Maybe the biggest problem with Ray Donovan is that it’s boring.
I’m having trouble recalling anything important in “Golem.” Things happen, but they are seemingly disconnected events, strung together like beads on a chain. Terry sleeps with Frances, then discovers she has a husband (or live-in boyfriend). Abby meets with a life coach, who begins to ask her pointed questions about her husband (Abby’s repsonse is to call her a “nosy cunt”). Bridget and Marvin Gaye Washington make out. Conor starts drinking and vomits in his parents’ walk-in closet. Ray confronts the mysterious woman from last week, a woman who is going through a terrible divorce with her husband. Ray works for her husband, obviously, and pushes her into making a deal. His starlet stalker handcuffs herself to his bathroom, and he fends her off, but then decides to have sex with her later, for unclear reasons. Mickey hangs out with Ezra, while wearing a wire, and turns over the evidence of Ezra’s wrongdoing to his friend from the FBI. Bunchy buys a really sad-looking house with the money from his settlement.
There, I’ve told you what happens. But truly, none of it matters. All of the plot lines are inching forward imperceptibly, but there is no sense of urgency, nothing to indicate that now, something is happening. There’s little vitality in this episode, nothing to shake us out of the mood of the show, which is dream-like in its continued impotence—something terrible is always about to happen, but never actually does. Maybe the whole show is a golem, a thing that walks and talks and looks like a television show but is created inorganically. An animated pile of garbage. It can be hard to tell the real thing from the facsimile sometimes.
I’ve been using the summer to catch up on a lot of television—disparate series like Borgen, Scandal, and Freaks And Geeks. It’s led me to watch the first four to six episodes of various different kinds of television shows, from the pilot into the first narrative arc or two of the series. I’m not an expert, but generally speaking any story needs to establish characters, setting, and stakes. Definitely in the first episode; preferably, in the first five minutes.
It’s a major problem that five episodes into Ray Donovan, the stakes are murky at best. Clearly, the FBI is closing in on Ray, but what is Ray doing that is so bad, anyway? He’s certainly messed with too many crime scenes, and lied, and trespassed on private property a whole bunch. He did beat that guy to death with a baseball bat, after dyeing him green. But Ray was afraid for his life well before that murder. And afraid of Mickey, too—though increasingly, that’s not making sense either. If, as we learn in this episode, Mickey went to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, why is he such a big scary man for Ray? Is Ray just deeply terrified of… intimacy? He never explains any of his motivations to anyone or anything, probably because his trust issues are a mile deep. But his obliqueness reads as opacity. For all that the show is named after the character, we know so little about Ray it’s impossible to invest in him—to empathize with him—really, to care about him—in the way the show wants us to.
The best example of this is the muddled story featuring Marvin Gaye Washington’s mother, a compelling character brought into the story two episodes ago when Ray facilitated the adoption of her son by the rapper who lives down the street from the Donovans. Ray seems to feel a kind of connection to her, perhaps as a parent; in “Golem,” he goes to check up on her, only to find her dead and bloody, probably robbed for the money she got in the deal.
This seems to tear him up quite a bit. And after he discovers that Ezra has a brain tumor, he goes into the traditional antihero downward spiral, getting drunk on his own sorrow, screwing the starlet, and returning home to sob quietly into a piece of bloody paper. It’s affecting and kind of pathetic in its own way, but stops well shy of being powerful—because we have no idea who this man is, no idea why he cares about what he’s seen. We don’t even know what the bloody piece of paper is. It’s all terrible news, but Ray’s resulting emotional defeat seems to come out of nowhere. The final moment of the show, where Ray is weeping at his desk and Abby comes in to ask him bluntly—“Who the fuck are you, Ray?”—is supposed to produce an emotional reaction in its audience. Unfortunately, the primarily feeling I experienced was confusion. As Abed from Community said so succinctly: “I need help reacting to something.” I really have no idea how to feel about most of what happens on Ray Donovan.
In much of the episode Abby is sifting through Ray’s things, trying to decipher her husband’s secrets and silences. If only there was anything to decipher. We see 10 times more of him than she does, and we still don’t have a clue why Ray feels the way he does. I like it when television challenges me to interpret symbols or character arcs, but nuance isn’t the same thing as hiding in plain sight. Sometimes it seems like Ray Donovan has a point. Sometimes, as in “Golem,” it feels like the whole show is based on nothing.
- Did I entirely miss why Conor was vomiting? Even if I did miss something—why was it so oblique?
- Are we supposed to be upset about Bridget hooking up with Marvin? Excited? Jaded? Dead inside?
- The FBI agent collects action figures. Nice touch.
- Not enough Lena.
- The music in the last scene, going into the credits, is really lovely.