I’ve already said everything I’m going to say about Ray Donovan’s flaws. There isn’t a great deal more to add in terms of how the overall premise of the show is a tiny bit broken. But within the breaks are a lot of fascinating moments—which, incidentally, makes this show very hard to grade. I want to continue giving the overall idea of this show a grade somewhere in the low Cs or high Ds. It’s just too disorganized and static. But this episode, “Housewarming,” does so much with the mediocre idea, that I’m moved to give it something higher. There are some astonishingly beautiful moments in tonight’s episode. (I sort of averaged a B+ and a C- to get a C+. Math!)
“Housewarming” is a visually experimental episode—especially so for Ray Donovan, which up until now has been a pretty standard, dimly lit crime drama. That’s because Ray’s right-hand henchman Avi drugs Agent Miller (the FBI agent working with Mickey and after Ray) with a substance that turns out to be LSD. Hallucinations ensue. It would be more engaging if either a) the hallucinations were trippier or b) we had any stake in Miller as a character. But we don’t, so the drugs feel gratuitous, both here and elsewhere in the episode. The ruse leading up to drugging him is more interesting, if also unnecessarily detailed. We get a glimpse of Avi’s criminal mastery, but why the focus on this moment?
I have a theory. I think Ray Donovan chooses to focus on plot elements not because they add to a larger story, but because they’re cool. The coffee spiked with LSD: awesome. The case-of-the-week, in which women steal a football player’s sperm to get child support from him later: neat. Mickey snorting coke with his sons and then pushing Bunchy upstairs with a pretty woman: sweet. It’s almost as if the show is collective repeating “cool story, bro” to itself and the audience as it unfolds every new scene. (“Cool story, bro” would be an excellent replacement tagline, too.) There’s nothing wrong with showcasing something that’s intriguing or interesting or different, something that appeals to our collective desire to see something awesome. But all that coolness is getting in the way of Ray Donovan’s narrative, whatever that narrative is. As interesting as these story elements are, they don’t consistently point to something bigger.
The action centers around Bunchy’s housewarming party. Ray refuses to attend because he still hates Mickey, but everyone else makes it. Abby shows up beforehand to clean up and decorate (it’s sort of shocking how much nicer she manages to make the place), and she and Bunchy have a heartfelt, depressing conversation about how he blames himself for the abuse he experienced when he was a kid. Terry, his brother, fought the priest off. Why didn’t he? I didn’t expect to hear something so emotionally raw in the middle of an episode that’s all over the place in every other way. But this scene with Abby and Bunchy is the most important moment of “Housewarming”—a potential beginning of some kind of narrative arc for both characters to move out of the nadir they find themselves in. They’re both looking for more agency in their lives, and it’s quite fitting they both should meet at this moment, in the house Bunchy buys to try to fix his problems, in the house Abby cleans up because that’s all she really knows how to do.
Then Bunchy lights the house on fire. I mean, it’s symbolic in a thousand different directions, not the least of which is the play on the word “housewarming,” but it follows neatly enough from the escalating emotional fallout after that conversation. Bunchy gets drunk and high and tries to have sex with a woman but has a flashback to his molestation. So he freaks out and lights his Boston Red Sox pennant on fire, and you know, after that, the party’s over.
Compared to all of the drama at the party (including two new couples!), Ray’s story this week is a bit anticlimactic. He has a philandering football player and a call girl who spits semen into a cup to deal with, and he also spends time tormenting the FBI agent and worrying about Ezra. The mentor-protege scenes with Ray and Ezra fall flat, the story sounds like a tabloid conspiracy, and Ray himself is pretty wooden throughout the episode.
But at the very end, when he realizes his kids Conor and Bridget are at the house that’s on fire, he loses it completely—shoving the kids into the car and pointing a loaded gun at his father’s head. There’s a surreal kind of detachment in the violence of the scene. The kids are screaming and crying, Mickey and Terry are shouting, and Ray is a transformed, enraged monster. It’s a clear message—in his attempt to be a good father, he’s turning into a maniac. His children are terrified of him, and don’t understand Ray’s twisted paranoia. They won’t even let him drive them home. Terry does that, after Ray stands down. Ray returns to Ezra, recovering from his surgery in the hospital. Ezra points out they need to kill Mickey—which seems to be the most obvious decision from the start. The episode ends with a question mark—Ray admits he can’t bring himself to kill his father, but he still wants Mickey dead, which means they have to find someone who wants him dead. They have someone in mind.
It’s all subtlety and insinuation, which is par for the course for Ray Donovan. Watching this show feels as if it’s 1am and you can’t sleep so you turn on the television and there’s a made-for-TV movie, perhaps in a different language, that’s already an hour in. It’s compelling and mysterious, but it’s hard to find the significance of any particular moment. I don’t mind being a bit lost in a show, but that requires a patience and dedication most television shows can’t afford.
- Apropos of nothing, the shot where Ray and Avi confront Agent Miller is really well-done. They both bend over in unison, without speaking, to find Miller cowering under his desk, waiting for the hallucinations to stop. The camera pans out and down towards the desk, which is mesmerizing.
- Terry, in response to Abby’s efforts to clean the house: “Yeah, I like what you did with the chairs, and flowers.” Thanks, Terry!
- Early in the episode Ray tries to dodge Abby’s questions about photos of a dead priest and handcuffs and his bathroom by saying that’s “business.” I thought Abby’s response encapsulates the primary tension of Ray Donovan (insofar as it even has a primary tension)—“How is that business, Ray?”
- I used to watch America's Funniest Home Videos religiously as a kid, so I immediately recognized its theme song playing in the background in the final scene. It’s godawful. Unfortunately, it was then stuck in my head for a really long time. “It’s the red white and blue / oh the funniest things you do! / America! America! This is you!”