Jon Voight: The secret sauce that makes Showtime’s ‘Ray Donovan’ a potent thrill

We weren’t supposed to like Mickey Donovan.

When Jon Voight’s Donovan patriarch was introduced back in the first season, Liev Schreiber titular character, Ray Donovan, warned his family that letting “Mic” back into the house would be like letting a lion out of the cage. As the viewer, we agreed with Ray.

Mickey was coming out of prison after serving a 15 year stretch, but that was nothing compared to the neglect he poured onto his four kids: including Ray, Bunchy (Dash Mihok), Terry (Eddie Marsan), and Darryl (Pooch Hall). He was the unfit father to the tenth degree, yet here he was trying to carve his way back into the family dynamic. Hearing him say “grandpa” was like looking out of your window and spotting a thunderstorm nearing your neighborhood.

However, after the season six finale on Sunday night, it was easy to feel sympathy for, and even root for, Mickey Donovan. After all this time, he’s worn us down, like a incessant yet unconventional caregiver who keeps things entertaining and unpredictable. This is due to the wildly endearing and poetic spin Voight has put on the character.

The finale showed the true resolve and heart of the Donovan family, and featured Mickey at his best. At their unhinged worse, they can still function as a unit, and at the heart of it was Mickey. He’s digging holes, chopping up bodies, giving sage advice to his granddaughter’s fiance, and cracking dirty jokes. If you are a fictional family in an action-centered drama with real depth, you need a Mickey on your side. He’s like human bleach: it may smell bad, but it cleans up messes with the best of them.

Part of Mickey’s charm is the constant danger he brings to the show. The seventh season started with him in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. After Bunchy breaks him out, they go on a crime spree that fails miserably on multiple fronts. Mickey’s inability to walk a straight line is heightened by his knowledge of how to get around sticky situations.

In the final batch of episodes this past month, his unique set of skills have helped. He saved Ray’s life during the ninth episode of this season, and that was after nursing a severely injured Ray back to health. The past two weeks, he’s disposing of bodies for his boys. All in the name of unhealthy yet righteous justice.

At the end of the day, flaws and all, Mickey is fiercely loyal. He held Ray at gunpoint in episode 609 (sixth season, episode #9), but when he realized his granddaughter was in trouble, he quickly flipped script and wanted to help. That’s Mickey’s enduring trait: loyalty no matter what.

Voight, a seasoned Oscar-nominated actor, finds new and adventurous ways to make Mickey appealing and dangerous all at once. You can never get too close to him, or completely despise him. He’s a required dose of Donovan mayhem. A car wreck that takes forever to conclude.

There’s a carefree aspect to his performance, like the times where Mickey will be dancing the night away, drinking all the booze and telling old stories, or carrying the look of weighted dread and disgust on his face before finding a way to fix the problem. One could call it aloof overwatch that never ceases to amaze.

One thing is for sure: if you don’t have a true talent like Voight playing Mickey, the role falls flat, and the show loses its juice and appeal. It’s the actor’s dedication to the role, as is the case with every single person on the show, that makes Ray Donovan a true masterclass in how to tell a story over five-plus seasons. Someone with less talent hampers the role and the show. It is Voight’s Mickey that supplies the secret sauce that keeps the show running strong.

If there’s an Emmy reel to send in for Voight, just watch the end of Sunday’s finale. Told by Ray earlier in the hour that he wasn’t there when they were kids to read stories at nighttime, Mickey is torn apart emotionally by his elder son’s words. As the Donovans gather around after another successful mission of bad people defeating even worse people, Mickey starts reciting lines from a book that Ray and Bunchy recognize from their youth. Tearfully at the end, he tells Ray, “I was there.”

The scene is so powerful that the reactions of Schreiber and Mihok seemed genuine and real. Ray goes to call his newly found shrink, because maybe he has it wrong, and Mickey was around more than he thought. Bunchy embraces a dad that has gotten him into more trouble than any parent in history. If not for the talent of Voight, viewers will shake their heads. Instead, you were most likely in tears.

Mickey Donovan is far from perfect, but Voight makes him fun, relatable, and constantly interesting. Every time I think he’s going to be killed off or eliminated elsewhere, Voight and the gifted writers on this show, and showrunner David Hollander, find a way to keep him in the action-and the show benefits.

Without Voight, the last three episodes of the sixth season aren’t as good. Without his work in the entirety of the series, the show is probably off the air.

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