While Ray goes to New York to try to save his wife, Abby takes fate into her own hands
Episode 508
Credit: Michael Desmond/SHOWTIME

When “Horses” kicks off, it’s with a rare scene of joy. Any sort of optimism has been hard to come by with the fifth season of Ray Donovan, both in terms of the emotional trauma of the characters and the underwhelming plot of the show. For a brief moment at the top of the episode, though, we get to watch the Donovans in their element, lending each other a hand, putting the final touches on the bar before its grand opening. All that’s left is illuminating the sign that says “Abby’s,” offering up some light amid all the darkness.

Before long though, that joy falls away; it never lasts long these days. When Abby gets a call, it’s the news we’ve known about since the beginning of the season, which is that she wasn’t chosen as part of the trial surgery to battle her cancer. The lottery didn’t work out in her favor. So, she goes for a walk, but it’s not the kind of wandering, sorrowful, meditative one you might expect. Instead, Abby has a purpose. She heads straight to a pharmacy and gets a prescription for pills that she will use to kill herself. She’s done with the battle. She’s ready to control the final moments of her life.

The only problem with that is that her husband isn’t one to relinquish control. When he comes home and Abby breaks the news, informing him about her decision with the pills, he takes the prescription and flushes it down the toilet. It’s yet another sign that Ray and Abby are in no way on the same page. Abby reminds him that they agreed to letting her control her fate if she didn’t get into the trial, but Ray refuses to accept that outcome. So, he packs a bag, calls Lena for information on the people who did get approved for the trial, and heads to New York.

This is the moment when “Horses” really starts to disappoint. The entire arc of the episode is about Abby coming to the decision to kill herself, leading to the blowup between Ray and the rest of his family. The problem is that many of the episode’s more dramatic moments are built on narrative details we already know. We’re already privy to Abby choosing to kill herself, Bridget and Terry’s help in that, Ray’s poisoning of Smitty, and therefore the fruitlessness of his quest. The question, then, is: Can “Horses” use our knowledge of these events in an interesting, unique way in order to make sure the episode’s most dramatic moments still pack a punch?

For the most part, the answer is no. “Horses” struggles to build any momentum because there’s hardly anything left that we don’t already know. The entire episode is focused on two concurrent stories: Abby back at home deciding that now is the time to take her life, and Ray going to New York to inject Smitty with a Meningitis virus, therefore disqualifying him from the trial. There’s no Natalie James (thankfully), no Sam Winslow, no talk of “Four Leaf,” and no Conor whatsoever, which is a little strange when you consider everything that happens during the episode’s climax.

That narrow focus has the potential to lend the story some real emotional impact, placing us firmly in the grief that everyone is feeling. While those moments do exist — more on what “Horses” really gets right on the next page — so much of the episode is spent running over narrative beats that we’re already familiar with, and it makes the 59-minute episode feel like a slog to get through. (Recap continues on page 2)

As frustrating as it is to watch Ray go to New York to do a deed we already know the outcome of, there are moments and character dynamics that are enhanced by the season’s flashback structure and the episode’s focus on only two story lines. For instance, one of the more rewarding aspects of “Horses” is the way it contrasts Ray and Terry, specifically how they deal with Abby’s decision to take her own life.

What’s fascinating is that while Terry’s not-so-platonic love for Abby has always seemed kind of strange and desperate, it’s revealed here as something so much more. He’s literally there when Ray isn’t, offering her everything that Ray can’t. He’s listening to her wants and needs while Ray is stubbornly stuck pursuing what he wants. Yes, Ray is looking out for Abby and doing what perhaps any husband would, but he’s also actively ignoring the wishes of the one person who’s supposed to mean everything to him. He’s “Ray the Fixer” here, when Abby really needs “Ray the Husband.”

As Ray fights off Avi’s Israeli contact in New York, gets the Meningitis virus, and proceeds to ruin Smitty’s chance of recovery, Terry and the rest of the Donovans are making sure that Abby has the best time at her bar before its grand opening. They drink, crack jokes, and generally enjoy each other’s company. It’s partly a living wake, partly a true bonding moment for the family. No matter how much nonsense they go through, they always step up for each other. They have their issues, but they’re still family.

Which makes it all the more egregious that Ray isn’t there. Perhaps he’s struggling to accept Abby’s death, or perhaps he’s trying to make amends for all the times he cheated on his wife, most recently with Natalie James, but no matter his reasons, he’s not there for Abby when she needs him. Instead, he’s crossing a moral line and ruining a kid’s chance at treatment.

When Abby wants one final cigarette, it’s Terry who’s there for her. When she wants help breaking up her pills and creating the deadly mixture with Ginger Ale, it’s Terry and Bridget who are there to lend a hand. All of this is certainly emotionally effective, but its impact is undeniably hindered by what we already know. “Horses” plays Abby’s decision like a monumental moment, which it is, but it’s a decision we’ve known about, or at least had vague ideas about, for some time. Similarly, Ray’s trip to New York feels like a waste of the show’s time; Smitty’s fate and Ray’s role in it all has been explicit since the very beginning of the season.

That said, there are a few truly gut-wrenching aspects of the episode’s final moments. The joy on Ray’s face when he gets the call about Abby being approved for the trial is heartbreaking considering that at that exact moment, Abby is slipping into the afterlife. Also, contrary to the other familiar plot turns, it’s beneficial to know that Ray previously blamed Bridget for Abby’s death. That bit of information instills dread in us as we watch Ray come into the house and find Abby dead, with Bridget crying in the hallway. We know what’s coming, and it makes his pained, angry outburst all the more brutal because we’re terrified about it finally happening.

In theory, the same can be said for Ray beating the hell out of his family at Abby’s bar, as it’s a moment that we should be anticipating with dread. But it doesn’t work the same way as the anger directed towards Bridget, and I think that’s because we’ve seen so much of the aftermath. This might be a shockingly violent moment from Ray, but we know that, for the most part, things turn out okay. We’ve seen the way these relationships have started to heal already, and that means this moment isn’t nearly as shocking or revelatory as it should be.

But Abby’s death is in the past now. The season’s main storytelling device has played itself out, which should mean that Ray Donovan will be forced to pivot to something else, and perhaps something more interesting. Perhaps with Abby’s death firmly behind us, Ray Donovan will regain some focus and find a compelling narrative thread to close out the season. Then again, what’s left besides Natalie James’ drama and the rather uninteresting mystery of Sam Winslow and her dead daughter? As always, we wait and hope for the best.

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