Showtime's Ray Donovan started out as a simple yet inviting concept. An LA fixer with a shady past hustling among the most dangerous people into the city of angels while balancing a family life and a special bond with his brothers. Easy, compact, and carrying enough juice to pull viewers along for the ride.
As it wound up its fourth and strongest season yet on Sunday, the series hit a new high and could go anywhere as the fifth season hits production early next year.
Wait a minute. When a series gets into year four on Showtime, the gas pedal gets released and some of the heat on the fastball disappears. Remember Dexter, where the post John Lithgow era was less than stellar. The L Word spun its wheels after the 36 episode mark and so have a dozen other premium cable series. How much story can a show tell before retreads and familiarity become a distraction instead of a tool?
This season, the Russian mob posed the biggest threat for the second season against the Donovan family while Ray(the superb and understated Liev Schreiber) battled his conscience for another 12 rounds(or episodes). Meanwhile, Bunchy(Dash Mihok, rolling around in a layered role), struggled with fatherhood and the mental instability of his wife Teresa.
Mickey(Jon Voight, full of tricks and skills) started out stranded in Vegas playing a huge con before taking a hit for the family and getting closer to his sons, who he'd used as pawns far too often before. Terry(the underrated Eddie Marsan) finding success in a champion boxer and a kid from the streets while finding a love in a police officer.
Paula Malcomson's Abby, a character who has slowed the series down in the past, became a useful element this season as her character had a health scare and got more involved in the business while the Donovan kids were forced to deal with how daddy the big bucks.
What I loved most about the latest season of Ray Donovan was the real legit threat and how the Donovans reacted to it. In the finale, they didn't just come together and vanquish the enemy. They finally accepted each other for who they really are.
Terry came to terms with his involvement with Ray, the Russians, and Hector Campos, the prize fighter who required both the brother's services. Bunchy finally accepted Mickey for being the lying con man he'd always been but also saw the humility in his father when the old man lost his girlfriend towards the end of the season.
Steven Bauer's Avi was placed in serious danger. A peril few of Ray's direct associates had found themselves in. Heck, Kate Moennig's Lara got punched in the face by Lisa Bonet's unhinged Campos sibling. Everybody got bruised this season, but they came together.
Hank Azaria brought back the incorrigible Ed Cocchan to both assist and hinder Ray, and the exchanges between Azaria and Schreiber created some of the series' most signature moments, including a Bob Seger karokee session. Ted Levine showed up as a Vegas casino mongrel, lighting up a few hours and key moments.
The team work made the happier than usual ending more convincing. Instead of simply making things settle in nice and snug without any prerequisite storytelling arc, showrunner/director David Hollander put these characters together because it felt natural and timely for them to form a team.
For the first three seasons, Abby knew little about how deadly her husband's business got. This season, she was involved in a home invasion murder of a Russian thug. Bunchy, Mickey, and Pooch Hall's Daryll all helped Ray escape danger. It wasn't just Ray who was threatened this season. All the Donovans felt a push and reacted accordingly.
It just felt right and that made it compelling, entertaining, and provocative while also handing Hollander, Schreiber, and company a creative license to go in new directions next season. Do the Donovan brothers team up and take down bad guys and settle disputes? Is Abby really cancer free? Are the kids safe? Will other mafia families rise up and come after Ray?
There was a great exchange between Ray and Embeth Davidtz's Sonia in the finale that kicked the season into rhythm. He was driving her back to Dmitri(the gifted Raymond Barry) and both of them knew it was imminent death for her. All cards could be laid on the table, especially after she sold him out to the Feds.
She told him that her art business, while shady and funneling drugs into the city, was her potential escape from the madness. She had no family except for her daughter. That was all she had. Unlike Ray, her family consisted of cold blooded killers like Dmitri.
Ray realized that his family consisted of loving yet formidable people and he decided to use that strength to push back against jail time and death.
The result was satisfying and perfectly timed. Ray Donovan got a happy ending instead of an hour that leaves the title character shot, bloodied, and seeking redemption.
For Ray, redemption is relative to the current situation. An ongoing theme instead of a quick resolution. He may never be happy or content, but he can at least be honest with the people he loves about what he must do to stay alive.
None of this works without the greatness that is Schreiber and his restrained simmering approach. A theater trained actor who only needs a few words or lines or dialogue to get a point across is rare. As a producer on the show, the actor has free reign to cut dialogue and he often does with Ray. The man's stares and brooding gazes speak volumes that monologues couldn't cover appropriately. Before the show, Liev was hustling in solid supporting roles that made you want more. This series is a perfect canvas for his artform.
Ray Donovan produced its finest season yet, and sets the show up on a course that is both entertaining and unpredictable. Instead of losing steam, it's riding higher than ever. It's further proof that television is winning the war over movies at the moment.