The ‘Ray Donovan’ Season 4 Finale Goes for the Win, But Was It Earned?
At the end of the penultimate episode of Ray Donovan Season 4, Ray gathers his family together to enact his masterplan to rid them of Sokolov. He says that he can’t do this on his own, and we’ve seen that all season. Ray has taken one step forward in protecting his family or dealing with a fix (for Hector, for Sonia, etc) and then gets knocked two steps back. He admits he needs the family for this, and over the course of the hour we see how. But though Hector fought back to win his match (I guess Mickey lost all of that money, huh?) and Ray took care of Sokolov, it felt like too neat of an ending for what has been a messy and meandering season.
After the departure of the show’s creator, Ann Biderman in Season 2, Ray Donovan bounced back with a great run of episodes that wasn’t perfect with the plot points (the stuff with Ian McShane’s mogul and Hank Azaria’s Ed Cochran didn’t develop as well as it could have), but the show can almost never be faulted for the time and space that it gives to the Donovan family. In that way, Season 3 was transcendent. And while “Rattus Rattus” tried to put the focus back on the Donovan clan at the end — including Terry’s moving final comments about how it doesn’t matter what they say in Southie, it’s good to be a Donovan — it felt tacked on.
What Season 4 did do well was focus Ray’s fixing essentially on just one client, Hector, who gave him plenty of work. Hector allowed Ray’s story to connect in a believable way to Terry’s and the gym’s, allowing for the season’s best subplot: the relationship Terry developed with Damon, who stole Abby’s purse and ended up potentially being the next great fighter. It allowed Terry to be the nice guy that he is in a way that — more than anything else this season — felt like it was truly earned. It was far and away the season’s most satisfying arc, which says something important about the sweet nature of it. Of course, with so many other plots left dangling, it also didn’t have much competition.
Sure, the show had to get rid of Mickey’s spoils from the horseshoe heist, but it also made that journey feel particularly worthless when it should have meant everything for him. We never really got to know Sylvie, who the show put so much importance on in the end, and that was a symptom of the entire season. Even Sonja’s death didn’t have the impact it surely could have after that powerful moment she shared with Ray, showing her mastectomy scars. Then there was Theresa’s postpartum depression that was never fully given its due, and the series could have had this happen to her without the whole “she’s always been crazy!” backstory. It made Bunchy step up and grow up, but only to a point — he still ended up leaving Maria with Abby and wanted to run away — and ultimately it didn’t lead anywhere. (See also: everything with Bridget and Conor this year).
But the biggest red herring of the season was the idea that Season 4 was going to be about faith and Ray’s struggle with it. Though he was excommunicated at the end of Season 3, Ray had made a major breakthrough by acknowledging his abuse. Father Romero seemed like he was ushering Ray into a new chapter in his faith, but instead, the season ignored the issue until the very end, where Ray and Hector both made a point to say that they made things happen on their own without God. Again, maybe that would have mattered more if there had been any build-up to it. But instead, it felt like a way to wrap up story that was never fully introduced, or had much of an impact elsewhere on the season.
Look, Ray Donovan is always good, and it is occasionally great. But while Season 4 have a dizzying plot structure that kept Ray (and viewers) busy trying to stay ahead of the curve, it didn’t put in enough time to the Donovan family. Limiting Ray to being Hector’s fixer was still fraught with a huge number of detours that didn’t always seem to make sense, including the return of Cochran and some loose ends with Ezra and Lee Drexler that were more confusing than interesting.
But Season 4 did have two true standout moments. The first was when Cochran forced Ray to sing karaoke, which was (in that Southie accent) absolutely delightful. The second was when Ray joins Conor in playing a video game, and Conor seeks to embarrass him by making him dance. It was a rare joyful moment to see Ray and Conor, and then Abby, having fun. I mean, Ray was actually smiling. It was witty and happy and oh so brief. Where so many dramas make a mistake is equating drama with sadness, violence, or loss, Ray Donovan often has a decent balance, especially when it comes to Mickey, the Walpole ping pong champ 11 years running (annual Emmy nominee Jon Voight was delightful as always this season — you can always rely on Mick being unreliable). But the striking nature of these two scenes really drove home how slow and solemn Season 4 was.
For Season 5, it would be fantastic to see the show step outside of its season-long Big Bad villain format, go back to its roots of Hollywood satire, and allow more time to see interactions among the Donovans helping each other out as they struggle to figure out their own lives. Ray had it right, but Ray Donovan needs to be reminded. Rely on the family. They’ll always be there for you.