Thoughts on the 'Life on Mars' and 'Damages' finales
Two of TV's twistiest shows had their finales on Wednesday, but were viewers left feeling like April Fools?
In the movies and on TV shows, whenever a corn-fed Midwesterner arrives in New York City, it seems like fresh-faced rube is immediately surrounded by hoods and hucksters playing 3-Card Monte. I've been to Gotham many times and I've mostly missed out on this seeming accumulation 3-Card Monte players, much less had my money taken by them.
But I guess there's a skill to 3-Card Monte. You don't just need the slight-of-hand to confuse the mark. You usually need a couple partners to sell the grift, to make it look like it's possible to beat the game, that it isn't rigged from the beginning. The minute the victims feel like they're being victimized, the game's over and it's back to the dark recesses of the alley for the dealer and his team.
And speaking of 3-Card Monte, how about those "Damages" and "Life on Mars" finales last night, eh? Neither one really played a fair game and neither one really left me entirely satisfied. At least with "Damages," I could admire the sleight of hand and at least "Life on Mars" was surprising.
Click through for spoilers galore...
The trick with 3-Card Monte is that if you pay attention, you aren't going to win. A well-trained shuffler wants you to think you're following his every move, because the one place you think your card is going to be is the one place it's never ever going to be. You waste a lot of effort and lower your odds if you concentrate.
Around five or six episodes into the second season of "Damages," I began to feel the same way. I'd get confused five minutes into an episode at who was betraying who and who was having secret meetings with who and who was sleeping with who. I was trying to follow the Queen of Hearts, but the dealer kept moving it. Finally I gave up. The "Damages" writers were trying so hard to outthink the room that this particular viewer stopped trying to keep up with them. I didn't stop watching, but I decided that whatever twists were put forward, where going to be reverse later and then reversed again. It's not where the cards are going. It's where they end up.
By the conclusion of Wednesday (April 1) night's finale, all you could do is accept that Patty Hewes is some sort of intellectual Jack Bauer. No matter what does say, no matter what she does, no matter who she's talking to, you have to assume that she's working four or five moves ahead of them. She's almost like the show's omniscient narrator. If The "Damages" team is running a 3-Card Monte scheme on the audience, Patty's running a 3-Card Monte game on everybody in her universe.
Since the finale of last season, "Damages" Season Two was set up as Ellen working with the FBI to take down Patty as revenge for that whole "Trying to kill her" thing from last season. Instead, the season was really, it turns out, about Patty Hewes taking down a corrupt FBI investigation.
That conversation between Ellen and Patty that we thought ended in Ellen shooting Patty? Nah. It ended with Ellen shooting the FBI surveillance camera. And Patty's apparent sadness and weakness as Ellen was interrogating her? That wasn't sadness and weakness. Patty had just been stabbed in the elevator and she was afraid she was dying.
Yeah, that whole knife wound was inconvenient, but Patty pretty much got everything she wanted. She crushed UNR, got the EPA to clean up the toxic dump in West Virginia, brought down the shady price-gouging energy cabal and even found time to confess her sins to Ellen.
The second season of "Damages" was about moral expiation, so Patty's confession to Ellen was more important than anything in the season's lackluster central cases. It doesn't matter that Patty only confessed to Ellen because she saw a Bright White Light (plus guest star Zjelko Ivanek returning at The Ghost of Ray Fiske), because she told the truth. Similarly, it appears not to matter than Daniel Purcell is sitting in jail for a crime he only sortta committed, because his confession set his mind at ease (attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder would probably still keep Daniel locked up for a while, so it's not like he's getting railroaded). Ellen also did a little confessing, telling Patty that she was working for the FBI and good for Patty restraining herself from saying, "I know you are, you silly twit... Did you think you could outsmart me?"
So Patty's clean and Ellen's clean and Daniel Purcell is clean and Arthur Frobisher appears to be clean (and building an environmentally friendly building and looking forward to reconciling with his ex-wife) and Tom was always clean. And Kendrick's in jail and Dave the Energy Guy's in jail and Detective Messer's dead. Darrell Hammond's Creep Chapstick Guy is still out there somewhere, but since the "Saturday Night Live" regular's mere presence made "Damages" unintentionally funny whenever he came on screen, we don't ever need to resolve his plot, do we?
That's a pretty neat little package, isn't it? Yes. Too neat. Much too neat. The "Damages" finale just tied everything up with a ribbon at the end. The episode ended with a little "One Month Later" action with Patty and Tom discussing how they can't find Ellen. They obviously aren't trying too hard, because she's hanging out at her ex-fiance's grave, giving exposition about the new man in her life and the new job in her life. Who's the new man? What's the new job? I assume the "Damages" creative team has a couple months to figure that out.
At least with the "Damages" 3-Card Monte game, you ended the finale feeling like all of the cards were on the table, even if they'd been reshuffled in confusing ways. But there's another way to cheat the mark, the way where somehow your card ceases to be on the table at all, where the dealer makes it vanish and there was now way you ever could have picked correctly.
Yeah, I'm looking at you, "Life on Mars."
Did Sam Tyler travel back in time?
Was he in a coma?
Was he in an alternate dimension?
It turns out that when the America "Life on Mars" team said they'd come up with their own ending, an ending that was different from the one in the British original, they looked no further than the title of their own show.
[Last chance to avoid spoilers...]
It turns out that Sam is quite literally on a mission to find life on Mars and that he and the rest of the '70s cops were just passengers on a space craft and that Sam was experiencing a virtual reality simulation. Wow. That's really on-the-nose, isn't it?
His original simulation request appears to have been to spend time as an NYPD detective in 2008. No, I don't exactly no why. But then the ship went through an asteroid field or something, causing a glitch in the computer and that glitch was what caused him to go back to 1973. Why 1973? I have no idea. Why were his crewmates suddenly in his 1973 simulation, but not in the previous 2008 simulation? I have no idea.
While the other crew members asked for a simulation where they could relax, hanging out on a beach and get laid, Sam appears to have said to the mad scientists, "Hey, could you give me a simulation where I'm constantly getting beat up, so that I can work out my daddy issues?"
The entire experience seems to have been all about Sam killing his Past Father, reaching an understanding with his surrogate father (Harvey Keitel's Gene Hunt) and getting to make out with Gretchen Mol. Cut to Mars, where we learn that Harvey Keitel is actually Sam's real father and that Gretchen Mol is really a brunette?
Around the country all 45 people watching the show reacted with a simultaneous, "Ummm... REALLY?"
You can't say you saw it coming. Oh, you may have seen parts of it coming, because Sam was periodically being attacked by mini Mars Rovers and whatnot. So you may have imagined that he was on a spaceship, if you wanted to, again, take the show's title literally. But a computer glitch? The reverse "Empire Strikes Back" Freudian nightmare -- "Join me!" "I'm your son!" "I know!" BANG! -- finale? The mysterious phone calls that made the camera go sideways? Oh, you didn't see that coming.
Then the show's producers bent over backwards to provide a slew of clues that caused Everything To Make Sense, even though they didn't, none of them. Retroactively, sure it makes sense and you'll be able to go back and see the clues, but they aren't actually clues, because active viewers never could have put them together as they were watching. It's absolute the clumsiest mystery reveal I can remember, but it was so hilariously off-the-wall that you couldn't help but be vaguely impressed. Really, none of it makes any sense in the end, but several impressionable viewers have probably been fooled into thinking it makes sense. Well played, "Life on Mars."
And it isn't like there weren't good moments in the finale as you sensed that resolution was coming. The scene at the end with Sam finally telling his mother his real name? That was touching. Very touching. Between "Life on Mars," "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" and "30 Rock," Dean Winters is one of TV's most watchable guest stars and he got to do some interesting work, especially in the finale. And Elton John's "Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters" is a tremendous song, even if the emotion it brought to the "Life on Mars" finale came almost entirely, for me at least, from associations with its use in "Almost Famous."
I think if I had been actively invested in "Life on Mars," I'd have found the ending to be nearly offensively bad. Just because you're trying to shock people doesn't mean you get to throw common sense out the window. But I didn't care. "Life on Mars" was always a show that interested me, but not one I loved. I'd missed the last three episodes before the finale and I wasn't behind on the plot or dynamics at all and now I can probably just delete them from my DVR.
Because of that casual interest, when the flashback rush of images brought Sam out of hibernation and the next 10 minutes were dedicated to exposition and resolution, I didn't feel betrayed. I just laughed at the silliness of the whole thing. And it's actually better that the series reached that finale after only 17 episodes. If I had watched for four or five years only to get that ending, then I might have been mad. Instead, the American "Life on Mars" may supplant the "St. Elsewhere" shocking conclusion as TV critic shorthand for berserker twist endings.
What'd y'all think of the "Damages" and "Life on Mars" finales?
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