What will become of Ray Donovan in this fourth season? It's certainly possible the show will regain some thematic focus after last year's relatively haphazard narrative, which bounced all over the Los Angeles map and somehow wasted both Ian McShane and Grace Zabriskie. It's always been a show with incredible potential — largely due to its ridiculously talented cast — but without the writing to realize that potential. Maybe that will change in season four. "Girl With Guitar" offers hope that it will.
The season premiere begins as Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber), last seen passing out in a church after a shoot-out with the Minassians weakly ended season three, recovers from his physical and emotional wounds. The structurally fascinating opening scenes of "Girl With Guitar" find Ray in several places at once. We see a recovered Ray at a SNAP meeting with Bunchy (Dash Mihok), and it's one of the few times that we've seen Ray emotionally open or in a moment of need, which is itself an interesting way to start the season. Will this be the year that the always-protective middle Donovan brother realizes he could use some protection himself?
Flashback to Ray, long after being shot, as he wakes up to a blind priest reading aloud from a book. Hector Campos (Ismael Cruz Cordova, a long way from Sesame Street) is a wealthy, famous boxer who is going to help Ray. We learn that Terry survived the end of last season and eight Armenians did not, meaning the heat is on across Los Angeles. Hector wants to take Ray to Big Bear to recover and lay low for a bit. He claims that it's because of their common bond: Campos was also abused by a priest and only found happiness when he forgave him. Is that the only reason?
After some time in recovery, Ray makes it back to Los Angeles to meet with an angry Detective Muncie (Michael Hyatt), who pressures him to reveal Mickey's location. Mickey totally destroyed the LAPD's sting on the Armenian sex-trafficking ring, but Muncie's not giving up. I like the idea of having some pressure on the Donovans, but please drop the Armenian subplot soon. No one cares about it.
Cut to eternal fuck-up Mickey Donovan (Jon Voight) on a casino rooftop in a small town just outside of Las Vegas. He's doing the only thing he knows how to do: run a scam. This one involves Mickey spotting a mark pull up, in a fancy car, to the gas station next door. Two guys disable the mark's car, forcing him inside the casino, where Mickey is the bartender. While a lounge singer (Paula Jai Parker) croons "Strange Magic" by Electric Light Orchestra, Mickey drops something in the target's drink and calls in a prostitute to rob the poor schmuck after he passes out in a room upstairs. Just as Mickey is about to run this sleazy grift, a couple of casino tough guys tell him they know what he's up to — and their boss, "Little" Bill Primm (Ted Levine), wants a word. Mickey is kicked out of the casino and told never to return.
Meanwhile, Abby Donovan (Paula Malcomson) has just learned that she has "stage zero" breast cancer. She tells this to a stranger on a bench, angry at the hand she's been dealt and that they want to take her breasts. It's interesting that Abby is the kind of person who can't tell her husband or family about such a frightening diagnosis. While she's struggling with her health news, Ray is trying to find Bridget (Kerris Dorsey), who angrily left at the end of last season and has been living on her own. He spots her on a hill, asks her to come to dinner, promising that he's dealing with his anger.
Shortly thereafter, Ray meets Jacob Waller (Gabriel Mann), who works for a powerful art broker named Sonia Kovitzky (Embeth Davidtz). Sonia is willing to pay $10,000 for Donovan's services, and he can take the money whether or not he takes the job. Ray takes the meeting and sees a painting of a girl with a guitar — the title of the episode and also a reference to Bridget. Sonia wants Ray to help get some artwork into the U.S. that was stopped by the authorities, including Muncie. Ray's not interested in a standard cop-bribing gig, and gives back the money. Of course, this won't be the last time we see Sonia and Jacob.
After a brief scene with Lena (Katherine Moennig), Ray calls Hector, who can barely talk. He's made a big mistake. Ray heads out to a sleazy motel, where he sees an angry woman (played by Lisa Bonet) leaving. After finding Hector with a gun and a kidnapped cop named Vincent (Billy Lush) in the bathroom, Ray moves quickly. He calls in a "40-415" (Serious Disturbance) and asks Lena to run the badge number. Hector was doing drugs. He fell off the wagon, a cop caught him, and he panicked. There's a cross hanging around Hector's neck, which certainly isn't accidental. Ray Donovan inserts religious imagery everywhere. Ray looks disappointed in Hector: He knows he's going to have to help him. It's what he does.
Lena calls back. Officer Simmons has only one thing on his record: a DUI suspension two years ago. Ray looks broken. He so badly doesn't want to dive back into illegal behavior, but Hector saved his life. Even good things that happen to Ray Donovan always seem to come with a cost. Schreiber is very good here — subtly selling Ray's internal monologue: "I have to do this again?" He sees a liquor store across the street and hatches a plan. After Hector leaves, he pours his new cop buddy a drink.
While Ray and a kidnapped police officer get wasted, Bridget Donovan comes home for dinner. Terry (Eddie Marsan), Daryll (Pooch Hall), and Conor (Devon Bagby) are there, but of course, Ray isn't. He's too busy drunkenly arguing Deflategate with Vincent. The cop reveals that he got a domestic-disturbance call at the motel, and saw the drugs when he kicked in the door.
Drowning his sorrow with peyote, Mickey has a vision of a young Bridget going into the casino and hazily follows as his singer friend croons "Can't Get It Out of My Head. The very concept of a sleazy casino where a lounge singer only does ELO covers is kind of fascinating, isn't it? Anyway, Mickey isn't supposed to be in the building. Right before the casino enforcers catch up to him, he tells his ELO friend that they should move to Boston. He punches one of the goons, bursts through an emergency exit, and runs down the freeway into the Nevada night. Yes, Mickey is still a big dummy.
Ray tells Vincent that he's going to give him $50,000 to be quiet and $50,000 more in six weeks, which is how long it'll take to get out of rehab. He drives them both into a wall, then puts the cop in the driver's seat. A drunk Ray, who just framed a cop for DUI, drives to Hector's mansion to find out the story about the girl who spotted Ray on the way into the motel. Her name is Marisol, and she happens to be Hector's half-sister and Hector's enabling lover. How does Ray get a superstar out of this one? It raises the question: Did Hector help Ray recover because he needed him in his life? Very few people in the world of Ray Donovan act from an unselfish place.
When Ray finally makes it home, he finds a bitter Terry outside and the rest of the clan still at the dinner table. Must've been a multicourse meal. (Ray Donovan is one of many L.A.-based shows that underplays how long it takes to get around the City of Angels.) Anyway, Ray finds out that Sonya delivered the "Girl With Guitar" painting he was admiring. And he's feeling a little drunk-motional, with a heartfelt "I love you all so much." Finally, after looking at her breast in the mirror, Abby asks Ray to tell her that it "will all be better now," and we learn that Mickey's nighttime flight led him to a hospital bed with an angry Detective Muncie glaring down at him.
- Ray Donovan has always been a show about debts, whether collecting on them or the burden of owing them. How much does Ray now owe Hector? And how will that debt drag him down?
- Under Schreiber's direction, the episode has a confident pace and tonal balance. It's his first time in the chair since season two's "Walk This Way," but hopefully not his last. For the record, it was written by series regular David Hollander, who has the most writing credits on the show.
- Ted Levine, the man who plays "Little Bill" Primm, notoriously played "Buffalo Bill" in Silence of the Lambs. Coincidence?
- The creators of Ray Donovan often find great closing songs, and they go with "Low Life" by X Ambassadors this week.
- This was a confident opener, hinting at a more playful tone with casinos, art dealers, and motels instead of just mansions. Let's hope they keep it up.