Ray Donovan: A Perfect First Season
Ray Donovan ended its spectacular first season with a finale that illustrated the seriousness and dedication that the show’s writers and creator brought to television drama this year. I gave the show a positive review when it first began its run months ago. I was fascinated by how the premier seemed to exemplify the new normal of serial entertainment, where dramas are put to a sink or swim test and rarely given a chance to develop. I thought then that so many possible plotlines had been introduced during the first hour that it might take several seasons to resolve them all. I have been critical of other shows which often seemed unprepared for their own success. These shows sometimes appear to write their own characters into corners that they can’t get out of without breaking from established canon, leaving viewers wondering just how ambitious and forward-thinking the creators really were in developing their ideas. Ray Donovan seems to have gotten it perfectly.
To be fair, a twelve-episode run shouldn’t be entirely unmanageable. Gone are the days when shows like Hill Street Blues and The West Wing routinely gave us 25 quality shows per year, but that was when self-contained episodes were the norm, and only a fraction of each show would be devoted to what we often refer to as overarching plotlines. Ray Donovan’s dramatic set-up seemed perfectly suited to a winning formula where most of each show dealt with long-term storylines that continued to build. I miss those days of televised drama where you could jump into a series at almost any week and not feel completely lost, but writers presently have much more freedom to be ambitious as DVRs, on-demand features and the internet give every potential viewer a fair chance to catch-up on a show whose word-of-mouth and water cooler buzz make them regret not being around for the maiden voyage.
Ann Biderman and company have earned themselves quite a victory lap. I was prepared to be left hanging on a number of the sub-plots that have been so engaging over the show’s dozen episodes. I even readied myself for some possible disappointment, expecting that the show, mimicking real life, wouldn’t provide a resolution to every conflict that it introduced. I needn’t have worried. Ray Donovan resolved most of the storylines that have become important to viewers, dropped the ones that were not as engaging and left plenty of potential drama for next season. It was coincidental that the season finale aired at the same time the Emmy Awards were being broadcast on network television, but Ms. Biderman (and Showtime) ought to plan better for next year to avoid an ironic conflict. The show will be recognized across the board and in addition to well-earned nominations for writing, expect to see nods for series regulars Liev Schreiber, Dash Mihok, Paula Malcomson and Jon Voight. Yes, they have all been that good.
Now to re-cap: In a Tarantino-like final standoff, Mickey (pretending to align himself with fugitive Patrick Sullivan) killed the on-the-lam mobster, saving the life of the very son who had hired Sullivan to kill him. All of this took place in front of the wayward FBI agent who had recently vowed to take Ray down, despite being on his payroll for years. The quick-thinking Ray managed to manipulate things so that the FBI agent can now take credit for bringing down the number one fugitive in the country while at the same time shutting down investigations into Ray, his employers and the whole Sean Walker affair. Blaming the dead fugitive for the murder of Special Agent Van Miller (actually killed by Mickey) as well as Sean Walker will allow the writers to start season two with as many fresh new storylines as they desire. I expect they will do just that.
The whole federal investigation plot had pretty much run its course, realistically. Plus, there is so much now to explore within the Donovan family. Ray and Mickey had a revealing scene where both sides made what amounted to sympathetic pleas for their past actions. Ray revealed that he despised his father for ignoring him when, as a ten year old boy, he had alerted him to the abuse he was suffering at the hands of the family priest. Mickey’s failure to act then led directly to Bunchy’s prolonged abuse and subsequent life of misery. Ray also blames his father for his sister’s suicide and horrible parenting in general. But was all that enough to justify Ray’s actions years later? Ray’s revenge seems to have come at a time when he was able to parlay his vengeance into a lucrative lifestyle for himself and his own family. Does that make his actions less legitimate and more based on personal ambition? Did Mickey really deserve to be framed for murder and then targeted for assassination himself (the former to achieve financial gain and the latter to maintain it)?
Mickey tried to apologize for his past behavior, rationalizing that he was a petty criminal and knew no other life. His explanation that the abuse suffered by his children was fairly common at the time sounded hollow, but is probably tinged with reality given what went on in real life in Massachusetts during the time period referenced in the show. We know that his love for his mistress at the time motivated many of his actions, and that also complicates judgment of him. He is still a vile man but perhaps not deserving of what his eldest son forced him to endure. Which also explains Ray’s chronic reluctance to keep his wife and brothers fully informed when explaining his actions. In a fair and honest debate he might not come out on top.
In the end both he and Mickey seem to have achieved contentment. Ray’s prime motivation always appeared to be his desire to maintain a normal relationship with his immediate family and the lifestyle he has provided for them. His recent honesty with his wife regarding his past abuse seems to have drawn her closer to him, perhaps giving him a pass for his recent indiscretions and putting their marriage on surer footing. His children also seem at ease, and with the abatement of the various threats circling Ray like sharks to a lifeboat, he just might get to enjoy what he has worked so hard to keep. Meanwhile, Mickey has at least partially endeared himself to the other Donovan boys. He is a permanent fixture in their lives. While he may never become the Hollywood mogul that he fantasized about, I’m sure the old man has some kind of scheme rattling around his head that he can’t wait to get his motley crew of sons involved in.
What direction will the show take next season? Hard to predict. I kind of hope it takes on a more episodic approach. Ray’s day-to-day dealings with his family and work responsibilities are fertile grounds for an endless supply of interesting scenarios, especially now that the main characters have been so well-established. Celebrity guest stars playing themselves are probably an easy way for the writers to pepper the show, but I hope they stick to what has worked for them so far. Ray in action on a daily basis, juxtaposed with the goings-on in and around the Fite Club, could prove to be wildly entertaining. I would also love to see more of Lena and Avi (assuming he recovers from his gunshot wound.) The relationship between Ray and Mickey promises to be riveting next season. Has Ray’s hatred for the old man softened now that Mickey essentially saved his world from collapsing? Does Mickey now consider them even, or will he still be looking to disrupt his son’s comfortable life?
In my review of the very first episode I expressed my hope that the show would be successful, if for no other reason then to find out if Ray was capable of killing his dear old pappy as promised. Turns out he wasn’t, but he sure did come close. I can’t wait to see what the writers come up with for the second season premier. Until then they might want to dust off some space on the mantel place, they’re probably going to need it.