Ray Donovan: “Black Cadillac”
B

Ray Donovan: “Black Cadillac”

B

Ray Donovan

“Black Cadillac”

Season 1, Episode 4

Mickey’s a hollowed-out shell of a human being. I still don’t care about him much, but “Black Cadillac” is a kind of fugue of that theme, showing us Mickey failing to connect, failing to satisfy, failing to get what he wants, over and over again. I guess I call it out because it’s satisfying, in it’s way. Mickey hasn’t managed to display one single redeeming characteristic in his now four episodes on screen, but seeing in this episode his utter impotence—his irrelevancy in the world—at least made me feel better about watching his sick antics. But in a world where my opinion about Mickey isn’t the only possible opinion, “Black Cadillac” is an episode where Mickey begins to demonstrate why he might be such a repulsive human being. It’s subtly done, which is more than what we’ve seen from Ray Donovan in past episodes, and in the end it comes down to the titular black Cadillac, this symbol of Mickey’s former life before he went to prison.

It’s the original black Cadillac from his glory days. The car that he and Charlene cruised in, the one in which he squandered his fading youth. And Sharlene kept it and refurbished it to give it back to him, but the car is a replacement for everything she can’t give him. It, like Mickey, is a shiny relic of a bygone era. It’s a fitting symbol for an episode that centers around two different trips to alternate realities. One is Mickey’s visit to Charlene, with Bunchy and Daryl in tow. The boys are barely better than grade-schoolers, squabbling in the backseat and currying favor with Mickey. There’s something otherworldly about Mickey’s visit to Charlene and her new husband—the obvious reality of how Mickey could have been the man who Charlene ended up marrying, an alternate history so tangible, it’s present in their living room, among the midcentury modern furniture. But the only thing Mickey truly has, besides roads not traveled, is this car, because everything else is lost. Bunchy and Daryl aren’t children; Charlene is not his wife; he can’t afford expensive cognac, nor is he likely to anytime soon. He has an FBI agent hounding him looking for information, but all Mickey can manage to do is lose himself in booze and drugs and loud music, because that’s a route away from the reality he’s currently in. The black Cadillac is a vehicle to the past, a tool for regression.

It’s a fine symbol, and the character work on Ray Donovan is still excellent, but it still lacks focus. All the metaphors and subtext in the world can’t save a plot that has low stakes and even less direction. Even the Showtime marketing department seems a little unsure how to sell Ray Donovan—is it a show about a fixer? Or a show about a man’s criminal family? "No One Can Ever Know"... what? We’ve gotten some overarching motifs in the past weeks that boil down to “young people get corrupted by knowledge” and “homosexuality is okay, sometimes” and “Catholicism, am I right?!” The writers are certainly committed to their themes but without structure the themes come off as just silly.

But now that I’m along for the ride I’m stubbornly kind of enjoying it. The show is still too slow at various points—in part because there’s just no explanation or framing for most of what’s happening—but I’m enjoying the rich character portrayals, and “Black Cadillac” offers a range of experiences. I’m particularly interested in this week’s look at parallel worlds to the Donovans’ lives, which it seems like pretty much every family member indulges in this week.

Besides Mickey and his two sons in the Cadillac, the other journey into alternate history is the Donovan family trip to an expensive private high school in a different neighborhood. The school is an entry point into the social circle born to wealth and power and privilege. Chiefly, it’s a reminder of what they aren’t, and an indication of what they could be, in the future.The family’s reactions to this world of rarefied elite are mixed; Abby is openly eager to join it, while Ray is mostly dismissive, following his wife’s lead to make her happy, but less dazzled by the talk of Shakespeare and French. Daughter Bridget is not just interested in attending school—she also easily finds her way into the social life, talking about ski trips to Aspen without breaking a sweat. Meanwhile Conor tries to impress the other boys, only to be quickly labeled as either “trying too hard” or “gay” or both (hard to say which is worse for the other boys). It results in a fight. Ray has to leave to handle a case in a hotel with Lena, and in the breakdown the woman rakes his face with her nails. So the family reconvenes on the lawn of the private school, two with blood on their hands, two just trying to fit in.

It’s not original, not really, but it’s well done. High school is a theatre of power, and given Ray’s job, it’s just another arena of power he needs to struggle with in his present life. The tension within the family about what their role is in the world is a fascinating one, and interspersed with Abby’s memories of her youth in Southie is Bridget’s open disgust for the lives her parents have led. Or at least—embarassment. A sense of shame she inherited from Abby, who is always trying to look and act a little “better” than what she thinks she is. The performances are all solid. The writing is surprisingly nuanced. At one point Abby and Ray start flirting with each other, the way they did when they were teenagers, presumably. But within the reminscence is a certain pain. Even the language they’re talking—their Boston accents, talking about only being allowed to do things “over the sweater” because Abby is a good Catholic girl—is totally alien, not only to their surroundings or their children but also to the people they are today. The accents remain, but nearly everything else has been left behind, abandoned or jettisoned.

This is where Mickey comes in, of course, a bull from the past in the proverbial china shop of the present. He is useful to the FBI, so despite Ray’s careful scheming, he won’t go back to prison. He’s going to be in the way from now on. I’m interested in the idea that Ray and Abby might want a little piece of their past back, instead of whatever they have out here in Los Angeles. If that’s the thread of Ray Donovan, it’s a good one. I’m not sure if they’ve managed to establish just what the Donovans left when they moved, but now that i’m partway in I feel like I can be a little more patient with the show’s glacial subtlety. 

The last foray into the world beyond is Terry’s date with his nurse, an awkward affair punctuated by the assistance of his friend Potato Pie. Terry’s trying on a new role—that of the functional bachelor interested in settling down—but somehow the sadness of the story is in how uncomfortable he feels in that world parallel to his. At the end of the date, he’s content to let Potato Pie do the talking while he sits silent across from the woman he’s got a crush on. Like he can’t really be a part of his own date; he’s just an observer. Which is how all of our characters feel in their journeys. Outsiders, looking in.

Stray observations:

  • This episode reminded me of various little plot devices that have been inconsistently developed over these past four episodes—what happened to the pop startet trying to sleep with Ray, for example? Are we supposed to recognize the woman who attacks Ray in the hotel?
  • Mickey’s helpful advice of the week:  “Great kids come from great fucks.”
  • Ray would be more sympathetic as a put-upon husband and father if he could verbalize anything he needed instead of just punching things.
  • Terry is left-handed. That’s all.
  • Ray’s wife is named Abby. His right-hand man at work is named Avi. The names sound almost identical.
  • And for your musical edification, the song played in the last scene