Editor’s Note: This article first published after the premiere of Ray Donovan Season 5; since then we’ve had a few new clues to the season’s central mystery which have been added under “Update.” If you are not caught up, then be forewarned that there are major spoilers below.
Additional Note: For an in-depth look at the episode “Horses,” which answers all of the premiere’s major questions, go here.
There are some certainties when it comes to Ray Donovan. Ray (Liev Schreiber) is probably going to be stressed and repressed (mostly about the past). Mick (Jon Voight) is going to be cooking up some new scheme. Terry (Eddie Marsan) is going to be involved in a crisis with his health and his love life. Bunchy (Dash Mihok) is going to be trying to find himself. Darryl (Pooch Hall) is there as support, but rarely attempts his own ventures. The more things change, the more things stay the same with the Donovan clan, and in many ways it’s one of the reasons that — five seasons in — we’re still watching. Like in the way the family relies on one another, we can rely on the show to bring us certain formulas and character behaviors.
In many ways, the Season 5 premiere, “Abby,” stayed with those reliable beats. We checked in with every major character and found them in new but familiar situations. Bunchy is trying to become a Luchadore; Terry has had an experimental surgery and is second-guessing his wedding; Mick is trying to write a screenplay; Ray is, as always, stressed and repressed. There’s even a new ingenue, Natalie James (Lili Simmons), as well as a new parental figure for Ray in Susan Sarandon’s character (even though we don’t have much of a sense of her yet). These are things we expect, and the premiere delivers.
What has shaken things up immensely, however, is Abby’s (Paula Malcolmson) death. The show broke form in this premiere with a major time jump and some big changes with Bridget (Kerris Dorsey) and Conor (Devon Bagby), and a lot more questions than we have answers to yet. It’s taking a leaf out of some recent “puzzle box TV” with its twisty premiere hour, but since it’s such a seasoned show at this point, it’s also playing on the knowledge and expectations we have of these characters, and putting them (and us) into completely unfamiliar territory. Yes, these men up to familiar antics, but they’re now doing so in an Abby-less world. That’s a big deal.
But let’s return to some specifics: Abby is dead. As of the first hour, we don’t know exactly what happened, but it seems related to the car crash the two suffer after Natalie James jumps out in front of their car and forces Ray off the road. But what’s more striking than this shocking death is how foreign Ray and Abby feel in these scenes: it’s the way their relationship really should have been from the start. Abby is giddy and girlish (minus her many expletives) — she’s the only one who can reach Ray, and their bond and love for one another is so clear here. We haven’t seen it be this clear maybe ever before, and my sadness over Abby’s death might really be about the missed opportunity for her character to share in this kind of deep relationship with Ray in a more overt way (one that is more than an afterthought when it comes to his guilty conscience over cheating).
Update: “Dogwalker” confirmed that Abby’s cancer came back, in a striking scene in the Donovan home where she looks like she has been through, or is still going through, chemotherapy. I thought that the car wreck had something to do with her eventual death, but it looks like the show is leaning in hard to parallels between Ray’s mother and Abby, and thus Ray and Mick (as Ray — truly his father’s son — runs around cheating on Abby instead of spending meaningful time with her and their family).
As I have always said, Ray Donovan is at its best when its stories are personal. Ray’s fixer life ebbs and flows, but even at its strongest moments, the quality of those storylines is always secondary to the trials of the family Donovan. Ray’s relationship with his family has always been at the heart of the series, and never does that feel more focused than in the wake of Abby’s death (having also peeked upcoming episodes this season, I can confirm that the gaps in the premiere’s timeline will start to fill out, including a lot of time spent with Abby and Ray in the interim — so though she may be gone, she is thankfully not forgotten within the show).
Per usual, Ray isn’t dealing with things like he should, and is pushing it all down as he gets on with his work. Where that takes things this season is uncertain, and losing Abby — the only broad in this boys’ club — is a major blow for the series. Who will be the den mother to these wayward men now? More specifically, without Abby as his anchor, Ray’s story could get exceptionally dark this season as he spirals out in his grief. This is one thing Ray can’t fix. And yet, their moments together here are light and fun; something the show has never done enough of. In fact, rather unfortunately, it feels like Abby may finally be getting her due as a character only after her death.
Ray Donovan airs Sunday nights on Showtime.