The Memento-ing of Ray Donovan continues this week as the second episode of the fifth season follows the pattern of the premiere, jumping back and forth in time between the days leading up to Abby’s death and the present-day aftermath. Perhaps recognizing that the premiere might have been a little confusing to some viewers, the writers of “Las Vegas” keep it remarkably simple, dividing their narrative into two alternating plotlines, one in each timeframe: a Las Vegas trip for the Donovan’s anniversary and the wedding of Terry and Maureen. There’s a sense of birth and loss, of beginning and end in the two narratives, as we watch Abby’s story with the specter of death looming above it and watch Terry starting his own family, knowing everyone is still grieving. “Las Vegas” doesn’t quite match the breakthrough season premiere, and I question some of the rose-colored writing in the flashbacks, but the focus allows for what’s always been the strength of this show: Liev Schreiber. He does phenomenal work here, enough to likely lock a fourth Emmy nomination. Ray’s response when he finds his wife near death on a Vegas floor is emotional and raw.
Long before then, Ray is remembering his 21st anniversary. The sun is shining, birds are chirping, and everything seems fantastic. Ray and Abby kiss lovingly, and then get hot and heated. There’s an interesting beat here when Ray playfully tells Abby, “I got you nothing ’cause you been so bad.” He’s just playing around a bit like couples do, but is that why Abby picks the Dominatrix package in the whorehouse later in the episode? Because she thinks that kind of roleplaying is what Ray really wants? A girl he can punish and who will punish him?
After learning that Abby hired an exterminator to get rid of something she thinks may be living in their walls, the pair is off to the city of sin. They listen to “I Only Want to Be with You” (all of the music cues are oldies this week, adding to the nostalgia of better times when Abby was alive) and alternate sharing positive things about one another. She tells him he’s a loving father. He says she gives a good blow job. Ray, always the romantic.
They stop off at a place called Andy’s Diner, which we know will become Abby’s. It’s here, when Abby calls Ray her best friend, that I started to wonder if the season’s flashback structure wasn’t a bit too manipulative. We never saw Ray and Abby this happy together when she was alive over the first four seasons. Could they have reached “Peak Marriage” just before she died? Possibly. Plus, there’s an even better argument to be made that we remember the dead through rose-colored glasses. Luckily, the sense that the writing in these scenes doesn’t ring true won’t last because the Donovan marriage is about to face its toughest and final challenge.
We learn that Ray and Abby were going to Vegas to see one of Damon’s fights, but they’ll need to take a detour to bail Terry out of jail in Pahrump. We also quickly discern that Abby is having visual and auditory hallucination. She sees raccoons near a dumpster that aren’t really there. Uh-oh. That probably means whatever she’s been hearing in the wall isn’t real either, and whoever had “brain tumor” in the “How Abby Died” pool is that much closer to winning.
But before Abby and Ray realize as much, they get to take a trip to a whorehouse! Terry claims he was framed inside — drugged, overcharged, and a hooker stole his mother’s wedding ring. They have to get it back. Abby and Ray go in and pretend to want a ménage a trois for their anniversary. They get Terry’s escort, pick the Dominatrix package, and then get really rough. Ray pushes down on the girl’s ball gag, forcing her to give up the location of the ring. Abby even gets involved, threatening to use depilatory to take off all of the hooker’s hair, before she tells them the ring is in the Midol. It’s a decent scene, but goes on a bit too long before making its point, which is to give Abby doubts about Terry’s fidelity, and by extension, Ray’s.
The detour also casts a pall over their anniversary trip, which is intensified when Terry asks Maureen to marry him in front of Ray and Abby. Terry may claim he didn’t visit an escort for sex the night before and that he was just framed, but Abby doubts his story, and she doesn’t like that Terry’s marriage is starting off on that note. It also reminds her of Ray’s regular infidelity. She’s conflicted because she knows something that Maureen does not, but she can’t tell her. She also might be annoyed that Terry is stealing some of their anniversary-dinner thunder. And she thinks she might have a fever. Uh-oh.
Back in the present day, the Donovan boys are getting ready for Terry’s marriage, while Ray has to deal with a new client named Natalie James (played by Lili Simmons). She’s a young actress caught in tabloid hell when naked pictures are leaked online by her asshole husband. They’re getting divorced and he leaked the pics to get back at her. There’s also a sense that Ray and Natalie have a bit of history, which will likely be fleshed out in flashbacks in coming episodes. He goes with Natalie to get her things back and meets the hubby, played with sleazy obnoxiousness by Rhys Coiro. They fight over a dog, but everyone leaves in one piece.
Ray makes it to his brother’s wedding, which appears to go well: He gives Maureen a necklace that Abby wanted her to have, and they dance to “I Only Have Eyes for You.” The reception at Abby’s doesn’t go quite so well: Maureen’s brother stands to give a drunken toast, which ends with Bunchy smashing the cop’s head into the table. Good times.
The final scene in Vegas is the most terrifying of the episode. Ray goes to get some coffee and comes back to their lavish suite to find Abby on the floor, mid-seizure. She’s foaming. It’s horrible. At the hospital, he tries to convince himself and the doctor that maybe it’s from the car accident. We can tell by the look on the doctor’s face that it’s not. Ray and Abby come home from the hospital to see the hole in the wall from where the exterminator looked for animals that didn’t exist. Mickey says, “They haven’t found anything yet.” Abby responds, “They’ll never find anything.”
Ray hears a knock at the door in the present day. It’s Natalie. She’s bloodied and scared. She fought with her husband over the dog. And then she shot him. She hands Ray a gun.
• The sound design this week is essential in bridging the flashbacks with the present day, such as when “I Only Have Eyes for You” lingers in the background as the scene transitions from the reception back to Vegas. The song choice is crucial, too, as Abby is thinking about how the Donovans often “have eyes” for others.
• The editing this season has been stellar as well.
• This was the second episode in a row named after a place, an interesting trend for a season in which it can be hard to get one’s bearings.
• Some of the flashback beats can be a little dramatically ironic. When Terry says he’s thinking about getting brain implants to help with his Parkinson’s, we know that he eventually does. This is an element that I hope the writers play with more: our awareness of what’s going to happen to the characters that they don’t yet know.
• John Dahl directed this episode, which allows me the opportunity to urge you to watch his ’90s noirs Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. You won’t regret it.