps of evidence into full-blown lawsuits, taking down powerful bigwigs. Patty and Michael continue to butt heads until Michael is murdered in the final season, an event that Patty mourns very deeply. Michael was her opponent, but also her only child. And despite her position and ambition, Patty nevertheless has deeply rooted maternal inclinations.
One of the life events that haunts Patty the most was when she got pregnant with a baby girl back when she was first starting her law career and induced a miscarriage by riding horseback. Patty made this decision because she was told to take bed rest, which is impossible if you want to make a name for yourself in the legal community. Throughout the series, Patty was plagued with a feeling of great loss as a result of this daughter that never was, one she often filled through both her relationships with her young grandchild as well as with her protégée, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne).
Patty’s intricate relationship with Ellen is central to “Damages.” Despite the fact that Patty tries to have Ellen killed in at one point, something Ellen finds out about, the two women still hold on to some semblance of a mentor/mentee relationship and have what’s almost an air of camaraderie in their constant cat-and-mouse game. Their relationship is a complicated amalgamation of emotions and stealthy purposes.
Patty keeps Ellen around in season one, for instance, not because of her skills in the courtroom, but rather because her fiance’s sister is a key witness to a major case. In season two, Ellen remains at Patty’s firm even though she knows Patty tried to kill her, because she is an FBI informant working against her boss. Their dynamic ebbs and flows until the final season when the women are pitted against each other in court… which only happens because Patty wants to create a conflict of interest. Patty delights in this game with Ellen, especially as Ellen proves herself to be a worthy opponent.
And yet, Patty still finds ways to fit Ellen into the role of the daughter that she lost so many years ago — even telling Ellen once, though perhaps not entirely on the level, that had the baby survived, Patty wishes she would have turned out like Ellen. In the final sequence of the series, for instance, Patty runs into Ellen and her young daughter in a pharmacy. Patty fantasizes about Ellen thanking her for her mentorship. But in reality, Ellen just ignores the woman who has become a reminder of many horrible things in the past.
Patty might be deeply regretful of inducing that miscarriage and of trying to have Ellen murdered, but that never stops her from being an opportunist who’s willing to throw anyone, including Ellen, under the bus to get what she wants. It’s like she instinctually sabotages any warm feelings that she possesses with acts of evil, of selfishness. Patty is one of the most complicated, layered female characters that television has had to offer. And you get the impression that every time she is called a “bitch,” that provides more ammunition for her crushing her opponents and taking names all the while.
Indiewire has partnered with Netflix and its new original series “Orange is the New Black” (all episodes available July 11th, only on Netflix). From the creator of “Weeds” comes a heartbreaking and hilarious new series set in a women’s prison. Piper Chapman’s wild past comes back to haunt her, resulting in her arrest and detention in a federal penitentiary. To pay her debt to society, Piper trades her comfortable New York life for an orange prison jumpsuit and finds unexpected conflict and camaraderie amidst an eccentric group of inmates. For more visit here.