Netflix’s new original series Bloodline begins with one of those familiar tropes of fiction, film, and television alike: the return of the prodigal son. In Bloodline, the prodigal son is Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), the oldest of four, who returns to his family’s hotel for a 45th anniversary celebration. Back home, his two brothers and sister await, seeming to dread his arrival and the chaos they expect to come along with him. His younger brother, Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), believes he will only hurt their elderly parents, while his sister Meg (Linda Cardellini) just wants to placate. His brother John (Kyle Chandler), is the only sibling excited to see Danny come home. Behind the siblings looms their father Robert (Sam Shepard) and mother Sally (Sissy Spacek), who are big fish in the little pond of their small Florida Keys town. Something happened, long ago, that haunts them all and centers around Danny, who has become the family scapegoat. It takes several episodes to get a hint of what this central event is: the death of a sister, Sarah, which happened during a boat trip with Danny thirty years before. Much like True Detective and Breaking Bad, Bloodline is a sunny noir, set in a place that is perpetually bright and hot, creating an immediate contrast between subject matter and setting. It’s hard to imagine anything awful happening in a vacation town. Unlike those shows, though, Bloodline is focused on the danger of family ties: how they shape who we are and limit what we can become. Danny’s family treat him warily, far before the show reveals, drip-by-drop, some of the important history that gives us context. The viewer is immediately endeared to Danny, who we see arriving with only the clothes on his back to a family celebration in which it seems clear he is not wanted. Soon, though, it’s obvious why: Danny seems unable to have a conversation that doesn’t devolve into a troubling personal anecdote or an attempt to blame his family members for his current situation. Mendelsohn gives Danny a hunched but snakelike physicality: he is constantly looking up through his eyelashes like a sad puppy, even as his body moves with a lanky ease that belies his hangdog look. This is a nice contrast to John, who Kyle Chandler plays as a solid, physically coherent character. While Danny looks shifty, John looks rock-solid and honest. It becomes clear that these are roles that both have been conditioned to play and cannot escape.
The show, despite forays into a crime sub-plot, is about family dynamics, in which trauma, shared memories, and the roles a family creates and perpetuate drive the story. The tragedy is less about Sarah’s death than what happened immediately afterward: the scapegoating, the attempts to sanitize the family name, and the history of who was protected and who was left to bear the responsibility. Danny and John’s dynamic is the most compelling part of the series. Danny both loves and resents his brother. He looks at his job, his family, his relationship with their parents, and both wants what John has and wants to destroy it. John, too, loves his brother and desires a relationship with him but is also deeply wary: he is complicit in Danny’s scapegoating and also realizes that Danny is manipulative and dangerous. They both blame each other for the lives they have. Danny was the fuck-up, so John had to be good. John was so good that there was nothing for Danny to do but fail.
These complicated family relationships are what make the show worth watching. The most thrilling scenes involve the characters revealing who they are in relationship to each other. In one important scene early in the series, when Danny sees his father for the last time, so much painful history runs beneath the surface of the simple conversation that it is almost unbearable to watch. It helps that both Shepard and Mendelsohn are compelling actors, able to carry the weight of a shared history with only a quick exchange of words. Later, when Danny confronts his family, telling them that nobody protected him, that he never felt safe in his house, the viewer can feel the complex stew of sympathy, contempt, and guilt that each family member brings to the table. Danny clearly has been wronged, but he is also dangerous. The show doesn’t try to redeem Danny or make him more loveable. He simply is who he is. Like a natural disaster, his family simply has to figure out how to survive him.No television drama hasn’t explored love/hate familial relationships this effectively since Six Feet Under.
Bloodline has some major flaws, despite the impressive cast and unusual focus on family systems. The foreshadowing that bookends the first few episodes feels heavy-handed, as do Kyle Chandler’s voice overs. The crime sub-plots that drive the latter half of the series are less developed and far less interesting than the family interactions. In addition, a sub-plot about the murder of Guatemalan immigrants sours the series. While the Rayburns are compelling, the death of a dozen people as a plot point to illuminate the troubled histories of an upper middle class white family treats these deaths far too cheaply. Last, the female characters remain unformed and often inconsistent. Sissy Spacek is wasted in a role that provides little for her to do except respond in surprise as she learns each new way that Danny has schemed to destroy the family, while Linda Cardellini attempts to flesh out a poorly-written character who never seems as vivid or complex as her brothers.
Bloodline has been renewed for a second season. Season one leaves the siblings complicit in a horrific, irreversible crime that must, eventually, come to light. I hope that season two continues to explore the shifting allegiances and new roles created by that event. The show’s tagline is “We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing”: I’m curious to see how these characters manage to justify their goodness as they deal with the consequences of their actions.