Ray Donovan finale recap: 'Time Takes a Cigarette'
After Winslow asks for a brutal favor, Ray must reckon with all of his immoral actions
Death has been the one reliable thing in this season of Ray Donovan. It’s been there since the beginning, when we learned of Abby’s death. It was there in numerous following episodes, when the exact details of her death were kept from us as a way to add some mystery to the season. Death seemed to be coming for everybody. Natalie James, Ray’s fling and the woman carrying Doug Landry’s child, ended up dead at the hands of her abusive husband; Frank Barnes, head of the FBI, was killed by Daryll; Jay White killed his sensei; Winslow ordered Tom to be murdered; and swirling around all of this was Abby’s death and the ever-expanding sickness of Smitty, the young man Ray poisoned in an attempt to save his wife.
Death looms large again in the season finale, and not just in its dramatic final scene. The episode begins at Natalie James’ funeral, and it’s the kickstarter for every single plot line to finally come together in one way or another. Ray is seen at the funeral and is later smeared in the media. Doug Landry is there, though few know of his salacious connection to Natalie. Of course Winslow is there as well, and she’s mad as hell — mad that Doug is about to take over her company, and mad that he can’t even shed a tear for his mistress.
Ray doesn’t have Doug on his mind though. Rather, he’s thinking about Smitty. Smitty’s potential death must really be hounding Ray because he goes to Winslow, of all people, for a favor. He gives her Dr. Bernstein’s name and says that he needs Winslow to convince her to do something she doesn’t want to do. Winslow, without hesitation, says she’ll get it done. That can’t bode well. There’s no way she doesn’t want something in return, and at this point I imagine we all have a few guesses as to what that might be.
It’s not just Smitty that Ray has to worry about. He’s also on a deadline to find the murder weapon used to kill Frank Barnes so the charges against Bridget stay dropped, and so Mickey goes away for the rest of his life. When Ray shows up at the bar and asks Daryll about the weapon though, his brother isn’t so accommodating. He says that Mickey is their father and that they shouldn’t be doing this to him. Ray isn’t that worried, saying that Mickey is a rat and that he’d turn them all in as soon as things got bad for him. When Ray leaves the bar, Bunchy tells Daryll to throw the gun in the river and worry about the consequences with Ray later.
As Ray tries to pin Mickey down, Mickey is in prison promising to sing like a bird in order to get his charges dropped. He says he didn’t kill Frank Barnes (he didn’t), and he says he can tell some stories that will shed light on a number of murders. “I can lead you to the truth of many things,” he says in a typical Mickey flourish. So he starts spilling the beans. He lays everything at Ray’s feet, including the murder of Frank Barnes. He lays out the whole deal with Avi and how everything went wrong. In some ways, he’s being truthful. But we know Ray didn’t kill Frank, and neither did Mickey. They’re both going to war over a crime they didn’t commit.
With Ray and Mickey’s battle driving the finale and season towards its end, the dominant atmospheric trait is dread. There’s the sense that something bad is coming. There’s dread inherent in Smitty’s near-death, and in the moral complications that come with getting him the surgery he needs. There’s dread in Conor coming back home, to an empty house, then convincing his father that he’s ready to enlist with the Marines. He has something to prove to his dad, but that’s never a good reason to put your life on the line. Just ask Ray. Also, there’s dread in Daryll’s indecision about giving up the murder weapon and testifying against Mickey. All of this dread builds and builds until it becomes unbearable, and all that’s left to do is fall. (Recap continues on next page)
Just as Daryll thinks he has everything worked out, deciding to throw the gun that killed Frank Barnes into the river and be done with it, he gets a call from Jay White. He says he needs to come to the office right away. Daryll shows up and what’s awaiting him is a job offer. “You know things about me, Daryll, so I’m going to keep you close,” says Jay before also admitting that he thinks Daryll could be a damn good addition to his team as a producer. He shows him his new office and the kind of life he could be living. All he asks for in return is, of course, to throw his own father under the bus and send him to prison for the rest of his life.
From here, the finale builds to a crescendo, and how affecting it is will likely depend on how you’ve felt about this entire season. In essence, some things start to click into place. As Ray brushes off the warning from his therapist about PTSD — “People die from this, Ray” — during their last session, it becomes clear that a lot of this season has been about exposing the cracks in Ray’s foundation, until we finally watch him crumble. He’s always had a stone-cold demeanor that’s shielded him from pain, and season 5 has been about the harmful consequences of living like that. For me, the execution has been off, as the stories of Natalie James and Sam Winslow, and the prolonged death of Abby, derailed a lot of momentum and potential emotional insight.
With that said, the finale does a good job of moving these characters into new places, both physically and emotionally: a last gasp of narrative movement after weeks of sluggish storytelling. Bunchy not only gets the bar from Ray but also puts his foot down with Teresa, asking her to leave him and Maria because the pain of living with her after she cheated is too much to handle. Terry is back in town and seemingly closer to the family than ever, prepared to stick it out no matter what.
The questions is: What does all this moving and shaking cost? Is anybody ending up in a better place? Moral contradictions arise everywhere. Yes, Smitty gets his surgery and is on his way to recovery, but it’s clear that Winslow did something terrible to get Dr. Bernstein into that room. And sure, Daryll is saved the devastation of going to prison, but his father is the one taking his place. Mickey, for all his wrongs, didn’t murder anybody, and now he’s going away for the rest of his life. Surely these decisions will plague the consciences of each character.
These are consequences and moral failings that Ray, perhaps, can’t deal with. When he kills Doug Landry and hangs him up in his hotel room to make it look like a suicide, much like Tom earlier in the season, it’s the last straw. It’s the final bit of nastiness that does him in. Not being there for his wife in her last moments, the coercion of Dr. Bernstein, and the death of Natalie James pushed him to the edge, and now cold-blooded murder has pushed him over.
That might be a literal statement. As the episode nears its end, with David Bowie’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” ringing out, Ray follows the specter of Abby up on top of a building on the edge of the river. He holds her hands before watching her fall off the ledge and into the water. Then the camera pulls back and we watch Ray take the plunge himself. He’s submerged, sinking, and the camera closes in on his face: eyes closed, perhaps at peace, perhaps unconscious. A final note rings out and the credits roll. An ambiguous ending to a rather frustrating season, but, considering the imagery, perhaps just the moment of cleansing and rebirth that this show needs.