While Ray works to get Natalie back on set, a flashback brings us closer to the final moments of Abby's life
Episode 506
Credit: Michael Desmond/SHOWTIME

To say that “Shelley Duvall” suddenly clears away some of the clutter of this season of Ray Donovan wouldn’t exactly be true. There’s a lot of clutter to clear away, and it’ll take more than a single episode to get through it all and provide this season with some clarity. With that said, this is an episode that does at least start to point to an impending reveal. But that’s been the problem with this season, hasn’t it? Ray Donovan has spent a lot of time teasing a game-changing moment that happened between the Donovans while Abby was dying, and yet the show has spent very little time digging into that drama.

It’s strange, because in the span of a single episode Ray Donovan can go from using mystery and uncertainty in the narrative to great effect to suddenly using it in a sloppy way that only stalls the story, allowing it to drag on for far too long. Purposely holding back information is a tricky game to play when you’re engaged in episodic storytelling. It can be useful for creating tension and intrigue, but too much withholding can also kill the story’s momentum. Right now, the plot about Abby’s death and what led to the fight between the Donovan brothers falls into that latter category.

At the top of the episode though, “Shelley Duvall” uses misdirection beautifully. Ray parks his car outside of a fire station and then takes a seat on a bench across the road. Then the show crosscuts between Ray waiting on that bench and a flashback in which he and Abby, on a road trip, find themselves in a skating rink in the middle of the desert after their car breaks down.

The flashback makes it clear that this is near the end of Abby’s time. She’s still joking with Ray and having a blast going skating with him — thankfully, there’s no Ross Rhea in sight — reminiscing about how she could figure skate when she was a kid, but the activity also takes its toll on her. Every moment of joy is countered by one of sickness, a reminder that she only has so much time left. As Abby is reminded of her impending death in the flashback, in the present day, Ray’s memory is triggered when his car is towed.

As he watches the car pull away, he thinks back to the day their car broke down and they went ice skating. It’s a beautiful bit of parallel imagery, getting at one of the hardest parts about losing someone you love: dealing with all the small, seemingly innocuous things that suddenly remind you of that person. Something as simple as a tow truck can open the floodgates of memories and emotions, reopening those wounds all over again.

At first, this emotional reckoning is a good thing. We get to see Abby and Ray in a moment of happiness, something that’s pretty rare in the Donovan house, even without the looming cancer. Before long, though, there’s a shift. Abby tells Ray that she doesn’t want to treat the cancer anymore. She says she knows she’s not getting better, and she wants to spend her last days feeling relatively normal, not a drugged up mess.

This is where it works to withhold some information. Abby’s plea is an emotional gut-punch after everything we’ve seen with her. Plus, in the present day, we see that Ray intentionally got his car towed because he stuffed Lena in the trunk so that she could retrieve Winslow’s precious documents, still in the back of Vicky’s totaled car, from the impound lot. The whole sequence, cutting between the present and the past, is wonderfully constructed, using the first 20 minutes of the episode to tell two unique but interconnected stories that deepen our understanding of this season and the characters’ journeys. (Next: Natalie always wins — or something)

While some of the flashbacks in the first part of “Shelley Duvall” help clarify the dynamic between Abby and Ray — not to mention Conor and Bridget, who are distraught and angry when Abby breaks the news to them — the present-day story continues to muddle things.

Essentially, Terry is in New York now, bringing Damon to train in Hector’s gym and fight on his undercard, and that gives him a chance to meet with Bridget. He quickly pivots away from talking about Maureen and instead asks Bridget about her new boyfriend. She plays coy at first, but they eventually go visit Smitty in the hospital. Then things get weird.

The mystery surrounding Abby’s death deepens when Smitty runs into a young woman who remembers him from the hospital. She says they were both prepared for the experimental surgery at the same time. Now, she’s happy and healthy and in remission, and Smitty has to inform her that he never got the surgery (because of Ray, or so Bridget has said). When Terry witnesses the interaction, he nearly breaks down. He has a look on his face of complete devastation. Why?

Ray Donovan isn’t telling us just yet. What we do know is that Terry seems to feel responsible for Abby’s death. Drunk, he wanders into a church with Bridget, sits with her, and says things like, “What the f— did we do?,” “She would have lived,” and “I killed her.” My best guess is that Ray poisoned Smitty so that Abby could take his spot on the list for the surgery, but then Terry, Bridget, and maybe the others did something to make sure Abby didn’t because it wasn’t what she wanted. We’ll have to wait and see, though, because Ray Donovan continues to drag this story out.

While much of the focus of “Shelley Duvall” is on the flashbacks and Terry’s time in New York, there’s also the baffling story of who Sam Winslow is, how Natalie James plays into all of this, and why we should care. Ray gets Sam her stuff back, but Tom also ends up dead, and a visit to Winslow’s office confirms that she seemingly has her Oscar back too. Did she order Tom to be killed? Probably. Was it her weirdo son who did it? No, but I like to think he’s more important to the plot than just being a weird dude who pops up every now and then to quote movies.

Anyways, the drama that defines the stories of Winslow, Tom, Doug, and Natalie is, for my tastes, not the kind of stuff I find compelling. We’ve had six episodes of Natalie moping around and manipulating Ray before offering up that “she always wins” when Winslow bars Doug from appearing on her movie set. There’s an intriguing dynamic between Natalie and Ray, and some interesting thematic material about grief, loss, and regret hiding in there somewhere, but Ray Donovan isn’t exactly finding a way to explore it and make it all feel meaningful.

Hopefully, despite some of its meandering tendencies, this episode is the first sign that this season is starting to clarify its various stories. Bunchy is in prison, Winslow is slowly being revealed as monstrous, and we’re that much closer to understanding what happened to Abby and how the Donovans, with the exception of Ray, were involved in her death. All of that is promising ground to dig in; we just need Ray Donovan to get the shovels moving.

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