The Power of Sequence–Ray Donovan and the Creepy Viewer
The order of the images we get in a narrative wields immense signifying power. Indeed, events in sequence is just another way of referring to story. And when used skillfully, the ordering “tells” a lot more than just the plot it “shows”.
I was watching an episode of Showtime’s Ray Donovan the other day that ended with a montage. Set to music, episodic like a music video, the whole sequence swelled with meaning. A weird detective, Van Miller, who’s been fixated on busting Ray, goes to his creepy trophy basement, where his treasured action figures align the shelves in totemic announcement of Van Miller’s adolescent oddity and sexual repression.
As shots of other main characters having sex undulate across the screen, the montage finally works its way to a series of images showing the fastidious detective enjoying a single beer and coolly studying photos of Ray and the other criminals he’s after. Thus, we segue from sex to this scene of isolated watching in the dark before fading to black.
Quite simple, no?
The montage sets up an awkward equivalence between sex and voyeurism and we are uncomfortably implicated in the balance. There is an implied association made in the sequence between active interaction and passive spectatorship. The first, the active interaction of the steamy sex scenes, is more or less innocent — leaving aside all puritanical judgements about our basic creaturely impulses. However, the latter — the passive spectatorship — is freighted with menace.
Thanks to the nature of association, this equivalence doesn’t end there. We wish it would, though, believe me, because a dark suggestion is made about that detective and all of us.
Guy de Bord in The Society of the Spectacle famously quipped:
The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.
The relation in this case yokes us to pathetic detective Van Miller. He’s a focalizing agent, our unpopular proxy. While certain characters are having sex, he’s looking at pictures of those same characters. He’s all alone in the dark, and, the pièce de résistance de séquence, he’s consuming an unhealthy beverage. That’s the extra bit of filmic information that tips us to the hand. Isn’t this how most of us watch TV or a movie?
Sitting in the dark, guiltily wolfing down unnecessary doses of sugar or salt, Van Miller physically mirrors the average TV viewer in this moment.
The montage we thought was only about the weirdo detective while others have “real” pleasure is really about our “unreal” pleasures in relation to TV watching more generally. It is about the pleasures of voyeurism. And we’re none too pleased about that association either, even if we don’t catch its full drift in the moment, because voyeurs are made to look like real losers.
The detective is an implied viewer, a stand-in for us, and he embodies the subtlest and most powerful pathway to identification that any artwork can possess. Aside from all that, he’s still really really creepy. So when John Voigt finally punches his ticket, I was almost as pleased as when Ray dosed him with liquid LSD and he went bananas in FBI headquarters. That scene in episode 6 (“Housewarming”) with the monkey in the bathroom is priceless.