“Shelley Duvall” is inarguably transitional when it comes to the major plotlines of Ray Donovan’s fifth season, but it’s still stronger overall than the last couple of episodes from scene to scene. Unlike a lot of television shows, this one sometimes improves by slowing down, allowing the cast to develop characters outside of their (sometimes) ridiculous plotting. To that end, we got some great work this week from Liev Schreiber, Paula Malcomson, and Eddie Marsan.
The first large segment of “Shelley Duvall” is also the episode’s best. As Ray parks his car in front of a fire station to get it towed, he flashes back to another car-towing experience, this one out in the desert. First, he’s driving with Abby in a convertible on a sunny day, telling her she looks like Marilyn Monroe. The car breaks down, and Abby walks off to a building in the distance while Ray calls for a tow. The sun reflecting in Ray’s eyes creates an interesting visual metaphor as his dying wife literally walks into blinding, white light.
It turns out the building on the horizon was a funny aberration — an ice skating rink in the middle of the desert. In a cute scene, the two skate for the first time in years, but Abby stumbles into Ray. She has a well-earned pity party, noting that Ray risks his life all the time and will outlive her. Life’s not fair. She also tells Ray that she wants to stop treatment, calling what she’s going through some “godless fucking bullshit.” It’s hard to argue. So far this season, this material has been much stronger than the present-day stuff, which has felt too meandering. Abby is ready to give up, but it feels like Ray isn’t going to let her. She may need some other family members to intervene.
Let’s jump ahead since we’re on the subject. (This season has jumped around in time, so why not do the same in the recap?) Over a few scenes between Terry and Bridget in New York City, we got closer to the truth about what happened to Abby in her final days. Remember how Ray intervened and got Smitty taken off a medical trial so Abby could take her spot? If you’ve been wondering why it didn’t work, it’s starting to feel like Terry and Bridget had something to do with it. After a run-in with someone who underwent the treatment and survived, Terry starts to break down a bit. My guess is that, even after Ray gave a possible death sentence to Smitty, Abby still wanted to say good-bye and her daughter and brother-in-law honored her wishes. I think we’ll find out soon.
We see that Lena was hiding in Ray’s trunk when the car got towed. They’re going to get the box of Sam Winslow’s blackmail material from the car that was totalled at the end of last week’s episode. Is anyone else surprised that the box is still just sitting on the front seat? If the cops respond to a car accident and see a box of what looks like evidence, wouldn’t they take it? Maybe not. (This is why I’m not a lawyer.) Anyway, the scheme works and they get the material back to Sam, but the blackmailer still has the money and the Oscar — although not for long.
Meanwhile, Bunchy is in jail, courtesy of Crooked Cop Frank. Mickey knows he’s got to help his kid, which means taking care of Avi. However, as with all Mickey Donovan plans, it doesn’t exactly work out. After trailing Avi, he ends up in a trunk while a drug deal goes haywire. Shots are fired, including one into Mickey’s trunk, and the old man is driven off by one of the dealers. While Mickey’s niece waits for someone to pick her up at the closing day care and Mickey wonders where the hell he’s going, Bunchy gets a fateful moment when one of the robbers from Railroad Subs walks by his cell. This should be interesting.
Before we get to see how Bunchy responds, Ray goes to Sam’s house to give her the blackmail box, having a conversation with her creepy kid about Shelley Duvall and The Shining. He tells her how Stanley Kubrick mistreated Duvall on the set of the film, so abused that her hair actually fell out. Of course, conflicted relationships on sets have been a theme of this show, never more so than this season, in which franchise star Natalie James is hiding from her own hit series of movies. Sam wants Ray to work for her full-time, which doesn’t sound like a particularly attractive gig to me, but Ray doesn’t always make the smartest decisions.
About midway through “Shelley Duvall,” we jump back to a time before the ice-skating scene in which Abby tells her kids about the cancer. It’s an interesting jump as the scene is clearly placed there for emotional or thematic reasons, rather than pure narrative, and that’s the kind of risk that I wish the show took more often. If you’re going to jump around in time, go for it all the way. Trust us, we’ll be able to follow along.
In the most urgent present-day plotline, the P.I. who was blackmailing Sam Winslow ends up hanged in his apartment. It looks like suicide, but the money and Oscar are gone. When Ray later spots the trophy back on Sam’s shelf, he realizes just how dangerous she can be. Meanwhile, Doug Landry finally gets to talk to Natalie. When he starts to get rough with his mistress/superstar, Ray steps in, creating a new enemy in Doug. Throughout the episode, we get flashbacks to the time Natalie and Ray slept together. Now, their new relationship is certainly an interesting one: the cleaner and the household name. Is Natalie a reminder of Abby’s death? Ray slept with her when Abby needed him. Is he trying to make amends for what he couldn’t do for Abby? And if Sam Winslow is willing to kill someone who takes her Oscar, what will she do when Ray steps out of line?
• The episode ends with a version of “He Needs Me” by Brass Bed with Allison Bohl. It’s a song first-sung by, you guessed it, Shelley Duvall in 1980’s Popeye, and later used brilliantly in P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love.
• The Duvall connection is an interesting one. Is Natalie James the Shelley Duvall of this season, the actress used and abused by a system that doesn’t really care about her? That seems like a stretch, especially given how much satisfaction Natalie takes when she hears Doug is off the set of their new film. It makes you wonder if that was her endgame all along.
• Terry and Bridget are singing the great “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” by the Pogues before he goes into the church to try and regain a little faith. You should listen to the Pogues more. Everyone should.
• It’s the halfway point! Who’s your MVP so far? Schreiber seems the obvious choice, but who else have you liked? What do you hope to see in the second half?