It’s been a little bit of a struggle for the Ray Donovan faithful this season. Almost everything felt repetitive in terms of storytelling, and the show’s strongest aspect — the family — never came together the way it has in previous seasons. Everyone was scattered until the end, and the late-season scene when Terry and Ray helped Bunchy recover his stolen money was a reminder of how great the series can be when the Donovans work together. But for the most part, Season 5 worked to push everyone apart, most especially when it came to the relationships between the Donovan men and their women (more on that later). As “Time Takes a Cigarette” came to a close, it seemed clear that this season of Ray Donovan was an exercise in treading water.
Showtime announced this week that the series is returning for its sixth season with a location change to New York, something that was teased in the Season 5 finale. It’s a shakeup that the show needs, especially after the Natalie James incident seemed to run Ray out of town. But was that the whole point of her story? Natalie’s listless ingenue character was supposed to remind us of a Marilyn Monroe type, but that comparison always felt forced and ultimately hollow. Sure, her death helped push Ray over the edge when it came to his ultimate desire to flee LA, but there were other, more compelling stories that could have done that better. We lost the plot on Ray’s anger management classes early in the season, but it ended on a powerful (if unearned) note in his final conversation with the counsellor, Dr. Brogan. We saw a quick flashback to the abuse Ray suffered as a child, something he’s always carried with him, and which used to be a stronger undercurrent in the show’s story. But Season 5 didn’t seem to know what it wanted to focus on when it came to Ray’s troubles. In a desire for darkness, the show piled on every conceivable sadness for Ray without giving any time to explore it.
The two most compelling plots this season were of course Abby’s death, and the fallout from that, as well as a late-season change where Ray was asked not to be a fixer, but to be a hit man by Susan Sarandon’s Samantha Winslow. Winslow didn’t have much of a character arc this year, and again, Sarandon felt wasted when it comes to her prodigious talents. But the show has rarely known what to do with its female characters — it’s likely why Terry’s wife left him just a few episodes into the season, why Theresa was out of town the entire time until she returned as a cheater that Bunchy threw out, and why Abby was laid to her final rest. But if you’re going to completely erase the women in the show (other than Bridget, whose character has her own problems), you have to leave us with something. With the stories of the Donovan men happening almost all independently from one another, there wasn’t much to hold onto emotionally.
“Time Takes a Cigarette” tried to rectify some of that, and absolve Ray of his sins for us at least. He got Smitty his surgery by selling his soul and killing Doug Landry, but didn’t he already sell some of his soul when he poisoned Smitty in the first place to get Abby a spot in the trial? He sold his father out, again, but that’s not a real change from before (it also led to a very interesting scene before Micky’s incarceration where he told Ray he reminded him of his thug father, “9 Fingers”). But Ray took another heel turn with how he manipulated Darryl, and made him break his loyal to their father — the one person who really helped make Darryl part of the family. Ray’s hit on Landry was also framed as vigilante work, as we saw Natalie James’ replacement leaving his room. That resonates a little more, unintentionally, given the real-world sexual harassment allegations against big-name producers, but Landry was already sufficiently demonized for us by cheating on his wife and impregnating Natalie and telling her to get an abortion. And yet, perhaps that was just too similar to what we’ve seen from Ray this year, following in the footsteps of his father and cheating on Abby with Natalie while Abby was dying on cancer.
The fifth season also got rid of Avi, and didn’t really use Lena (though it rarely does), two of the show’s better characters when they have something to do. Instead, it spent too much time on the hallucinations that it used to be so fond of with Micky and Ezra, handing them off to Abby (which like Ezra, made some sense given their impending death) and also (less effectively) to Ray. Still, Ray seeing Abby diving off of cliffs or building rooftops in LA and New York could be a resolution regarding his inability to let go. By diving into that water (if he really did), it was a kind of baptism into a new life, a new city, and a new start. Perhaps we’ll see him free of some of this darkness next year (one of the most joyous moments of this season — maybe the only one — was his dream sequence when he was dressed up as Micky and did his little dance and smiled). The show could use a break from the heaviness.
There were some things that worked well this year, like Terry’s arc as a caretaker both for Abby and later for Smitty. There was some unexpected humor to Buchy’s machinations to get his money back, and Mick’s desire to get his screenplay made. Conor joining the Marines was something that could have been explored far more than it was, but it was a decent move for his character. Everything with Abby was, of course, extremely emotional.
Still, I can’t help but feel like the bulk of Season 5 was a missed opportunity. We were promised Fixers vs Fixers, but no ex-fixer of Winslow’s was ever even a momentary threat to Ray. His demons are all inner ones, which the show has explored before, and while I appreciate the series giving Abby a season that felt like it finally gave her character some due, it also set up a love story between her and Ray that again felt unearned. That, too, felt more like a dream than the reality of the situation, despite Bridget’s casual line about how Ray thinks he’s the only person who has experienced love. Ray is probably the only person on the show who has never experienced love because he won’t allow himself to. He feels responsible for people, and he feels an obligation to them, but I don’t know that we could ever say that he truly feels love. At the risk of getting too Sopranos-y, this season could have spent more time on Ray’s counseling to that effect, as one of the most powerful moments was when he smiles weakly at Dr. Brogan and, voice cracking a little, assures him that he’s fine. No one is less fine than Ray.
With Terry and Bunchy now divorced from their wives or on the verge of it, a move back to the east coast could be in the cards for all of the Donovans next season. But a change of scenery will not be enough to revitalize the series. New York has plenty of fixer opportunities for Ray when it comes to employment, but again, that’s never been the heart of the show. The Donovans need to band together again, not because they’re running from the FBI or insane drug dealers or other fixers or, god forbid, their wives, but because they are a family. They share a tragic history, but also, the possibility of redemption — if only they’ll allow themselves to have it.