It pains me to say this, but "Chinese Algebra" is the worst episode of Ray Donovan yet. When the season should be building to an emotional and narrative climax, we're left spinning our wheels, wondering what it all actually has been about. The plot is barely pushed forward until another cliffhanger finale and even the typically great cast look like they're unengaged. This season is starting to look like one of Ray's jobs: Just something everyone wants to get done with so they can get back to their families.
Before we get going, something else needs to be said: It's old-fashioned and silly that Showtime takes off holidays in 2016. It's based on the antiquated idea that people don't watch TV on holiday weekends because they're out of town, or spending time at family barbecues. The truth is that most people time-shift their watching anyway, and by taking the week off, a show like Ray Donovan loses what little momentum it had going into its final two episodes. Two weeks is forever in today's TV market. A person can binge-watch entire seasons of another show in that time.
Okay, let's get to the episode. The cops found Marisol's body, and it looks like Ray (Liev Schreiber) successfully staged her suicide as a jump from the bridge into Lake Hollywood. He's still got a problem to solve because madman Russian mob boss Dmitry (Raymond J. Barry) still holds Avi (Stephen Bauer) as his prisoner. Before the episode's writers lay it out piece by piece, his plan becomes pretty transparently clear: Ray will take the money that Mickey (Jon Voight) stole from the Primm casino and bet it on Hector (Ismael Cruz de Cordova) losing in the sixth round, which is when the troubled young man will take a dive. It's a good plan, even if it's kind of boring TV, and it seems likely to go wrong in the finale next week.
Before then, we're stuck watching all of the pieces get put in place. First, Ray needs Mickey's money. He plans to take it to Vegas, have his buddy Fat Ernie place a $2 million bet, win $60 million on the underdog, and then give that money to Dmitry in exchange for Avi. Mickey agrees to do it, even if he does seem to hesitate when he's taking the money out of a train-station locker — the line all the way to Boston is right there, but Mick can't leave Ray like that.
Meanwhile, Abby (Paula Malcomson) knows that the cancer test results are coming soon and she's panicking. She's worried she made the wrong call about the mastectomy and that she now has inoperable cancer. Partially for their safety, but also perhaps because she doesn't want to face her kids if the ground comes out from under her when the doctor calls, she convinces Bunchy (Dash Mihok) and Teresa (Alyssa Diaz) to take the kids north with them. At first, Conor (Devon Bagby) wants to stay by Ray's side and fight the Russians, but dad later convinces them to go. I do wonder if we haven't seen the last of Conor, Bridget, Bunchy, and Teresa for this season. Although I like (most of) these characters, it might help focus next week's finale if that's true.
Ray breaks the news to Hector that the fix is in. The murderer protests for a minute, but it doesn't last long. Ray tells Hector that he needs to tell the cops that he hasn't seen his sister, and that he can't tell Terry (Eddie Marsan) about the fix. It seems pretty clear that one of these things will be a problem. Or will treating Daryll (Pooch Hall) like shit be the mistake that haunts the Donovans and Hector? After Daryll was a solid right-hand man all season, he gets screwed over in the end: He's told he can be Hector's cleaner, not his sparring partner. Daryll is pissed, and could easily reveal some secrets about Hector.
Just as Ray is about to take the money to Vegas, his cop buddy Frank (Michael McGrady) catches up with him. Mickey will have to take it himself. He takes his seat on the plane and has a vision of his lost love, Sylvie (Paula Jai Parker), when another African-American woman boards after him. He goes to sit next to her, working his charms and flashing his money, when he learns that this is the "Stripper Plane," the one that takes hard-working women from L.A. to Vegas for the weekend to earn some cash. He also learns his new traveling companion is named Sugar. While Frank is offering Ray one last chance to come clean and protect his family legally, Mickey is busy flashing money to a plane full of strippers.
Somewhat surprisingly, Mickey winds up placing the bet anyway and learns that Fat Ernie is dead. Sugar takes him to a trust-fund kid named Jack Riley, an Instagram star. They do some coke and play ping-pong to decide if he'll place the bet or keep the money, and the scene just doesn't work. It's not believable, not funny, and not engaging. Ultimately, Mickey goes to Vegas to place a bet, and he does. That's it. That he must use some of his charm to make that happen is somewhat interesting, but it's simply not enough for the penultimate episode of the season. It just doesn't feel like the stakes are high.
Hector goes to confirm to Dmitry that he'll take a fall while Terry and Daryll are back at the club. In one of the episode's few unexpected turns, Terry briefly passes out. Is the stress aggravating his Parkinson's? I will be very sad if something happens to Terry.
Finally, they bring the stolen art and the betting slips to Dmitry, who's acting shady as ever. As a van pulls up, Dmitry says, "Life will go on." For a second, I thought they were going to kill Avi. It's the kind of shocking event the show needs at a moment like this. Instead, they deploy yet another cliffhanger as Ray and a badly beaten Avi get pulled over on the way home. Taken into the station, Ray sees Sonia (Embeth Davidtz) through a one-way mirror. She flipped. She took the protection offer that Ray did not, even after he tried to get her to safety. "You're fucked, Ray."
- The episode ends with "Where Do We Go From Here?" by Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band. It's a clear nod to make us consider how Ray will get out of this, but it also works as a slogan for this disappointing season, which has lacked focus over and over again.
- John Dahl, the man behind great TV and films like The Last Seduction, is just doing by-the-numbers work here, I'm afraid. The episode never pops to life, which it really needed to do after the holiday hiatus. The audience needs to be grabbed and pulled through these final two episodes, and that didn't happen. I'm still crossing my fingers for next week's finale.
- What do you want to see out of the final episode? Can the season still be salvaged? Despite my harsh criticism this week, I think so. We need something dramatically powerful to tie it all together and make the last 11 weeks worthwhile. We'll know in a week if we get it.