Last year’s disappointing season of Ray Donovan ended for this writer with these words: “Let’s hope they find a way to start fresh and move forward in season five. The cast is more than talented enough to deliver. It’s time the writers give them all something to do — especially Malcomson.” And move forward is exactly what new showrunner and episode director David Hollander has done, completely refreshing the show with a time jump that allows for a fresh start that also stays loyal to what we know about the Donovans. But Hollander is doing it by sacrificing Malcomson. It’s a risky choice, but the risk looks like it could pay off as this is the most promising season premiere of Ray Donovan since the series began.
The fourth season of Ray Donovan ended on a happy note, and the “Previously On” segment poignantly reminds us of that as Abby says to Ray, “No one can touch us.” Who would have guessed that she’d be dead at the start of the new season? It’s as shocking a development as any major show has attempted in years, but the writers take it a step further by keeping the facts of Abby’s demise mysterious. What’s most interesting about the tone of this new season is that as much as killing off Abby between seasons is clearly going to define the emotional arcs of the year, it’s also added depth to the characters instead of just the wheel-spinning gloom that dominated the last couple years. It’s given the writers and the cast focus, and a skeleton on which to hang a number of new interesting subplots, while also allowing Ray Donovan to play with time in ways most shows do not.
So where are the Donovans at now? Interestingly, the core family is all over the country. Ray is still in Los Angeles, but Bridget has fled to New York and Connor is at a school called VMA trying to make the varsity wrestling team. Ray’s sharing his mansion with his father, Mickey, who is working on a screenplay when he’s not walking his giant dog. Meanwhile, Terry is about to get married, and Bunchy is trying to become a luchador. Season five also introduces a scene-stealing power player played by Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, and we still get glimpses of Malcomson’s Abby, mostly in flashbacks to happier times for Ray. Abby is dead, but it feels like Malcomson will still play a major role this season in extended flashbacks.
Abby’s death wasn’t the only major development between seasons. Not only did Terry get engaged, but he had a pacemaker put in his brain to moderate his Parkinson’s disease. If you’re wondering how such a thing works, this is a pretty interesting article. Terry is also getting married to Maureen, the cop he met last season, although that threatens to fall through when a skeleton from his past is unearthed by his future brother-in-law.
There was also a mysterious fight between seasons that led to Ray getting probation and court-ordered therapy for 90 days. Of course, as so often happens on this show, the fight involved multiple Donovans, but the family wounds seem to have healed. As Ray looks over the questionnaire given him by his new therapist (played by C. Thomas Howell), he sees questions about his childhood. Ray Donovan has always been about dealing with trauma, and this arc feels likely to unearth Ray’s while also presenting us with the brand-new trauma of losing Abby.
We also learn that Ray opened a bar called Abby’s, although it’s losing $20,000 a month. And Bridget is tracking down someone in New York City who was at the hospital, likely when her mother died. Smitty, the young man with whom Bridget gets high, reveals that he was supposed to have a surgery that he never had, saying he got kicked off the trial because he got an infection. It feels like there’s more to this story, and that it broke the already-fragile connection between Ray and Bridget. Perhaps this sick young man was supposed to get Abby’s heart and Ray put a stop to it? We’ll surely find out soon. Interesting to note that Bridget says she met Smitty at Sloan Kettering, which is a cancer treatment center. There are a few fakeouts this episode as to what happened to Abby — including a car accident — but this is our greatest evidence that what killed her was the return of her cancer.
While a great deal of “Abby” centers on connecting the dots between last season and this one, we also meet this year’s Great Big Guest Star. She’s introduced when Ray is contracted to retrieve a few boxes of incriminating information on a Hollywood power player named Samantha Winslow, played with icy determination by Susan Sarandon. Ray gets the boxes, and Sam gives him a speech about a legendary lion and a village in Africa that basically sacrifices its elders to keep the feline happy. She makes it clear she will not be pushed out by the Hollywood village to be eaten by lions. And then she makes Ray drive her creepy stepson George (Keir O’Donnell) home.
On the way home, we get the episode’s most terrifying flashback. As George prattles on about The Wizard of Oz, Ray remembers driving with Abby, as the two listened to Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” and flashed back to their past. They talk about opening a bar, and the great future in front of them. Suddenly, a scantily clad woman runs into the street, forcing Ray to swerve to miss her and the SUV careens down a hill, crashing into a tree at the base. The passenger airbag goes off, giving Abby a bruise, but this does not immediately appear to be how she died. Both Ray and Abby get out of the car, looking up the hill to see the girl who caused the accident. It’s an interesting scene in that if it is cancer that returns suddenly and lethally, this moment feels like foreshadowing: happiness interrupted by chaos. Back in the present, George finishes his dumb story.
Bunchy’s luchador audition goes poorly and Terry’s marriage looks like it could be over before it’s official. Meanwhile, Ray keeps remembering Abby, particularly poignant in a moment that echoes the closing scenes of last season, as “Rock Me Gently” plays at the Donovan party at the club. Abby, who has fought so much, including cancer, looks happy.
The final flashback is a much darker one, as Ray comes home to hear Bridget crying upstairs. In slow-motion, he climbs the stairs and sees his daughter outside his bedroom. He bursts through the door. We don’t see what he does, but it’s clearly a horrible sight. Did Abby’s injury cause fatal bleeding in her brain? (That’s essentially what happened to the late Natasha Richardson.) Or did Abby kill herself? There’s something about Bridget’s crying and the look in Ray’s eyes that makes me think that’s a possibility. Or did her cancer return, after a subplot that seemed essential last season and then was discarded quickly in the finale? We’ll probably find out next week. Until then, we have Mickey’s words to carry us: “She was the brightest star in the sky.”
• One of the show’s strengths has always been its use of music, and opening with Cat Power’s mournful version of “Sea of Love” as Mickey buys flowers is an inspired choice. If you’re curious, the closing tune is “Madman Across the Water” by Alison Scott.
• George tells the urban legend about the hanging on the set of The Wizard of Oz. If you’re curious, here’s more information.
• Sarandon will get a lot of deserved attention, but just seeing C. Thomas Howell reminds me how good this show often is at casting supporting roles. It’s disappointing when those great actors are wasted (what they did with Ian McShane is unforgivable) but nice to see that trend continuing. It seems like Keir O’Donnell isn’t going anywhere anytime soon either.
• David Hollander directed the finale of last season as well as this year’s premiere. He brings a tight, confident energy that I’m hoping continues through the season. For the first time in years, I’m eager to see where the show goes next.