This review contains spoilers.
1.4 Black Cadillac
When James Gandolfini left the party back in June, several of his obituarists noted that his success had ushered in an era in which the antihero was the dominant figure in TV drama. In all honesty, the ‘lead baddie’ was nothing new – J.R. Ewing was the biggest TV star of the 1980s while in the 1990s, Andy Sipowicz typified the sort of TV character who you’d only have in your home if he was kept safely on the other side of the screen. Nevertheless, in the little more than a decade since Tony Soprano rocked onto our TVs we’ve seen a cavalcade of guys, Vic Mackey, Al Swearengen, Dexter Morgan, Don Draper, Walter White, whom we love in spite of ourselves. Their morals may not meet with our approval, but we sure like to see them go about their nefarious business from week to week.
The makers of Ray Donovan have clearly aimed at the same angle. There are bad deeds a plenty and many a bad dude to do them. So why does it feel so different? Well, it’s fairly simple. If we’re to like the bad guy, he’s got to be likeable. If his particular brand of nastiness makes straight likeability a stretch, then good old fashioned charisma can easily fill the gap. Sadly for Ray Donovan, both likeability and charisma are in desperately short supply. There is no reason to care about any of the characters and I’d find myself indifferent to whether or not they succeed, even if I was given any information on what it is they’re trying to succeed at. As it is, it’s just unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to unpleasant people.
Take Ray. He’s still as laconic as ever, which is fine in itself, but he still hasn’t done or said anything to makes us care about him, let alone to justify his eponymity. He needs to open up a little if we’re ever going to get to know him, understand his motivations and perhaps even root for him. We can’t do any of those things while he remains so inscrutable, and clumsy dream sequences are a poor substitute for characterisation, especially when they are as hideous as the one that opened this episode. I’m all for characters being enigmatic, but Ray barely qualifies as a cypher. He’s not even useful as a vehicle through whom we can enjoy the seedy L.A. milieu he inhabits, largely because his fellow characters are at best inert and at worst, just ghastly.
Mickey, who is so nakedly an attempt at cutting a magnificent bastard from whole cloth, has too much bastard and not enough magnificence. We hear him describing, and comparing, the moments of his sons’ respective conceptions. We learn that his ex-partner, and the mother of his youngest son, has preserved his Cadillac and his big ol’ boot of booty porn. (In her new husband’s house? For twenty years?) It tells us nothing that we don’t already know. Yeah, Mickey is a horrid little scumbag. We gathered that at first sight. We’re just having our faces rubbed in it now. We’re four episodes in and the script is still stuck in Establishing Character Mode, but unfortunately finding us too many new reasons to be disgusted by him and too few to like him.
His dialogue has the nastiness of the villain without the wit to make him an antihero so, as with his eldest son; his best moments are the silent glances he gives. Just take a moment to look at his face when Claudette’s husband toasts his, Mickey’s, new life: a flicker of pain and a flash of what could have been. It’s Jon Voight making up for the problems with the writing. We do learn that Claudette was connected to the theft of half a million dollars that landed Mickey in clink and that, in his odd way, he does care for here, but they are overshadowed by the show’s enthusiasm to wallow in his filth. The atoms of characterisation that are here are too often buried in an avalanche of bad guy histrionics.
It’s a critical failure because it limits the ability of the show to examine the deeper themes it so obviously wishes to explore, if only partly successfully. Mickey’s momentary reflection on identity and fate was repeated through the episode in neat parallel. Two storylines were presented: Mickey, Bunchy and Daryll’s trip to visit Claudette, and Ray’s family visit to Bel Air Academy. Along the way we had unsubtle asides on the conception of children and of the gap between Abby and Ray’s Southie upbringing and the privileged one enjoyed by their children. When it dials back on the unpleasantness, it really works. Bridget is told, to her surprise and delight, ‘you could, like, be anyone’ and it chimes with the journey that everyone here seems to be attempting, and failing. Bridget can’t ‘be anyone’. She’s already a Donovan and living in a social world that does not recognise them. As wealthy as they probably are, the Donovans will never find acceptance.
They should perhaps count their blessings for that. On the evidence of their environment, I’d be inclined to take my chances with Southie. I don’t know why they persist with LA; it certainly doesn’t make them happy. The trip to Bel Air Academy was another vacation with the utterly hateful, monied scumbags that inhabit Ray’s world but without any dramatic reason why. We’ve established that Stu Feldman is a horrible and petulant little weasel, but if anything, his brat son is even worse. The lengthy scenes with them did nothing other than underline this point which again, was made several episodes ago. Everybody hates each other. Abby is disappointed in Ray, who has earned the enmity of Stu, whose son is a vicious little bully.
Then there’s the guy who rocks up to Ray and Abby simply to insult them only to offer a terrified apology later on after seeing Ray’s light wounds. That was it. There was no reason given for his change of heart, and certainly none from Ray who barely managed a murmur. Again. He’s just as silent when ‘dealing’ with his son’s assault on Stu’s horrible kid, a minor thread that simply disappeared as soon as it was convenient.
This is the difficulty. It’s all conflict. The resolution is neither earned nor deserved. When it does appear it is temporary and arbitrary, like last episode’s reconciliation between Ray and Abby. Drama doesn’t work without conflict, but it fails when that’s all it provides. It can do it properly when it wants to, just look at the unforced and natural portrayal of the warming relationship between Bunchy and Daryll.
Bunchy’s storyline benefits from being far away from the poisonous rich. His dinner with Frances went as well as could be expected, given that he’s seemingly unable to communicate with her, or indeed anyone, on a human level, thanks to Potato Pie, who stepped in to rescue first the dinner, then the conversation. Bunchy benefits from a subtlety that is in short supply on the show, but he is still surrounded by questions of motivation. Frances likes him and he likes her, we know this because both Ray and Potato Pie have helpfully told the audience explicitly, but why? He is abrasive, cold and apparently unfeeling. If she can see something in him, it would be good to know what that is.
Later on, with the reappearance of Van Miller, a character who is genuinely quirky and interesting, the action starts up again and the plot is energised. Mickey is informing on people, and the agent wants him to shop Ray too. Meanwhile, Ray is still using Avi to maintain surveillance on Mickey. There’s an actual storyline here, it’s just a shame that, like last week, it took almost the entire episode to get to it. We spent too long hanging around the Academy hearing Ray and Conor absorb the insults of Feldman and co. It dragged on so much that even the lead actor couldn’t bear to sit through them in their entirety and made an odd detour to clear a hotel room of bugs for no given reason.
It feels as though Ray Donovan was conceived as a two hour movie about an ex-con informing on his own son, but somehow managed to get thirteen hours to fill. Consequently, there’s about ten or fifteen minutes of actual drama padded out with forty-five of filler, during which we learn very little about the characters or their world that wasn’t established in the opening episode. It feels like a wasted opportunity for which no amount of antiheroes can compensate.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Twerk, here.
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