A corrupt present and a shady past dominate a number of recent TV dramas and films featuring the Irish diaspora in the US. Amongst these is Mystic River. Mystic River, based on a novel by Denis Lehane, visits the impact of sexual abuse and violence on a number of men who grew up in a working class neighborhood near the river. The film itself leaves us with a sense of loss as we watch the haunting of the main characters by the effects and memories of abuse, by the guilt associated with abuse and by the fear that its violences will stretch across generations.
Unlike Mystic River and other similar films TV series Ray Donovan confronts the darker side of Irish America in a way that has never been achieved so explicitly before. One reason for this is the nature of television series and their capacity to build slow burning narratives reflecting the livelong grind poverty, abuse, neglect and violence leave on a people. Another reason is the clever characterization evident across the series. Consequently, the series challenges the limits of established stereotypes providing an insight into not only the silent torture behind abuse but what happens when confronted by characters like Bunchy played by Dashiell Mihok. Those stereotypes are not completely undone but Ray Donovan goes a long way in developing beyond their traditional limits.
Named after the protagonist, Ray Donovan, the TV drama follows the activities of a criminal with a heart galvanised against the past and the pressures of the present. However, the return of his corrupt father, Mickey, played by Jon Voight, adds immeasurably to those pressures. Where Ray evokes respect within the Donovan family, Mickey evokes some humor followed by the bile of acidic and painful memory. The teasing out of these psychological effect of these memories on the cool, calm Ray sees his character move from being numb, to engaging in rough and disturbing sex with his wife to falling for a journalist. Ray is certainly not an angel and is at times very frustrating to watch move towards what seems like impending psychological disasters, but the complexities of his behaviors point to the effects familial neglect leaves on adults.
Bunchy’s character stretches stereotypes by using a self-help counselling group for men abused by priests to face his past. Having been left vulnerable by his father’s neglect of him, Bunchy was exposed to and abused by a particular priest. While self-help groups have long played their part as dramatic devices in TV dramas, we have not seen them utilised by an Irish American character in this way before. Neither have we seen a TV drama challenge perceptions of the effects of abuse the way Ray Donovan does.
Lifting his girlfriend’s son from his bath, Bunchy become frighted and doubts himself and his actions. We see him fling the young boy into a corner of the room and flee the apartment. Confessing to his fears and doubts in his self-help group, the series confronts one of the taboos of abuse: the fear that abuse will (and sometimes does) perpetuate abuse is challenged by Bunchy’s brave admission of the confusion he felt when lifting the child from the bath.
Bunchy talks through the moment and delineates the difference between fear and intention demarcating a moment of realisation when Bunchy begins to reconcile his adult self with his abused self, allowing him to to separate his past from what are fears rather than intentions or actions. Slowing, ever so slowly, Bunchy’s character is outliving and outgrowing not only his terrible memories but he also to begins to outgrow the stereotype of a silent, broken former alcoholic Irish American. Where Mystic River and other films and series that deal with the same theme fail to challenge the past, Ray Donovan works at showing the difficulty and the possibility of moving beyond the abusive actions of others.
The slow shedding of the Donovan’s father also suggests a growing space between the gangster glamour of a past negatively dominated by an abusive patriarchy. Mickey is hateful and Voight plays him with the swagger of an actor who knows he and his character make the series. In the last episode of the second series Voight’s acting borders on slapstick serving to momentarily retire the edgy aspects of Mickey’s character. As Mickey chases his enemy through a plush poolside bungalow, Voight’s movements are all keystone elbows and limbs emphasising the tension Mickey threads between criminality and the pathetic absurdity of a failed gangster.
Voight plays on his own physicality in emulating the movements of a once rootless south Boston purveyor of fear and violence while his character looses the respect of his children one by one. In this respect Ray Donovan, the character and the series, handle aspects of the gangster crime drama in awkward ways, but the treatment and challenging of the past makes a refreshing one albeit it played out against a backdrop of violence.