This is it. This is the episode we knew would come eventually. The one where Abby Donovan dies. We’ve seen glimpses of what happened that fateful day — Ray bursting through the bedroom door, his face broken by what he sees — but “Horses” gives us the last 24 hours of Abby Donovan’s life. And it does so respectably, if not in a way that produces quite the emotionally devastating, breakthrough television fans were hoping for.
Once again, the ensemble is phenomenal, but the writing lacks the spark that makes for great television. Having said that, Ray Donovan will miss the different energy provided by Paula Malcomson’s Abby, and I’m sad to see her go. And her husband wasn’t even at her side when she shuffled off this mortal coil. In a life of bad decisions, it’s Ray’s worst.
Abby Donovan is looking at a painting in what will be the bar named after her, soon to open. It’s a painting of horses called “Cave Hill,” and Abby hears the hooves, as the Patti Smith song “Land” plays on the soundtrack with Smith’s repeated “Horses horses horses horses.” (The song will play two more times.) It’s a captivating moment because we realize that Abby has decided to end her life. Is it the freedom of the horses that she’ll never have again, or a sense of reclaiming that freedom and leaving the world on her own terms? We don’t need to know the specific reason to see it in Abby’s eyes — she makes the decision even before she learns that she didn’t get into the experimental trial.
After the call, she wanders down to the pharmacy to get the Seconal that she’ll use to end her life. Illustrating how much denial Ray Donovan uses to fuel his optimism, he buys his dying wife a necklace. She says, “What am I gonna do with it?” and it’s hard not to feel sorry for Ray in this beat — though it’s not as hard later — because he’s blindly denying that Abby won’t be going to anymore occasions that require a fancy necklace. He’s focused on material things while she’s moved past the stuff that you really can’t take with you.
Ray finds out that Abby didn’t get into the trial and snaps. Always the professional fixer, he’s convinced he will fix this problem. He leaves his wife to go to New York City to “sort things out,” and it’s a decision he’ll regret for the rest of his life. When Abby needed him most, supporting her in whatever way she chose, he decided to do what he always does — scramble to fix an unfixable problem. To that end, he calls Lena and gets names and addresses of people in the trial, and he gets Avi to find him meningitis bacteria to poison someone else on the thin line between death and hope.
Terry comes to the Donovan house and finds Abby on the couch. A great scene unfolds in which she makes it clear that no one cares what she wants, and she asks Terry to pick up the refill for the prescription that Ray flushed. Why does Terry say yes? Is it because he understands debilitating sickness because of his Parkinson’s? Because he knows what it’s like to be controlled by something bigger than himself? Whatever the reason, Terry will be the Donovan man who’s there for Abby when Ray isn’t. She later tells Bridget, “I want to be the one to shoot first. I want to be the one pulling the trigger.”
While this emotional drama goes down in L.A., we get distracted in New York City. Avi gets arrested, which means Ray has to go to his contact’s house to get the meningitis bacteria, which leads to a violent showdown in a small apartment. It’s a weird scene to include here, other than to perhaps indicate how far Ray is willing to go to save his wife. “Horses” is a long episode and I wish they sacrificed the Avi subplot to get more time with Abby, Terry, and Bridget. A little more tightness would have made this a more effective gut punch.
While Ray focuses on his nefarious plan, which includes poisoning Smitty, a party is unfolding at Abby’s. Daryll and Mickey are laughing, Bridget and Bunchy are smiling, Terry and Maureen are in a booth (which reminded me how much the show has blown off Terry’s new wife, another sign of inconsistent writing). Abby spits up blood in the bathroom and Terry and Bridget join her in the alley. “No more doctors,” she says. And then she delivers a classic Abby line: “St. Peter is gonna give you a hand job for your work this day, Terry Donovan.”
Abby slowly breaks her capsules into a glass. Terry comes into the bedroom and asks what to do, and that’s the beat that hit me hardest. It’s the response Ray never gave Abby — a question instead of a statement. Bridget even helps, taking the ginger ale and pouring it over the drugs. Bridget promises her mother she’ll be okay and Abby hears horses again as her daughter and brother-in-law stay by her bedside, watching her go.
As if pouring salt on a wound, Ray comes home thinking that Abby is in the trial that will now save her life. Terry and Bridget hug and then … Terry leaves? That’s a bit of a surprising moment, but it fits with Ray not knowing that his brother was involved. (Although maybe Terry was just downstairs or in the bathroom when Ray got home and then snuck out.) Ray comes home to hear Bridget crying. He crashes through the door and sees Abby dead, peaceful on the bed. He falls on her, weeping. And then Ray does what he does when emotion overtakes him: He lashes out. He yells at Bridget. He goes down to the bar and loses control. In front of his family, he goes after Bridget, grabbing her and screaming, “Why?!” Mickey tells him to cool down, reminding him he wasn’t there. Ray starts punching everyone. It’s all he knows how to do now. He’s a primal animal.
The night Abby Donovan dies, Ray Donovan gets arrested. The camera pans into the bar to see Bridget watching him, Terry sitting, and ultimately to the painting. You can almost see Abby among the horses.
• This definitely wasn’t a bad episode, but it wasn’t the all-timer I was hoping to get for the departure of Abby Donovan. It felt longer than it needed to be, in part because the structure of this season made most of its secrets known earlier.
• Learning more about Avi’s addiction after he’s fled to Colombia feels like a case of bad timing. Those details might have made his arc in the last few episodes more powerful. It’s a case in which I think the structure of this season hurt the show dramatically.
• Ray poisoned a young man, knowing full well that it would not only disqualify him from the life-saving trial but could kill him. Is that an irredeemable turn for the character? This feels like it could be a moment that’s hard to come back from narratively, especially if Smitty dies. It’s a plot twist that makes it difficult for the writers to ever give Ray a happy ending. We’ll see if they can find a way out of it, but it might be interesting if, with Abby gone, Ray Donovan becomes a true villain. He’s certainly shown he will do anything to get what he wants, even when it only causes him pain.