It’s unusual for a series to reach its peak three seasons in to its run, but Ray Donovan achieved that last year. It was a season where the show needed to prove itself after the departure of its creator, Ann Biderman. Would it falter, or find new purpose? The result was the latter, elevating the series to new heights as it honed its focus on the Donovan clan with a nice balance of humor and deeply emotional moments.
It’s biggest change, though, was with Ray (Liev Schreiber) himself. The Season 4 premiere, which Schreiber directed, picks up in the hazy aftermath of Ray disposing of the Minassians to protect his family after yet another of Micky’s (Jon Voight) schemes went bad. But it’s also at the moment after Ray is forced to confront the abuse he suffered as a child. Season 3 pushed Ray to the brink emotionally, and he finally started to come to terms with the terrible reality of his past. The most shocking scene of the new season is not an act of violence, but of healing — Ray sits in a support group with Bunchy (Dash Mihok), something inconceivable to think of earlier in the series.
Ray is still holding a lot back, though, creating and projecting a more mundane and pleasant story to those around him as he is haunted by darkness. Season 4 seems poised to focus on Ray embracing truth, helped along by Father Romero (Leland Orser), who is so far proving himself to be an advocate rather than an adversary. But the complications of that dichotomy between the reality Ray lives and the one he creates are shown through hallucinations and dreams, with the same true for Mick as well. The show has tinkered with this before, and never to great effect, yet the premiere bears down hard on both, suggesting not only a further exploration of Ray’s abuse, but also of a growing connection between his increasingly rebellious daughter Bridget (Kerris Dorsey) and his deceased sister.
Still, the first few episodes of the new seasons feel like a hangover from Season 3. As soon as Ray says, “I don’t know where my father is, and I hope he never comes back,” you already know Mick is on his way. But it happens so blindingly fast it’s as if he never left. A quick view of his current life running schemes in Nevada is hardly given a chance to develop past a montage before he’s being hauled back to Los Angeles, with Ray cleaning up the last of the Minassian mess.
In many ways, the first two episodes of Season 4 act as a microcosm of all that is Ray Donovan, without seeming to plot a way forward. Abby (Paula Malcomson) is hiding her cancer from Ray, Bunchy is dealing with intimacy issues, Terry (Eddie Marsan) is battling the church, while Daryll (Pooch Hall) and Conor (Devon Bagby) exist largely in the background. The show’s greatest strength has always been its family ties, but for the first time their interactions feel formulaic rather than dynamic.
Though the season’s early framework may have let them down, the ease with which the main cast portray their characters is still among the best on television, and it’s what keeps Ray Donovan a series worth watching — even with such a slow, easily telegraphed start. In this season, as the last, the show seeks to connect Ray’s job as a fixer more intimately with his personal life, but it’s still an uneasy marriage of tone and function. A boxer (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and his sexually abusive, drug-addled older sister (Lisa Bonet), as well as a mysterious art dealer (Embeth Davidtz) with uncertain motivations, pepper the early episodes as clients Ray doesn’t want, but has to deal with. If their place is to help Ray along in his path of truth, perhaps it’s worth it, but currently it feels like treading water.
There is one moment in the second episode, though, that is a perfect example of Ray Donovan at its best. After Abby’s purse is stolen in front of the boxing gym, Terry attempts to beat up the kid who snatched it, but is himself schooled. As he explains the tussle to the police officer, his brothers and nephew razz him over his version of the events. It’s a simple scene, but any time the Donovans are together, it’s always full of truth — the sweet, the rotten, and the forever blood ties that hold them together. This is the very truth Ray should be seeking, whether he realizes it yet or not. It’s what Season 3 captured so well, and hopefully Season 4 will find a way to better coalesce: in good times or bad, it has always been, and always will be, about family.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Ray Donovan Season 4 premieres Sunday, June 26th on Showtime.