Despite excellent performances from Liev Schreiber and Eddie Marsan, “Dogwalker” falls into a few of the writing traps that plagued Ray Donovan’s third and fourth seasons. Namely, a lack of focus and too much time spent with characters we don’t care about on subplots going nowhere. What did we learn this week? Terry can’t be happily married even for a day; Ray cheats on his wife even when she’s on death’s door; Conor lacks focus and hopes to find it in the military. Eh. This was the first episode of this season that frustrated me, but things could easily rebound next week.
The most interesting element of “Dogwalker” is the heavy focus on the present day, pulling us out of the time-jumping mechanism that defined the first two episodes. We get flashbacks this week, but not for the bulk of the episode, which takes place almost solely in the “A.D.” time period — After Death. You could tell that was coming when the “Previously On” spent almost all of its time on the saga of Lili Simmons’s Natalie James and the introduction of Susan Sarandon’s Sam Winslow. It’s certain that we’ll get more time jumping, but fans of the show might appreciate the more traditional aspects of this episode. Personally, the risk taking of the first two led to more rewarding television, in my opinion.
Last week’s episode ended with Natalie handing Ray the gun that she says she just used to shoot her husband, and this episode picks up immediately from that moment. Natalie says she came home to get her dog and caught her grotesque hubby, Rob, played with sleazy perfection by Rhys Coiro, jerking off into her panties. They fought. She shot him and claims she killed him. While a still-drunk-from-the-wedding Mickey is told to watch Natalie, Ray goes to her house to clean up.
At the scene of the crime, Ray sees signs of a vicious struggle, including a shattered frame on a gigantic photo of Natalie. Suddenly, Ray is stabbed in the chest with a pair of scissors! Rob isn’t dead! And it looks like he’s tried to bandage up his own gunshot wound. Ray kicks the dummy down the stairs, throwing him over his shoulder and into his trunk. He calls Lena and tells her to come clean up while Ray deals with the injured asshole. He does so by calling an animal doctor to pull the bullet out of Rob’s shoulder while sewing up his own scissor wound at the same time. One of the episode’s best exchanges plays out when the doctor speaks about how we treat dogs with cancer with more affection than we do human beings. If a dog is diagnosed, they’re given affection and then put to sleep, not forced to go through painful treatments that merely prolong the inevitable. Schreiber subtly sells the impact of this, telegraphing that maybe Ray failed Abby when her cancer returned.
Meanwhile, Terry’s marriage is already on the rocks. The fight at the reception revealed to Maureen the fact that Terry slept with a prostitute the night before he proposed. It’s not so much the infidelity as the revelation that everybody but Maureen knew about it. She wanted to be in the Donovan inner circle and it feels like she’s still outside of it, even on her wedding day. It’s hard to blame her, but this subplot is feeling pretty manipulative. We’ve spent almost no time with Maureen and Teresa this season, and they’re being used as devices to send Terry and Bunchy, respectively, on quests for greater purpose and happiness. I wish their characters were fleshed-out as more than devices.
Rob is being a worthless jerk again, threatening to send both Natalie and Ray to jail. The Hollywood cleaner notes how tough that will be without a gun or even a bullet in his shoulder anymore. Cops will probably just notice that he beat Natalie up. He’s got no case, so why bother? Ray encourages him to just move on. Leave Natalie alone.
Terry is looking at the program from Abby’s funeral when Conor calls, asking for advice on how to cut weight for a wrestling match. Without much else to do, Terry offers to come watch the match, which Conor knows is a bad idea. Why? Well, we quickly see that Conor isn’t very good, and that he succumbs to that Donovan family anger when confronted. After a series of unsportsmanlike conduct fouls, Conor head-butts his opponent and the benches clear. Afterward, Conor tells Terry that he’s going to join the military. He’s been toughened between seasons — the actor, Devon Bagby, looks notably older — and he thinks the military will help shape his future.
Everyone this week is thinking about what’s next: Bunchy laments his failed luchador career and considers a storage unit facility investment, Conor wants to become a marine, Terry is trying to save his marriage, and Mickey is no different. He gets some upsetting news about his screenplay. Coverage is often-brutal feedback on unproduced screenplays, and this coverage isn’t good. After reading it, the agency is not going to move forward with Mickey’s screenplay. As he’s about to go to the agent to try to change his mind, Mickey is stopped by Frank and we get the most unexpected subplot so far this season in the unusual return of Avi, at least by name. We learn that Frank was working with Avi after the Sokulov situation last season — the two are selling the art they confiscated from him. But Frank has a problem with Avi now and needs Mickey’s help dealing with him. This is exactly the kind of subplot that would drag down previous seasons of Ray Donovan. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen this year.
After a few excellent anger-management scenes, including one in which we learn that it was the night Abby died that Ray got into the fight that got him arrested, we get the key flashback for the week. We see Abby at the Donovan kitchen table, her body ravaged by cancer. Her hair is thin, her gait is weak, and even her voice sounds frail. She can see the pity in Ray’s eyes, but asks him to come play cards with them. “Just don’t run away from this,” she says, and that’s exactly what he does. He picks up a bottle of whiskey and goes to walk the dog, stumbling upon Natalie James. She remembers him from the car accident — she was the girl in the middle of the road when they went off the hill — and the two talk and flirt. Natalie speaks about being in a car accident, convinced she had died and they forgot to tell her. Ray is kind of like that now, wandering around like some ghost. He has been off and on for years, really. In the episode’s final scenes, he flashes back to having sex with Natalie that day that he decided to leave his dying wife and family at home.
• The writing fell into a few old traps this week, but Schreiber was great again, and it’s nice to see Marsan, always a great actor, get some serious screen time.
• She didn’t show up for so long into this episode that I actually missed Abby. It will be interesting to see how the writers use her going forward. Her arc seems to be speeding up so fast. Could Malcomson leave the show for good by the midway point?
• Lili Simmons, Rhys Coiro, and C. Thomas Howell were all very good this week, but is anyone else surprised Susan Sarandon hasn’t returned yet? She’s been in one scene, which has been in both “Previously On” segments since. Advertised as a “season-long arc,” I’m shocked we’ve gone two whole episodes without another Sarandon appearance.
• The final music cue this week if you’re curious: “How Many Times” by Dope Lemon.