For those of us who grew up in Los Angeles, Ann Biderman’s Ray Donovan is the answer to a core dilemma of life in that dismally decadent city. And the dilemma is this: L.A. is a city that comes fully stocked with people who incessantly and exclusively discuss the people they have met and the things they plan to do, the places they have been and the trips they’re planning to take, yet, very few of the Angelinos seem ever to do anything or know anybody or go anywhere. The essential question, then, is how anything gets done. How are movies made, freeways paved, shops opened, ships unloaded? Ray Donovan offers the answer to this question: there is a guy running around with a baseball bat, beating the shit out of people to make sure everything keeps running smoothly.
Liev Schrieber’s title thug in Ray Donovan, which just finished its first season on Showtime, is a Boston-bred bruiser distinguished by a menacing swagger and a taut perma-scowl. As a sort of paramilitary factotum for movie-industry lawyer Ezra Goldman (Elliot Gould), he beats, blackmails, tortures and threatens his way through a Hollywood that both needs and fears him. Ray himself, like so many other Angelinos, is a migrant worker—his specialty is even manual labor of a sort.. But, as it so happens, his skills are found not in agriculture or construction, but in liberal and extravagant use of force. His gray and dour homeland, along with that of most of the show’s male characters, is South Boston—a sort of mythic wellspring of tough guys that continually disgorges people, problems, and memories onto Ray Donovan‘s plot.
This is a show with a rich, impressively tragic mythology. At the series’ start, this mythology presents itself mostly as a set of problems for Ray to resolve. His father, Mickey Donovan (Jon Voight), has recently been released early after serving twenty years for a murder he didn’t commit—although he’s guilty of many, many others. Ray doesn’t want Mick around his family for reasons that are initially unclear, although the depth of his hatred is revealed a few episodes down the line when, in front of his wife and children, Ray brandishes a pistol and threatens to shoot his father in the head. As it transpires, Ray and Ezra (and a whiny, indulgent movie star played by Johnathon Schaech) are the reason Mick went to jail in the first place. Ezra, whose periodic lapses into Yiddish index his slow slide into senility, is confused and panicked by Mick’s arrival at his home: disoriented and confused, Ezra sees the Donovan patriarch as a golem—a menacing, inhuman figure out of Jewish folklore. In a marginally more lucid moment, he tells Ray (and us) that they have done “terrible things” together; we see Ray doing plenty of terrible things at Ezra’s behest, but somehow we get the feeling that these aren’t what Ezra is talking about.
In his nasty work, Ray is assisted by Lena (Katherine Moennig), an energetically impassive lesbian, and Avi, a good-natured badass whose believability is only slightly compromised by actor Steven Bauer’s serviceably crappy Israeli accent. Ray’s family knows, more or less, what he does for a living. His wife, Abby (Paula Malcolmson) is a Southie girl through-and-through, complete with accent and attitude. She shares some of her husband’s sharp edges, but tries hard not to think about his job. Their kids—Connor (Devon Bagby) and Bridget (Kerris Dorsey)—are inoffensively ordinary, like white-bread versions of their parents with all the crusts cut off. Ray leaves most of the child-rearing to his wife, which is probably for the best, considering his parenting style is congruent with his overall savagery: when Bridget’s boyfriend gets rough with her, Ray drags him from his house and sticks a gun in his mouth.
Ray’s brother Terry is a lonely, good-hearted boxing instructor suffering from Parkinson’s after one too many bad hits in the ring. His other brother, Punchy, is an erratically sober “sexual anorexic”, traumatized and psychologically crippled by the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a parish priest. We learn that there was, at one point, a Donovan sister—the original Bridget—but that, years prior, she took acid and then a dive off a rooftop. We know also that Ray’s mother died young, of cancer, while Mick was off with another woman.
Mickey’s appearance in California also catalyzes a whole mess of complications, complete with the appearance of a foppish FBI agent and a psychopathic Whitey Bulger type played well by a worn-looking James Woods. There is so much bloodshed that one can’t help but imagine that, in reality, the activities of Ray and his associates would be enough to keep most of L.A.’s morgues and emergency rooms permanently staffed.
Ray has only two modes of interaction with other human beings: violence and the threat of violence. On the rare occasion he is not engaged in some variety of exotic savagery, Ray is like Ezra’s mythic golem: stolid, hulking, blank-faced. What he threatens, as in the original folk tale, is that he will go horrifyingly berserk, destroying not only his enemies, but also those he exists to protect.
This is why it would be a mistake to view Ray Donovan‘s sanguinary excess as somehow gratuitous. Violence is central in Ray’s universe, with everything else in orbit around it. This universe, incidentally, takes the form of Los Angeles—which is a city both obstinately idle and vigorously depraved. It’s the ideal setting for a character like Ray, whose putative masters, petulant candy-asses like lawyer Lee Drexler (Peter Jacobson) and studio exec Stu Feldman (Josh Pais), can only pretend to order him around. Drexler, Ezra’s partner, sputteringly admonishes Ray midway through the season—“Give me one good reason not to fire you!”—but Ray stares him down. “I’m not the kind of guy you fire,” he says, and walks out.
To watch Ray Donovan, the show, is to watch Ray Donovan, the character, try to keep the violence in, to keep it subterranean and sublimated even as the world around him goads him into unleashing it. It’s clear that, for Ray, cruelty is the shortest distance between two points. The various possible explanations for this impulse are unraveled episode-by-episode: it could be a criminal father, a dead mother or sister, an interfering priest; it could be that Ray’s pugnacity is so hungrily demanded by L.A.’s moneyed deviants that retirement is impossible. Or it could be that Ray himself is intrinsically, immanently and irredeemably murderous.