With Damages, series creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman took the term “legal show” and cranked it up to 11. With Bloodline, they’ve done it again, taking the “family drama” and making the morality about as dark and nonexistent as air in space.
When I read a description calling a show a “family drama,” it makes me want to run away. I get enough “family drama” on my own. Although in this case, as a fan of their previous show, I knew they wouldn’t offer something ordinary. With Zelman and the Kesslers’ cynical and borderline nihilistic eyes turned toward it, this “family drama” becomes a black examination of a narcissistic family and how lies can erode relationships over time. Now THAT I can can get behind.
The Rayburn family lives in the Florida Keys, paragons of a tight-knit community who are celebrating almost 50 years in business as inn owners for tourists. Robert (Sam Shepard) and Sally (Sissy Spacek) are the pillars. Their adult children include John (Kyle Chandler), the good-boy who became a local police officer, Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), a hothead who refurbishes boats, Meg (Linda Cardellini), a peacekeeping lawyer, and the black sheep, eldest son Danny (Ben Mendelsohn). It’s his return after a series of absences that begins the show and sets into motion a chain reaction that will shake the Rayburn family to the core.
It’s Mendelsohn’s character that is the fulcrum upon which the show turns. He is flat-out amazing. I first saw him in The Dark Knight Rises, a couple years after his breakthrough performance in 2010’s Animal Kingdom. It’s weird to think that a guy in his 40s can “break out” but that’s exactly what happened, a bemused Mendelsohn explained to EW. He’s been ubiquitous in Hollywood the last few years and is heavily rumored for a role in Gareth Edwards’ forthcoming Star Wars: Anthology: Rogue One.
Here, he imbues Danny with a wounded soul but a erratic mind. You get the sense this guy is just as much his own worst enemy as he is everyone else’s and that endears him. He is spoken about almost in hushed whispers by the family and the story of why everyone is so suspicious of him and why he is who he is is the crux of the show. He is a character with many layers and even more ways to view him.
On the other side, Chandler nails it as well. To show his range, Chandler doesn’t make the mistake of going against his strengths. His role instead cleverly deconstructs and subverts Chandler’s handsome, roguish features and leading man stature. He is able to make a character who supposedly has everything together seem vulnerable. This is in contrast to Danny who is outwardly shunned and unaccepted but, inwardly, as focused and single-minded as can be. These two brothers’ relationship is the single best part of the show.
Butz and Cardellini give strong support and make their characters three-dimensional as well. Butz in particular was impressive for making the stubborn and often-angry Kevin relatable and even likable. Shepard and Spacek are good but unremarkable in relatively thankless roles as the patriarch and matriarch. Like every other Netflix show, the bench is deep as well, with Jacinda Barrett, Enrique Murciano, Jamie McShane, Chloe Sevigny, Mia Kirshner, and Glenn Morshower rounding out the supporting cast.
Bloodline exudes the benefits of crafting a binge-watching experience (something Netflix other recent offering Daredevil didn’t do so well). It truly is a 13-hour film, with all the nuance and benefit of that time. Episodes run 50 min. to 1 hr. but they breeze by. Every scene says something and builds to a climax of emotion rather than action.
A consequence of the methodical and mechanical plotting structure is that the Act 1 as it were – roughly the first 4-5 episodes – could be seen as slow and relatively mundane. Like its predecessor Damages, the show employs a nonlinear structure. Flashforwards build narrative tension as the two chronological points in the story twist and turn and become one. Dream-like flashbacks slowly fill in the backstories of the Rayburn family.
In contrast to the beginning, the last 3-4 episodes are nonstop confrontations and revelations. It feels like the creators consciously pivoting to assuage the audience who’ve stuck with them for the first 9-10 episodes. It is satisfying but I’d be lying if I said the whiplash wasn’t felt. The one flaw of Kessler and Zelman intricate plotting and structure is it becomes obvious when one thing becomes another. For example, the first 4 episodes tell a story, the next 6 tell more, and final 4 take us home. There’s a level of naturalness lost to varying speeds of the show.
It’s not that it doesn’t work. I wouldn’t be singing its praises if it didn’t. But it sticks out when characters who wouldn’t speak to each other previously are now revealing secrets left and right, to the point that a character demands more time to explain himself. The irony is we, the audience, already know the secrets. The satisfaction theoretically comes from the emotion of the scene, but when it seems opposed to what came before, that can cause some whiplash.
Two lessons taught from its binge-worthy capabilities: it’s excellent re-watch material. I learned this when I insisted I catch up my girlfriend on the episodes I’d seen. I found myself viewing the family and Danny in particular in new and sympathetic ways and found context for the earlier ambiguity and foreshadowing. The other lesson? Partners rule.
Yet again, the Kesslers and Zelman have taken a typical TV show and somehow infused it with both realism and classical tragedy. They craft operatic tales but they never lose sight of the intricacies of getting from beginning to end and thrive on subverting expectations, not unlike Game of Thrones. This is the kind of show that leaves it all on the line. As such, I can’t even begin to imagine what Season 2 will yield (thankfully I won’t have to wonder too long – Netflix renewed it less than 2 weeks after it premiered for a 2016 premiere).
The beauty of their storytelling, as in Damages, lies in their examination of how frail everything is, held together by spit and lies and simple differences of perception. There are no right or wrong answers in Kessler and Zelman’s world and certainly no heroes or villains. There are people and there are worse people. The brilliance of watching Bloodline is wondering: which of the two are our main characters?