While Ray works to get Natalie back on set, a flashback brings us closer to the final moments of Abby's life
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)