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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ray Donovan: “New Birthday”

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Ray Donovan is the weirdest show.

Tonight’s episode, “New Birthday,” comes together well—far better than the last few episodes of Ray Donovan. But it’s still a confusing show, seemingly trapped in a misunderstanding about its self-identity. Yet I liked “New Birthday” for being refreshing. It’s an unsettling, dark episode, centered around Ray’s trip to Boston to convince a man to kill his father.


The man in question is called Sully, played by James Woods, of all people—another casting coup for a show that has already distinguished itself with incredible actors. I didn’t think Sully added a lot to the story, aside from being a mythical, legendary figure built up with much fanfare as the episode goes on. But he has the potential to make things pretty interesting. Also: Right from the start, he and Ray have a tense, electric dynamic, one that plays a lot more with combative mutual respect than anything Ray has with Mickey.

I am so tired of Mickey. In past weeks I’ve discussed how he might be useful as a character, but he remains stubbornly opaque in this role, neither sympathetic nor interesting. He takes the opportunity of Ray’s absence in “New Birthday” to dabble in the film industry, of all things—confronting Sean Walker, the man who he took the rap for when he went to prison. Sean’s a film star now, and Mickey’s trying to put pressure on him to get some recourse for the 20 years he spent in jail. Strangely, it all kind of works out. It starts very sinister: Mickey confronts Sean in public, at a screening, and offers him a story idea that is really just their own story, about how one man took the fall for another man’s crime. The audience pressures Sean to buy the story (which, why?), and weirdly, that’s all Mickey wants. He doesn’t want like, revenge, or to use the movie idea as an excuse to blackmail Sean. That would make too much sense for Ray Donovan. Instead Mickey comes back from his meeting with Sean rather pleased with himself, proud that he’s made a business deal. Confusing—but also intriguing.

The huge mystery of the show is starting to unravel, if slowly. Sean Walker came to Boston to do a film 20 years ago, and on a night out killed a girl named Colleen. Colleen was “high on Mickey’s drugs and shot with Mickey’s gun,” as Ezra told us so eloquently two weeks ago, so it was easy to pin the murder on Mickey. Why did Mickey go down without a fight—or did he? The question remains unanswered. And the girl, Colleen? Ray’s ex-girlfriend, the girl he was with in-between dating Abby in high school and as an adult. I still don’t quite understand what the big deal is, though. How does Bridget, the dead sister, fit into the picture? Ray Donovan is still a big mystery.

The people I watched this episode with pointed out to me that each scene in the show feels very disconnected, tonally and even chronologically, from all the other scenes. Each moment looks like a scene from a different show. So Mickey is in a bucket-list comedy; Ray and Sully are in a crime drama; Abby and Deb are in a divorced-wives chick-flick; and Bridget is in a teen after-school special. A rather unpleasant after-school special.


“New Birthday” gets its title from Bridget’s boyfriend Marvin, who finds out his mother has died and tries to cope with it. One way is by giving himself a “new” birthday for his time with his adopted father. Given that his mother was brutally murdered, it’s not a terribly festive holiday, but everyone strains to try to make the best of it. Maybe because Ray and Marvin clash earlier in the day, Bridget goes over unsupervised. They make out, and then Marvin tries to get Bridget to go down on him. She declines. He tries to make her do it anyway. She runs out, crying, and then, well, Ray finds out. He slams into Marvin’s house, drags him out into the street, and then into his car. The episode ends on what I found to be a surprisingly intriguing cliffhanger—Ray with Marvin in the backseat, driving to God-knows-where, as the boy shifts from indignant to terrified, pleading for his life.

The main thing I’ve learned watching Ray Donovan is that it’s a mistake to see Ray as the hero of the story. He isn’t beset by the world—the world’s beset by him, subject to his lies and sudden violence. If that’s the whole point of the show, I’ll take it, and gladly. It’s an interesting theme, and it would explain a lot of what we see, which is Ray’s subtle, protracted psychological warfare against people around him, even as he convinces them he’s being professional and discreet.


Stray observations:

  • Miller uses “Walpole” as a substitute for what is presumably the “Walpole Correctional Facility.” But I like the idea that Miller is threatening Mickey with just Walpole, the town. Oh, Massachusetts.
  • Speaking of location shots—I do not believe any of those Boston exteriors (or interiors!) for a second. Even the skyline in Ray’s room doesn’t look like the Boston skyline.
  • Kerris Dorsey, who plays Bridget, has a lovely singing voice.
  • Abby and Deb have a boozy adventure on Rodeo Drive that ends with Abby stealing really expensive high heels. I love how much this scene tells us about Abby (who says she used steal shoes all the time as a kid), and how Ray doesn’t seem to mind her kleptomania at all, but at the same time, I have no idea why it is in the rest of the story.
  • No Lena this week or last week. Travesty of justice.

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