Ray Donovan season 1 finale review: Same Exactly

Ray Donovan improved considerably over its first season, but Michael argues it still has some way to go...

This review contains spoilers.

1.12 Same Exactly

“I dunno, find something. Just call the ambulance”. I’m not sure how intentional it was, but Ray finally found, in this climactic episode of the season, that his ability to ‘fix’ things had left him. It was his natural territory too – a nefarious act that had turned out contrary to expectations and had left a couple of corpses and a bleeding Federal Agent. Still, Ray, wrong-sided by the course of events had little else to do but get his ass out of there and leave someone else to sweep things up.

Nevertheless, it was one of the best responses to the original premise of the show, that skilled LA fixer Ray could slice through his clients’ problems with proficient efficiency but couldn’t quite fix his own life. 

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It was a rather unbalanced premise; the first component was far weaker than the second. Over the course of this season, we’ve seen, repeatedly, how shallow the plotlines were that handled the Hollywood material. The stronger episodes were the ones that focused on the Donovan family rather than Ray’s day job. Although they would occasionally intersect, as in the case of Sean Walker, and with Ezra Goldman, who was more of a family friend than a working associate, it felt at times as though there were two shows that had been stitched together in an effort to say something about the hip sleaziness of its moneyed LA setting. 

Thankfully, the Donovans and their domestic tragedies emerged with greater confidence as the season progressed and we ended up with a solid sequence of episodes that focused strongly on the dominant concern of the lead family, namely their inability to fully escape their background and the trail of tragedy that took them out of Boston in the first place. 

“Same exactly”. Mickey’s words gave this episode its title and underpinned the central conflict of the lead. Ray’s trouble is that he’s just too much like his father, maybe not as brash or as outwardly stupid, but at times just as impulsive and as capable of committing violence on a whim. They have different motivations; Ray tends to stew on things before venting whereas Mickey is simply trigger-happy, but they’re nonetheless cut from the same cloth and inextricably bound together in the fabric of their shared history. 

It’s that history that made Sully entirely appropriate as the season’s Big Bad and the chief obstacle that had to be removed before we could close the arc. It was appropriate too, that Mickey’s recklessness and natural duplicitousness should give him the means to finish him off. Sully has been great, not least because of the way that his sheer vileness emerged slowly, letting us learn of his true nature crime by horrible crime. It’s a far better treatment of character and exposition than we were given at the start of the season when the writers expo-dumped us with the reckless abandon of Mickey on a bender. For someone who we first encountered laughing his ass off at some silly physical game show, Sully slithered into a solid status as the only character able to shock us more than Mickey. It’s a little sad to lose James Woods, but it was entirely right to do so, especially in such a sudden manner. Was it what he wanted? Certainly not, but it was what he deserved. 

Sully was, in Ezra’s words, a “monster” that he and Ray had unleashed. Remember the reference to the Golem? He was partly that too. Sully was a ghost from the past, summoned by Ray to deal with the problems of the present only to escape his master’s grip. Again, it chimes with Ray Donovan’s thematic preoccupation with losing control of dark forces. It’s a motif that occurs in all the adult Donovans who cannot stop picking Bostonian scabs even after fetching up on the other side of the country. It’s there in Bunchy’s tear-strewn dwelling on Father Danny’s abuse of him and the aftermath of revenge. It’s there too in Terry’s constant awkwardness around other people, especially Frances, who spent a very long time patiently drawing him out of his shell. 

The treatment of Terry has seen the show at its best. He’s grown far more than any other character and was given a full season in which to do it. Recall his cringeworthy chat-up technique early on (Do you like spaghetti?) and contrast it with the heartfelt, though still uncertain, way he confided in Ray his feelings about the killing of Father Danny. That the show is called Ray Donovan is a little unfair, given the excellence of Eddie Marsan and Dash Mihok and the richness of their characters, particularly as the season ended. The Donovan Brothers would perhaps be a better title, and more reflective of the show’s emergent strengths.

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Ultimately however, titles are irrelevant as long as the material itself works and Ray Donovan, for all its early difficulties, works. Improvement is still needed; too much of even this finale felt anticlimactic (Ray and Mickey’s semi-reconciliation lacked emotional punch) but it has been moving in the right direction. The writing and plotting improved in power and efficiency as the season went on and the performances (leaving aside some troublesome accents) were uniformly excellent. At its core, the show has an intense network of interconnected stories and characters that have earned our emotional investment. Bunchy and Terry each have a long way to go, Ezra is far from well and Mickey, well he’s still breathing and still capable of creating havoc.  

And Ray? He ends his season with his family, gazing out across the Pacific. It looks nice, idyllic even, but he’s still got blood on his crisp white shirt.

Ray Donovan will return next year.  

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Bucky Fuckin’ Dent, here.

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