‘Ray Donovan’ Showrunner on Abby’s Death and ‘Frightening’ Decision to Kill Off a Major Character

“Part of our job is to get scared, to make change and be challenging,” David Hollander tells TheWrap

Ray Donovan

After a season of slowly unfolding mystery, “Ray Donovan” finally revealed what happened the night Abby died in Sunday’s gutwrenching episode.

In “Horses,” the eighth episode of Season 5, Abby (Paula Malcomson), tired of doctors and hospitals and failed treatment, takes her own life with pills and a glass of ginger ale, passing away quietly in her own home. She confides only in her daughter and her brother-in-law, leaning on them to help her follow through on her decision. She says nothing to her husband, who is away beating up people and dooming a teenager to death, trying to secure her spot in the experimental trial.

“The choice in the episode is very much informed by Ray’s absence,” showrunner David Hollander said in an interview with TheWrap. “I don’t know if she may have held on for a few more days, potentially, but part of the nature of the story is that Ray wouldn’t let her go. So when he left, she took advantage of that absence to do something she knew Ray would never allow.”

As we’ve seen throughout the season’s present-day storyline, Ray will have to come to terms with that decision. And even though the show is called “Ray Donovan,” this one time, the decision was one he had no control over.

“The story comes down to the fact that it wasn’t really their choice,” Hollander said. “It was nobody’s choice but Abby’s.”

Read the full interview below:

TheWrap: When did you decide that Abby was going to die, and what was the thought process behind that decision?
It’s hard to make it specific in nailing it down. I think the show itself is really looking closely at the evolution of the mythical character of Ray Donovan and what his story is, so most decisions that we make in a narrative form are about informing his character. Part of that is about a man who believes he can play God and control things and avoid consequences. And looking at that story and giving him a story that really is going to challenge and change him, and inform him. A high-stakes story became necessary, and then there was the question of which high-stakes story do we tell? It’s never easy to make that choice, and while I’m sure there’s a part [of the audience] that’s upset, I think people are coming to Abby in a different way this season as well. She had been an overlooked character, and a character that created a lot of division, and I wanted to try to write to the strongest places in that character. To give both the character and the actor the chance to be essential to the story.

I read an interview with Paula where she said throughout the show she always tried to make sure Abby was more than Ray’s nagging wife, and this season Abby is a huge part of the story. But at the end of the day, this is Ray’s story, did you ever worry about giving Abby too much or too little?
We’re telling a long story, and in the life of any human being, certain people take center stage at different times. I think any human being who’s been through the sickness of a loved one, or a life-changing experience, knows that that experience is going to take their attention. And when the storm settles, they’re left with their lives again and how that changed them.

Why did you choose to present this story, of Abby deciding to end her own life, as a mystery, or as a story that slowly reveals itself through flashbacks?
It goes back to your earlier question, how to give as much information to the audience about Ray’s part in it. Also, how to tell the story in a way that’s not stuck in the real-time march of a cancer story, which creates some necessary and predictable moves. I wanted to play with memory and play with what is known to whom. Who knows what about what went down when. And look at how character is exposed through the aftermath, and then have the audience catch up to that. Part of it is mystery, but a lot of it is character stuff, because the mystery is a mystery to Ray as well.

Why was this the right time for the audience, and for Ray, to find out what happened? 
It was a visceral choice, it just felt like time. There was more story to tell and it was time to move into the present day to see where Ray is once he puts these pieces together.

In Episode 6, “Shelley Duvall,” Abby and Ray have that flashback at the ice skating rink that’s kind of the first hint as to how Abby died. At that point she’s coming from a place of anger, but by this week’s episode she’s very much at peace with her decision. How does she get there?
In our fractured narrative, because time has passed, because treatments have failed, and because the guillotine of being passed over for this last-ditch experimental treatment, I think she very clearly sees the writing on the wall. The choice in the episode is very much informed by Ray’s absence. I don’t know if she may have held on for a few more days, potentially, but part of the nature of the story is that Ray wouldn’t let her go. So when he left, she took advantage of that absence to do something she knew Ray would never allow.

Throughout the season, Ray keeps telling Abby, “I know this is hard for you,” and she keeps telling him that he really doesn’t. Is Ray the kind of person who can ever really understand Abby in the way she needed him to?
There’s the yolk of the story. That’s why we’re telling the story, in a way. That’s the value of watching him this year. How is he digesting it, how is he grieving, and where is he going to take it?

Bridget and Terry seem much more understanding about Abby’s decision in the flashback, but as we’ve seen, they still have some regrets. Will they be able to come to terms with their role in this?
Again, I think that’s part of the narrative in the present. What they learn. Everybody has some regret because the surgery did work on somebody, and it could’ve worked again. They may wish they may have done something differently. But the story comes down to the fact that it wasn’t really their choice. It was nobody’s choice but Abby’s. Part of what we’re playing with here is the fact that Abby was a strong, central character. She’s been given her own agency, which for a long time she wasn’t.

Kerris Dorsey, who plays Bridget, gave an extraordinary performance in this week’s episode. Were you surprised at all, or did you know going in that she’d be able to handle anything you threw at her?
You can throw anything at her, and she will do it. There’s a real baton pass from Paula to Kerris in this episode, and you’ll see as the season progresses that we throw more and more at Kerris. She’s a brilliant actor, and she’s really come into her own.

Was it hard to say goodbye to Paula this season?
Absolutely, it’s been hell. All of it. It’s been a very, very challenging year, emotionally. We all have a wide range of emotions. It’s not a death, per se, but it’s a change. You can’t call it good or bad, but it’s a change. I think Paula’s been able to do the best work she’s ever done on the show, and we were finally able to serve the caliber of actor that she really is. We’re all really good friends here, but we’re also storytellers. It’s complicated. Part of our job is to get scared, to make change and be challenging. Otherwise we’re predictable and over time, if we’re giving the audience what they think they want, we’re really giving them nothing.

But did you worry that the audience might react negatively?
You always worry that things aren’t going to go over well. However, I don’t think that’s the place that artists should be working from. We tell stories, and we tell the mystery of who he is, and the style of theater isn’t always what the audience thinks they want immediately. But maybe over time they’ll come to love it, but maybe they won’t. No one is going to applaud the death of a beloved character initially. I knew it was going to be an uncomfortable ride, and it was going to be an unpopular decision. But if I make my decisions based on popularity, the audience is going to reject the show sooner or later.

In another interview with Paula earlier this season, she said she asked that Abby “lose all her dignity” this season. How much of this storyline was a collaboration between her and the writers?
I collaborate with all of the actors. There’s the story and the architecture, then there’s the fact of the matter that I am beholden to what the actors want to bring. And the weight they give to the story. We’re all writing, to some degree. The scripts are of our making, but the execution and the presentation, that’s all a collaboration. A lot of that is what Paula knows she can bring and what she can do. I think she wanted a lot more challenging and frightening things to do.

Was any of that surprising to you?
She’s the kind of actor that always surprises me. She’s so completely open to what she does that you never really know what she’s going to bring. That’s why she’s so extraordinary at what she does.

The other thing I wanted to ask you about was the choice to have Patti Smith’s “Horses” play at a few key points throughout the episode. And the episode is titled “Horses.” Can you tell me a little bit about that choice?
We’re a very musically informed group here. I’m very much interested in the music that goes into the show and why. And what the voice is. In this case, it’s Patti’s voice, her very New York, rebellious voice. And the idea of this kind of stampeding sonic atmosphere leading us somewhere else. That was in the script from jump. That was written into the script from when we began.

“Ray Donovan” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime.