Bloodline is one of the latest original series produced by the ever-strengthening Netflix (it’s alive!), and by all accounts it’s a unique outing for the media giant. Set in and around the sweltering Florida Keys, the first season is less like fellow Netflix pal House of Cards and more like Showtime’s The Affair, another drama that zeroes in on family dynamics and household hostility. At best, though, comparisons aside, Bloodline is a true family drama with well-drawn characters and a driving central premise.
The family in question is the Rayburns, an island institution known and respected for operating the beachfront resort Rayburn House for decades. Father (Sam Shepard) and Mother (Sissy Spacek) are vitally influential in the lives of their four children and, as a bonus, are supportive of any conspiracy theories related to casting actors with alliterative fore- and surnames as husband and wife. They’re pillars of their community, and snippets of conversation and glances at newspaper headlines clue us in to the fact that the Rayburns are the public face of their little stretch of Key West. But Bloodline starts early in the slow uncovering of the real ways in which good ol’ Mum and Dad molded their children.
Those children are the real focus of the show. The most successful of the four is the upright and earnest John, played with upright earnestness by Kyle Chandler, who stayed close to home and became Sheriff in the police force. At one point Sally Rayburn (that’s Mother) remarks that John “wants to take care of the whole damn island”, and that fits with him completely — those really nice guys who never left their hometown and treat everyone as an honored visitor from a faraway land? That’s John. His closest siblings are his kid sister Meg (Linda Cardellini) and his kid brother Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), who also stayed close to home and pursued their own interests (law for her, boating and drinking beer for him). The casting of these three Rayburn children is phenomenal. Chandler is exactly the kind of guy you root for and sympathize with, Cardellini nails the frustration of the young sister of the group, and you should certainly expect to see Butz in more stuff after his superbly convincing role as the short-fused Kevin.
But none of these immensely talented people hold a candle to Ben Mendelsohn, the spellbinding actor in the shoes of the fourth and oldest Rayburn child Danny. Mendelsohn has been on a tear recently, and one might chart his rise to notoriety from a bit part in The Dark Knight Rises to a supporting role in Killing Them Softly to a full-fledged leading role in the highly-recommended British prison flick Starred Up. By the time he appears in Star Wars: Rogue One (side note: how awesome is the casting for the new Star Wars films?!) he might very well be a household name. Bloodline contains his meatiest role to date, and Mendelsohn chews scenery like crazy. His character Danny, the wayward son returned to the Keys after an extended and inexplicable absence, sort of does the same to his family, actually.
As we watch Danny return home there’s certainly an inversion of expectations where he might be the one we sympathize with, despite his harsh personality and apparent disregard for the wellbeing of his family. It’s also clear from the beginning that Danny has definitely received the symbolic shaft where Father Rayburn is concerned, and by the third episode we’ve been given enough pieces to glimpse a portrait of Young Danny and his troubles. There was in a fact a fifth Rayburn sibling, another girl named Sarah, and she passed away in 1984 after Danny took her out on a boat alone. Sarah drowned and Daddy Rayburn placed the blame wholly on Danny, beating him senseless on the beach in front of Rayburn House. To make matters worse (for Danny), the Rayburn clan lied about Danny’s injuries by fabricating a story about a hit-and-run. Danny never knew that each of his siblings avoided the truth with the police, thus seeming to him as if they were protecting their father at the expense of their eldest brother.
Most of this anger on Danny’s part is directed at John, and that might be because John is the only guy who presents a real “threat” in Danny’s mind. Danny hates his father and everything his father represents, and John — parading around protecting the island and showing his face as the face of the Rayburns — is closest to following in father’s footsteps and filling those big shoes. Traditionally, that’s to be expected of the eldest son. We dare to sympathize with him at the beginning because Danny seems to want that traditional guise to fit, in spite of how verbal he is about hating the mere thought of it, and Danny’s youthful traumas have clearly made it hard for him to remain a Rayburn in anything other than name. He wants to be a good brother, but only if he has the same in return.
This bears repeating: Danny Rayburn wants to be a good brother, but only if he has the same in return. There’s a beautiful contradiction in there, wherein one might argue that to truly be a good brother one shouldn’t care about the return, or even that being a good brother would be impossible if your actions are predicated on straight-up reciprocality. On the other hand, can we say we expect anything more of our own siblings? Can we honestly say we’d give 100% to anyone who was giving noticeably less to us? As far as that line of thought goes, Bloodline depicts a systematic erosion of the relationships within the Rayburn family that began with Danny getting the shit kicked out of him and realizing years later that his entire family lied about it.
And Bloodline takes that reciprocal expectation of Danny’s a step further as the season progresses and Danny becomes more and more unhinged. Despite that claim for equality, Danny rarely responds in kind when he feels wronged by any of the homebound Rayburns. When Kevin has a regretted, drunken one-night stand with Danny’s girl Chelsea (Chloë Sevigny, who I find attractive even in this slightly-sleazy role), Danny enlists his friend Eric to brutally beat and rob Kevin. When Meg fails to include Danny in the family will, Danny ruins her marriage with a few subtle threats. There’s an escalation on Danny’s part that neither Kevin nor Meg are tough enough to meet. And John…well, the things he harbors against John are a lot more complicated.
Like Danny, John finds it increasingly difficult to give his brother the benefit of the doubt. One of several turning points comes when Danny threatens John’s daughter by doing the exact same thing he did years ago with Sarah: taking her out alone on the boat. John flips, and from that point on Danny’s more than just a family nuisance. He’s a real danger. Meg and Kevin agree but don’t dare do anything but follow John’s lead. Sally holds on the longest, but John’s plea to his mother might as well be a plea to us viewers. Despite Danny’s rough past and all of the unfair shit that’s been dumped onto his back, it’s all in the past. “I understand,” says John, “you feel badly for Danny, about the past…but this isn’t the past.” Danny, meanwhile, doesn’t see things that way. It’s all one thing for Danny, past and present and future, and that partially explains why he seems to respond with such casual brutality whenever he’s wronged. “This thing between John and me? We’ll work it out eventually,” he says.
He’s right: it works out eventually. It doesn’t work out well, of course — quite the opposite — but the dark cyclical nature of things was simultaneously steered by Danny and completely out of his control. Especially considering the very last scene of the show and the recent renewal for a second season, Bloodline could depict the continuation of that cycle in a unique way.
The less-than-unique aspects of the show raised an eyebrow here or there, but nothing too major stood out as a crippling criticism of the rookie season. There are flash-forward scenes peppered throughout the narrative (again providing a link to The Affair) that start intriguingly but ultimately become a bit of a chore. This structure gets frustrating only because it’s unnecessary, as if the showrunners wanted to mix the timeline up for the sake of mixing the timeline up. Another minor qualm is with regards to the setting, which is largely fantastic but intrudes on the narrative far too often. Certain Rayburns consistently refer to the Keys as “this place” or a variety of other Eden-like allusions, which seems like a stretch for a family that’s supposed to have lived here for decades.
But Bloodline is a recommended watch nevertheless, and an especially promising series for Netflix. The hard-hitting nature of Danny’s crusade and John’s response is too intense and graphic for cable television, so a streaming service or a premium channel is really the only home that makes sense. The obvious temptation with Bloodline‘s residence in the former is to binge-watch the hell out of it (guilty!), hence a streamlined review of the entire season at once. I encourage you potential viewers to slow down, though, and to take each episode as it comes. As with most great television shows, the built-in room for reflection between episodes is part of what makes Bloodline so solid.