The team behind Ray Donovan reaches the halfway point of their fourth season with their best episode of 2016 and one of their best ever, period. Backed by Liev Schreiber’s strongest performance since last year’s Emmy-nominated season finale, “Fish and Bird” captures Ray’s moral dilemma: Can a man who works for awful people remain good? In a sense, that’s what the show has always been about. Ray is a man who cleans up messes and tries not to get dirty himself. His season-four predicament has reached a breaking point, with a fantastic A-plot strengthened by strong performances in the subplots by Paula Malcomson and Dash Mihok, among others. At times, this season still feels overwritten, but those missteps are outweighed by moments that rank among the series’ best.
It’s time to make the villainous Sonia Kovitzky (Embeth Davidtz) a real character, so the writers take an interesting tack this week, tying her arc in with Abby’s (Malcomson) when we learn she too has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Yes, it’s a bit too narratively convenient, but I like the way “Fish and Bird” offers parallels in Ray’s world. This is a plot-heavy episode, which forces Ray to witness the viciousness and cruelty of the world offset against the beauty of his goddaughter’s baptism. He sees that something like breast cancer doesn’t play favorites; it afflicts both his wife and his criminal boss. And he goes off the emotional deep end when considering his father’s recent sacrifice and his own role as a father and protector.
Before all that, Mickey Donovan (Jon Voight) is getting processed — mugshots, fingerprints, anal-cavity searches — and I love how this sequence is set immediately after the “Previously On” lines in which Conor (Devon Bagby) talks about how his father is a gangster. This is how a gangster’s life ends, kid — bending over in a holding cell.
After power-washing the blood out of his van, Ray comes home to an always-wistful Abby. I love the two of them this season — generally happy together, supportive, loving, and sexy. The show works better when it’s framed as “the Donovans vs. the World” and my favorite scenes this year have been between Schreiber and Malcomson. Ray tells her about Mickey doing time and she tells him that she doesn’t want the recommended mastectomy. The way Schreiber puts his face in his hands conveys Ray’s weariness better than any line could.
Meanwhile, Conor is reaching peak dude-bro dumbness: lifting weights, playing with a gun, and watching what looks like an Andy Sidaris movie. (Sidaris made a lot of movies in the ’80s and ’90s that featured topless women with guns. They had great titles like Hard Ticket to Hawaii.) Conor’s descent into macho stupidity is my least favorite subplot of the season. It feels like a rushed plot device.
Bunchy (Mihok) shows up at Castle Donovan with Maria. He needs help taking care of the baby now that he’s a single father. Ray lets him in and notices that Sonia’s lackey is out front, menacingly casing the joint. The dummy starts talking about Bridget Donovan (Kerris Dorsey), gets punched, and they take his gun from him. It feels almost transitional, but it’s an important scene. Ray has his limits. You can be an asshole, but when you go too far, he will make you hurt.
Ray learns that he’s still under the Russian Thumb until the charges are dropped against Belikov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff). He has to transport art from the port to wherever Sonia needs it taken. Of course, Sonia and the Russians are also running sex slaves out of the same creepy port, and Ray comes across a girl. (To emphasize her innocence, we see her playing cat’s cradle in her hands.) Will Ray continue to work for an organization that is also part of such horrible criminal activity? What if it keeps his family safe? Ray is just transporting art, but he knows it’s the fruit of a very rotten tree.
While Ray descends deeper into guilt-fueled alcoholism, Sonia wants him to go to a breast-cancer charity auction, where he runs into familiar faces: Ashley (Ambyr Childers) and Feldman (Josh Pais). It turns out that a number of starlets have seen their naked pictures and sex tapes hit the net recently, and Ashley is pissed that she wasn’t one of them. This subplot shows how shallow and fake people can be, and emphasizes the power circles in which Sonia runs. After the auction, Ray meets the Chief of Oncology at the Barkley Breast Cancer Center, and figures out that Sonia has the disease. In fact, hers has progressed past the operable stage. Are the writers trying to make a sex trafficker sympathetic? Or just remind us that cancer plays no favorites, good or evil? Either could be narratively tough, but I’m curious to see where it goes.
After an encounter in which Ray sees the “cat’s cradle girl” again at Belikov’s house — humanizing her even further — it’s time for Baptism Day, which starts with Abby puking from the medically induced menopause route she chose for treatment. Bunch is suspicious and worried. She won’t tell him what’s going on.
Before Ray can go to the baptism, Sonia wants to show him something. It almost seems like some kind of art installation, as Ray sits back in a chair and the stars and sky fill the ceiling like a planetarium. Sonia is getting philosophical: “All that light, I’ll be part of it soon enough.” It’s a callback to the use of Wilco’s “California Stars” earlier in the episode. Everyone moves on, eventually. It’s the one thing we all have in common. Sonia knows that Ray is different: “Even in ugly things, I think you see beauty,” she says, before she takes off her top to reveal that she had a mastectomy on one breast. “Am I ugly?” she asks, before they kiss. It’s overwritten, but at least it feels thematically connected to the rest of the show. Sonia hasn’t really been adrift before now.
Cut from Ray holding a woman’s chest to holding a baby at Maria’s baptism. When the family comes home, Conor and Damon (Dominique Columbus) grab a bottle of booze and go upstairs. (They’ll soon get drunk and shoot a neighbor’s bounce house.) Ray starts drinking, hard. He’s struggling. Images of beginnings (baptism) float through his mind with images of endings (his wife’s potential cancer, his father’s sacrifice). Mickey was charged and Belikov got out. A horrible man is back on the street. Does that make for a better world for his goddaughter?
It’s not long before Ray is drunk, coming down while they open Maria’s gifts. He tries to give Bunch a rosary that was given to him by the priest who abused them. Bunch doesn’t take it well. He threw his in the river. Perhaps Bunchy is putting his dark past behind him better than his brother can. Ray gets a call from Mickey. The charges have been reduced, but that’s only to get the death sentence off the table. He’ll be in jail for the rest of his life. It’s weighing on Ray. Mickey is already getting “prison wise,” saying, “The only fucking permanent thing is love.” Ray starts to cry. So does Mick. It’s a great scene between two great actors, as these two characters realize what matters in this world.
Ray gets a text to take some money to Belikov. When he gets there, he discovers that Belikov killed the girl with the cat’s cradle. He wants Ray to help ship her back to Moscow. As they drive, Ray plays with the rosary that symbolizes so much of his past. Belikov says, “You should be thankful,” and one wonders if it’s not something Ray’s abuser said to him.
After a great scene between Mihok and Malcomson in which Bunchy gets emotional at the thought of losing his “best friend,” Ray makes a choice. Instead of helping Belikov cover up a murder, he attacks him. He makes him stare dead into his eyes, then blows his brains out. As he drives away, Sonia calls, mentioning that Belikov will help keep Mickey safe in prison. Did Ray just sign his father’s death warrant?
- Think of everything that Ray goes through in this episode. Other actors would have gone broad with the material, which makes Schriber’s performance look even better. His subtle choices make Ray look like a man pained by the weight of demons on his shoulders.
- When Ray punched Belikov, it reminded me how strong the fight choreography is on this show. It really looked like it connected — and hurt.
- It’s great to see a testosterone-heavy show like Ray Donovan turn to topics of womanhood. This season has introduced story lines about breast cancer, postpartum depression, and motherhood, just to name a few. I’m always impressed when a show takes a risky creative turn. Let’s see where it leads us.