You don’t feel anything, do you? … It’s like you’re not even alive inside.

Bridget Donovan

Ours is a culture where young boys are routinely given Ritalin and other numbing drugs to nullify their rambunctious, aggressive behaviour; where adolescent males are systematically weakened by a culture of mass distraction that promotes narcissistic sameness; and where adult men in particular are increasingly muzzled and made to apologize for their masculinity.  In a politically correct climate that oozes its sappy tolerance over a coddled culture, SHOWTIME’S hard hitting Ray Donovan (2013-) delivers a body blow to that bloated ideology.  And even if the show pulls a few punches later in the series, the first 2 seasons in particular are visceral reminders of where we’ve come from and where we’re heading.

Created by Ann Biderman, RD harks back to a time in American cinema when the likes of Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin, and Steve McQueen swaggered across the silver screen and into our cultural imagination, a time when a more primitive masculinity was the norm and boundaries were clearer.  Part of the show’s brilliance is that it also reaches forward in a way that highlights what we’ve lost in a time that harbours contempt for the traditional male and all he represents.  If it’s true our culture now prefers less threatening, “manorexic boy men” (Biderman), there will always be a place at the table for real men like Ray Donovan if Biderman has her way.  But while the show is an unabashed celebration of raw masculine prowess, it’s also a sympathetic exploration of the masculine wound, one that reaches for hope and healing.  The latter, however, is a much more delicate effort than the former, together requiring both balls and sensitivity which Biderman has in spades.  Whether or not David Hollander is up for the challenge of following through with Biderman’s unique, two-pronged vision after she stepped down at the end of season 2, is worth debating.

Real Men

At its most basic level, RD is about a “fixer” working for a high profile law firm that represents Hollywood’s elite, who carries out his thuggery with a laconic cool and hard-headed single-mindedness reminiscent of Steve McQueen in Bullitt (1968) and Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967).  Along the way, we learn that Ray’s employer, surrogate father, and mentor, Ezra Goldman (Elliott Gould), brought him from Boston to LA some 20 years earlier to help put distance between Ray and his checkered past.  And a significant piece of that past includes covering up a murder and then framing his father, Mickey (Jon Voight) for it – a scheme Ezra himself helped orchestrate.  In the time since then, Ray not only had a family, but gained a reputation for himself, making enough money to move his two brothers from the east and set them up in a Hollywood boxing club business.  But when Mickey is released early from his 25-year prison stretch, and then promptly moves to LA, it sets off a chain of events that threatens to unravel Ray’s tightly controlled world.  As the patriarch of a violent, and soul-scarred family, Mickey is the link to Ray’s tortured past; and the tension his presence exerts proves to be the crux of the series itself.

We quickly find out that Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) is cut from tough, old school cloth.  With a cold and sharp sensibility hard won on the mean streets of south Boston and honed on the rough underside of LA’s glossy facade, he’s a force to be reckoned with.  Among other things, the East/West tension, not only highlights a class distinction, but also a past/present divide, underscoring the fact that Ray is a fish-out-of water, a throwback to an earlier time.  On the one hand, Ray’s hardscrabble ways are an embarrassment to the politically correct sensibilities of modern LA, but on the other hand, his balls-to-the-wall manner, is secretly admired.  The truth is, we’re drawn in by Ray’s primitive-like instincts, his can-do abilities, and his personal sense of justice.  Nevertheless, Ray and everything he represents is not only an unpleasant reminder of what the world is really like when you pull back the pretty covers, but he’s a disturbing indicator of how deep our cultural denial runs.  If RD is a celebration of primal masculinity, it’s also a wry commentary on the hypocrisy of our times and its navel-gazing preoccupations we’re being weakened by.  As such, it’s a thought-provoking antidote for the modern malaise and its feigned tolerance that valorizes difference and stands for little but self-indulgence.

More to the point, given Ray’s volatile background and his violent business, we’re not surprised he keeps a 9mm pointed at his emotional self.  Any way you slice it, in Ray’s world, emotions are a threat to his survival.  The very fact that his life is shot through with violence is precisely the reason why he’s both uniquely qualified for the work he does, and highly sought after.  He’s the very best in a violent business because violence is all he knows, and for all practical purposes, it appears to serve him well.  And even if Ray now enjoys some of the finer things in life, he’s never forgotten where he came from.  His emotional hunger keeps his feet on the ground, gives him focus, and keeps him driving forward.  In a perceptive comment halfway through season 3, Paige Finney (Katie Holmes) tells Ray he isn’t interested in money or power because he’s addicted to the fight, an observation laden with much insight and even more truth.

The Masculine Wound

But the fact that Ray is addicted to the fight is itself an indicator of his other more obvious addictions.  If it’s true the intensity of one’s drive matches the depth and pain of one’s wound, then Ray is a profoundly hurting man.  While keeping a lid on his emotions is often necessary to keep him alive physically, it’s also a bullet-proof way to protect a deeply wounded emotional self.  There’s something weighing heavy on Ray’s soul, and we see it as he carries out his tasks with a weariness in the ways of men he’s a part of but can’t extricate himself from.  Of course his heroic efforts to fix everything around him are meant to bring a sense of order to an inherently chaotic, external world.  But Ray’s penchant for control actually serves as a strategy that keeps a tight lid on his internal chaos, the pain of which is always bubbling just beneath the surface.  Whether he’s fixing, fighting, drinking, or screwing, the truth is, these are all addictive behaviours designed to escape the pain of emotional vulnerability in those moments it tries to push its way to the surface.  And that pain is directly linked to the violence of Ray’s past.

When we peel back the layers of our addictive, obsessive, and compulsive behaviours, we see that their underlying motivation is essentially pain avoidance.  In Ray’s case, they enable him to side-step the demons lurking in the shadows of his emotional self.  If it’s true that the more traumatic our past experiences are, the bigger the monsters, then Ray is dealing with demons of epic proportions.  And if it’s also true these larger-than-life monsters stay the same size throughout life, it’s no surprise they inform virtually everything a man does.  Fundamentally, then, what gives rise to our many and varied strategies is fear.  But this is not your run-of-the-mill fear, like being afraid of a snarling dog.  It’s a more primal, dread-like feeling of angst in the pit of your soul, the kind you can’t put your finger on.  You might say that Ray Donovan isn’t afraid of anything, and you’d be quite right, at least on the one physical hand.  But on the other emotional hand, if my analysis is right, then Ray is dealing with demons of dread that have seized his inner self and paralyzed him with fear since childhood.  When one considers (1) the depth of physical/emotional violence suffered at the hand of his father; (2) the extreme physical/spiritual violence perpetrated against him (and his siblings) by his priest; and (3) the death of his mother at an early age, not to mention (4) the teenage suicide of his sister, it’s any wonder he’s functional at all.  It’s arguable then that who Ray is, what he does, and why, are direct outgrowths of the triple threat of fear, guilt, and shame.

This helps explain why many men, including Ray, begin at a very early age to layer themselves with the kind of armour that projects extreme menace – or extreme competence, intellectual, financial, physical etc.  But what’s actually at work here is an unconscious survival mechanism designed to shield a bruised and terrified child locked in the basement for its own protective good.  This means that Ray’s violent acts and utter fearlessness in the face of extreme circumstances are among long standing, compensatory behaviours meant to mask the dread that has taken root in the deep recesses of his tortured, child-like psyche.  This also explains why men like Ray invariably see life as a Hobbesian “war of all against all” and why he’s always on guard, always ready to fight.  And since Mickey came on the scene, Ray’s simmering emotional cauldron has started to boil because he sees his father as a predator come to devour him and his family.  In a telling moment early on, he warns his wife: “Don’t let the wolf in the gate, Abby.”  Indeed, Ray’s entire adult life has been spent trying to contain Mickey because he’s a constant reminder of the past and the pain he’s been running from since childhood.  By sending him to prison, denying his very existence, and ultimately trying to kill him, Ray, in effect, is attempting to control the past and keep it from spilling into the present.

Hope of Healing

By the time season 3 begins, a shift is already underway within Ray that’s leading him inexorably to a crossroads experience that will either make or break him.  Along the way we notice him losing focus, and his missteps highlight the fact that his emotional volcano is beginning to spew ash, a process that began in a more explicit way with Abby’s affair in season 2.  Along with Ezra’s death, not to mention Mickey’s misguided alliance with the Armenians and the subsequent fallout from that – including Terry being shot, and the direct threat it posed for Ray’s family – these are things that fall outside Ray’s control.  And the very idea that he can’t control everything is forcing itself to the level of conscious awareness which only adds to his emotional disorientation.  Wounded by a Minassian bullet at the end of season 3, and further weakened by his encounter with Bridget who tells him she’s leaving home because of his hardened, controlling ways, Ray is brought to brink of his breaking self.  And it is here where the possibility of love and healing will be met by the demons of dread from his past.  For Ray, this is the existential moment of reckoning where life meets death and where infinite responsibility will come to rest on his shoulders in the form of choice.  Either he will rely on familiar tools and strategies – designed to save himself – which push against life and love, or he will let go and open up to their invitation.

But here’s the thing.  Choosing to open up is easier said than done for a man like Ray – for any of us, really.  To open up is to trust which itself entails letting in and giving over.  And this means dropping your guard, letting go of your weapon, and opening your arms, which for Ray involves the risk of exposing himself to the demons of his past.  But for him to risk this he has to first recognize you can’t fix an emotional or spiritual house with physical effort or tools from your own toolbox.  Fixing this house is something you can’t do yourself because it requires help, something we need to ask for in dependence, trust, and humility.  However, we can only recognize this after we come to the end of ourselves, at which point we’re granted the privilege to see differently.  And more often than not it’s personal crises that bring us to that point.  Made ready through pain we’re brought to contrition and then confession where we relinquish the familiar, and, by faith, receive the gift that’s been there all along.  This is a process that can’t be fully explained because it involves paradoxes.  When Ray allowed his breakdown to have its way at the end of season 3, it led to a breaking open and ultimately to a breakthrough.  In other words, after collapsing on the floor outside the confessional, he was brought to the realization that in order to see, one must become blind, in order to truly live, one must die.  In order to understand, one must believe.

But when we witness Ray in subsequent episodes carrying on with business as usual, it’s appropriate to wonder if he has actually changed, or was it all simply institutional hoop jumping.  In my view, his transformation was heartfelt and genuine, but this doesn’t mean he’s reached some mythical state of sinless perfection.  In keeping with the paradox, Ray’s transformation is both now and not yet.  In other words, because we live in a broken world, a time between times, the transformation that took place will take a lifetime to accomplish.  Aside from the fact that some of what I propose here is at odds with both Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy, if we assume that religion at its best points not toward rules and regulations but towards relationship, then we can already see the change in Ray as he reaches for a more authentic connection with himself, his family, and others.  This also means that to judge Ray too harshly for what he does or doesn’t do is to fall prey to both the hypocrisy of the culture at large and the institutional church whose business is rule keeping and regulating behaviour.ray-donovan-2014-tv-series-poster-wallpaper-63931

If, for good reason, Ray has spent his life in a burnt out bunker preparing for war, and if he’s now able to see outside enough to know life is not wholly a war zone, then he also knows that the possibility of peace actually exists, a reality worth praying for and working towards.  But while the peaceniks only pray for peace, and the warmongers only prepare for war, the truth is I’d more readily trust a man with his hands folded in prayer and a Glock 21 in his belt.


 In Memory of Don Lesco (1945-2016)