Here is some advice if you’re watching Netflix’s Bloodline – stop watching after Lenny Potts sits down with Sally Rayburn and says, in his gravely way, “Your children are lying to you.” Hit whatever button ends the episode and go have a cup of coffee, or go for a walk, or go to bed. If you do that, you’ll be primed and ready for the show’s second season in a way that you won’t be if you keep watching. Because if you keep watching, you’ll roll your eyes and wonder what on earth the show’s makers were thinking with a final scene that is unearned in every sense of the criticism.
That’s all I’ll say about that until the end of this article, because what deserves more focus is the show’s first 12 and 10/11ths episodes. They’re great and absolutely worth the time if you’ve got it. The show tells the story of the Rayburn family’s reunion. The Rayburns are a Florida Keys family who run a successful hotel that appears to be as close to heaven on earth as it might be possible to achieve. Five of them are there full time: Sally and Robert and John and Meg and Kevin. Sally and Robert are the parents who built and run the place. John and Meg and Kevin are their children who contribute to varying degrees. These folks are together all the time though. The complicating factor here is the arrival of Danny, Sally and Robert’s oldest son, a man who was long ago held responsible for the drowning death of John’s and Meg’s and Kevin’s sibling Sarah, a man who has never stopped being haunted by his sister’s absence, nor the family’s subsequent response. The show is as simple as that: a family of seven reduced to a family of six gets together and what happens next.
Sally is hopeful that Danny’s return is a permanent one. Robert isn’t. Danny’s siblings are caught in the middle of wanting the brother they hope for and fearing the brother that they have. And Danny’s plans in coming home are motivated mostly by a desire to hide out from some bad debts that he has accrued in Miami, but also, perhaps, to finally settle up with everybody. This is most of the first episode. But interspersed is also the show’s end: John hauls a lifeless Danny through a swamp. They’re dressed to the nines in seersucker suits and soaked with rain and mud. He pushes Danny up onto a boat and douses him with gasoline. John finds a flare and sparks it, blowing himself backward into the water while his brother’s body burns. A voiceover acknowledges that the siblings did a bad thing.
So then that is the show: how Danny goes from his arrival at home to the back of a burning boat. The premise is remarkably simple, and unlike so much great television these days,the world is a largely limited one. This is not a world of a thousand characters whose actions we are meant to account for, but rather, an intimate one in which a family’s narrows interests are more than enough to justify the telling of a story.
There’s another reason to watch too: this show has assembled a considerable cast of heavy-hitting actors. Although it would be easy to cite some big names (Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepherd and Chloe Sevigny, for instance), or the accomplished but relatively unknown to television (Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz), or the familiar but under-appreciated (Linda Cardellini), the show’s standouts are Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn.
Chandler’s famous for Friday Night Lights. Here he’s John, his family’s rock on all issues, the one that everybody looks to for solutions. As he slowly melts down from confident police officer to rattled younger brother, we see a man who has built a life out of the stories that he has told himself, whether or not those stories are true. We are mostly sympathetic to him as he balances what might have been appropriate for the past against what has to be right now.
Mendelsohn is less recognizable owing to a career spent mostly in Australia, but for those that have seen Animal Kingdom, his portrayal of the terrifying Pope Cody is impossible to forget. In that though, he was a murderous psychopath. Here, he is quieter, less confident, accompanied everywhere by his sister’s ghost. There is no escaping her nor the weight of her death upon the family, a situation which controls him right up until the point that doesn’t.
Chandler and Mendelsohn trade blows as the now and the past, one wanting to move on and one never able to, both blaming each other for their lots in life. The performances are sublime and have both been subsequently nominated for Emmys. Both should win but both are competing against bigger names. Were it to be the case that both end up losing, maybe there could be no more appropriate outcome. As in the show, as in the real world.
It isn’t so much that the show’s last five minutes awful as it is that they’re an outlier to the rest of the show, as if the producers and directors and writers simply stopped trusting that we could possibly want more with what they’d laid out to that point. Imagine sitting down to a delicious Italian meal – with everything laid out in front of you, as beautifully presented as it could possibly be – and right before you go to take your first bite, waiter runs in with a steak, screaming, “Do you want a steak? Here’s a steak! Take the steak with the rest of this!” It’s unnecessary and over-the-top, especially when you were already hungry.