In the premiere of Ray Donovan’s third season, a potential client asks Ray (Liev Schreiber) what it is he does. “I change the story,” he replies. The Showtime series’ new season will launch without its creator Ann Biderman, which could have found it changing to the point of unraveling. Instead, the series is more focused than ever before, with Ray at odds with everyone close to him.
Ray Donovan has always had a problem reconciling its two major elements of Ray’s “Hollywood fixer” plot and its status as a nuanced family drama. Though Season 3 finds a way to infuse Ray’s fixer career with some new energy (and a new father figure to spar with), the show still shines most when focused on the complicated politics of the family Donovan.
Like Six Feet Under, the past is never truly gone for the show’s characters, and those who die never fade from memory. They show up as specters, as dreams, as tormentors from the past and occasionally as insistent purveyors of truth. Season 3, like those before it, keeps the past alive in a variety of uncomfortable ways for its characters. Underneath the show’s flashier elements and sometimes brutal violence is the surprising story of a family destroyed by sexual abuse, and how that pain continues to define their lives. It’s the dark central core that tears the family apart, but also holds the show together.
The third season also finds Ray estranged from his family and from his mentor Ezra (Elliott Gould), as well as from his employees Avi (Steven Bauer) and Lena (Katherine Moennig). Though it causes his wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) and his children Bridget (Kerris Dorsey) and Conor (Devon Bagby) grief, it helps reset Ray’s story, and finds him not beholden to anyone. He has a new freedom, in a way, but he soon trades that to help his family, getting in league with the powerful and complicated Finney family, led by patriarch Malcolm (Ian McShane) and his daughter Paige (Katie Holmes).
Per usual, Ray is responsible for cleaning up his father Mickey’s (Jon Voight) messes within the family. And now, that pertains mostly to Terry (Eddie Marsan), who took the fall for Mickey’s heist last year and went to prison for it, where he has come up against the Aryan Brotherhood. But Mickey has other schemes he’s working on, like a prostitution drug ring he set up with Daryll (Pooch Hall), that Bunchy (Dash Mihok) also gets involved in. Some stories change, some stay the same (but would we ever want Mickey to change?)
There are few surprise appearances from old characters, and a few lingering subplots, like a cleric (Leland Orser) who is pursuing Ray and the Donovans regarding the pedophile priest they killed. But the main drive of the new season is still just about character study, fantastic acting, the drama among the family, and their personal stories. Bunchy falls in love with a luchadora, Mickey is paling around with the young daughter of one of his prostitutes, Abby adopts a beast of a dog she finds running along the highway, and Ray divides his time among all of them, helping to hold it all together while at this point not being sure of where he fits in.
Ray has always acted as the family’s protector, and in one of the most poignant scenes in these first new episodes, he tells Terry how much he loves him and needs Terry to take care of him. It’s a callback to their youth, and in that vein, Ray is still searching for a good father. He may find it in Malcolm, or he may find it within himself. Yet while new season takes some dark turns and explores some difficult subject matter, it never loses its quirky brand of humor that can spring up in unexpected — but always appreciated — moments. The show can still be unnecessarily vulgar and crass, and a little lazy with its fuck-you dialogue, but it can also be great fun. And because the characters never stray too far from what we expect from them, there’s a certain knowingness in predicting their mistakes, and a triumph in seeing them succeed.
Though the series tends to continue adding in plot strands during its seasons that build to (perhaps overly) complicated crescendos to close things out, Season 3 starts off with a fairly clean slate. It may not know exactly where it’s going, but it’s not forgetting where it’s been. Ray may change the story, but Ray Donovan has not. Instead, it’s found a renewed focus in what has defined the show at its best so far.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Ray Donovan Season 3 premieres on July 12th at 9 p.m. on Showtime