Ray Donovan fans have been struggling this year. Despite an innovative premiere and the promise of some emotional soul-searching, most of Season 5 has either felt extraneous (Susan Sarandon’s role and that subplot) or repetitive (Ray’s relationship with Natalie James, Mickey’s schemes, Bunchy’s bad luck, Terry’s guilt). With the flashbacks to Abby and Ray before her death, the show seemed to be course-correcting a long-term problem with Abby’s character and her interactions with her husband. Here, at last, Abby felt like an equal partner in the family, and a character who wasn’t just a reaction to Ray.
After the first few episodes, it seemed like Abby was finally going to get the storylines she deserved, but that petered out quickly. In fact, after the reveal of her diagnosis and until “Horses,” she didn’t have much of a role to play onscreen at all. But “Horses” was the episode she deserved — it was finally about her. As she says to Ray and to Terry, no one asked her what she wanted. And at that stage with the cancer, she wanted to go.
“Horses” was a great example of Ray Donovan’s penchant to work on an emotional level and not necessarily a narrative one. The mechanisms and logic of Ray’s trip to New York were a little too neat, and Avi has basically suffered character assassination this year. Ray seeing the same hallucination Abby did was another stretch, but the show has always loved hallucinations (and never used them in a way that works well). Still, the cast of Ray Donovan is so strong they can overcome all of this. This was Paula Malcolmson’s episode, and when the focus was on her everything clicked.
Abby looked so small and fragile in this episode — her feet not reaching the floor on the edge of the bed, having Bridget apply her lipstick, Terry helping her leave the bar — but Malcolmson never dropped Abby’s sometimes caustic spirit. One of the more endearing aspects of her character is how rough around the edges she’s always been. Earlier in the series when she was trying to fit in with the LA moms of Calabasas, it would work for awhile before she would inevitably say something a little uncouth. In response to their judgement, she would end up going full Southie and tell them to go fuck themselves.
That same spitfire was seen all throughout “Horses,” as Abby drank at the bar with the family, and bummed a cigarette from Terry. Malcolmson has always made sure that Abby’s defining characteristic has been defiance (and I give this credit to Malcolmson because as showrunners have come and gone and writing teams change, some aspects of the show have been uneven over the years; not this). She jokes with Terry about how he’s shaking as he helps her empty out her “suicide pills” into the glass. Abby has always told the truth, even when it’s hard, and often with an unappreciated wry humor. But in her moments alone, like in the bathroom where she collapses, she shows an intense vulnerability.
When it came down to it, “Horses” delivered the emotional gut punch it needed to in regards to Abby’s death. It allowed her to have her moment with the only two people that I think, at that point, truly understood her. They loved her and didn’t want her to go, but stayed with her as she did.
Back in the summer, my dad passed away after a prolonged illness. When the end came, it was just me and mom there with him in the family home, in a scene that was viscerally similar to how Terry, Bridget, and Abby spent those final moments together. After I finished watching the episode, I felt sort of ill, and then I cried. It was a cathartic moment, and an example of the evolving nature of grief. My relationship with my dad had always been complicated, and for a long time we were not close. In the last few years I learned to not only forgive him for some of his decisions, but to find compassion for him. As Ray Donovan so often and beautifully illustrates, family is family. You don’t choose them, but they’re yours. No matter our past, he was still my dad. Losing him is something that has fundamentally changed me, and the emotions of it will always, in some part, remain.
The end of “Horses” shows different responses to grief, from Bridge and Terry’s sorrow but acceptance of Abby’s death, to Ray’s howling sadness and rage. As the Donovan family sat in silence at her bar, the place Abby wanted to create to “keep an eye on all of them,” grieving a woman that had truly anchored the family, Ray burst in like a fireball of anger. It’s something we’ve seen the fallout from throughout the other episodes of the season, but to somewhat mixed results. Yet here it all worked together, as each Donovan started to process this immense loss.
Ultimately, “Horses” was the right sendoff for Abby because it happened on her terms. She knew what she wanted, and what was needed. She was strong and defiant as always. The series attempts to raise those dramatic stakes by suggesting she could have lived if she would have just waited for Ray to poison a kid and take his place in the trial, but that diminishes the power of her final scene. If Ray wanted to fix things, he could have done so long before this catastrophic diagnosis, which is an important part of his grief and rage – sometimes it’s for the loss of potential, for what could have been, or what should have been. But the beauty of “Horses” was not in fixing; it was in letting go.