By BRUCE DENNILL
Bloodline: Seasons One and Two / Created by Glenn Kessler, Todd A Kessler and Daniel Zelman / Netflix 8
Already notable for being one of last platforms on which the late Sam Shepard appeared, Bloodline’s plot is an excellent example of the way a situation can unravel when a lie is covered up, creating another scenario in which a second lie is necessary to accommodate the first, and so on and so on into a terrifying spiral.
Shepard, as the patriarch of the Rayburn clan, a family who have run a well-respected business in the Florida Keys for three generations, is just one inspired casting choice. His wife is played by Sissy Spacek, and other big names on the billing include Chloe Sevigny, John Leguizamo and Beau Bridges (though the latter pair only join proceedings in Season Two). It’s not only these relative A-listers who are strong though. Arguably, Bloodlines is the series that allows both Ben Mendelsohn (as Danny Rayburn) and Kyle Chandler (as John Rayburn) to really claim their places as mainstream leading men – both have achieved considerable success already, but their performances here could lead to more film-carrying roles.
Mendelsohn and Chandler are the focal points of the first and second seasons respectively. In Series One, it is the return of Danny – a petty criminal, heavy drinker and indisputably the black sheep of the family – to the inn founded and by Robert (Shepard) and Sally (Spacek) and into the lives of his siblings that precipitates a threat to the family’s reputation, and then their very existence,
Danny’s brothers John and Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) and sister Meg (Linda Cardellini) have been only too happy to develop their own careers and families in his absence and now find their comfort, success and safety threatened by his presence. Sally and, to a lesser degree, Robert try to encourage reconciliation, bringing all parties into ever-aggregating conflict.
There are several well-developed threads running concurrently – Danny’s conniving and apparent capacity for genuine evil; John’s determination, as the local sheriff and go-to family member for sensible outcomes, to keep things on an even keel; Meg’s relationship with John’s cop partner (Enrique Murciano) and Kevin’s efforts to move his boat maintenance business forward. The writing allows all of these to interweave and overlap effectively, allowing all the characters room to develop and the actors the chance to flex their creative muscles.
Another major – and unbilled – character is the landscape in which the story takes place. The Keys are hot and muggy, riddled with hideaways where nefarious dealings can take place undetected and compact enough that knowing everyone’s business becomes difficult to avoid. Living there, you’d hardly need a reason to become paranoid, so when several are presented, one after the other, that feeling of looming disaster is difficult to shake.
In Season One of Bloodlines, the hollow heart at the core of the Rayburn family is slowly revealed. Each episode contains brief flashbacks that inform the viewer that all will not end well, but clever episode construction means that the pacing of the revelations is thrilling rather than frustrating for being too drawn-out or giving the game away too soon.
The protagonists being related makes the characters’ unwillingness to give up on Danny understandable to some degree, and their proximity to him makes it likely, from the start, that some of his influence will rub off on them. As chances are taken, so ethical boundaries are moved, and as each of the siblings is drawn further into a web of their collective making, their capacity to make bad decisions with far-reaching effects increases, meaning that violence, deceit and two-facedness become the orders of the day.
In Season Two, John’s actions as a now more or less permanently lying lawman become the centre of the plot, with the machinations of Meg and Kevin – both heavily implicated in what has come before – becoming increasingly frantic. New characters – Leguizamo’s sleazy low-life Ozzy Delvecchio and Bridge’s rich but manipulative benefactor Roy Gilbert (possibly a like-for-like replacement for the now absent Robert) – create extra layers of complexity, allowing for episodes to remain dense, tense and entertaining.
Beneath all the corruption, greed and selfishness are more sensitive matters – long-hidden secrets about child abuse and broken relationships that were not allowed to be discussed because of reputations and misplaced respect. This ensures an air of tragedy over the whole sordid mess: while the Rayburns may not be likeable much of the time, there is more to their misdeeds than simply seeking the path of least resistance or basing their loyalty on the most profitable personal outcomes.
Bloodline is well-made in all departments. It doesn’t dip in effectiveness over these first two seasons (though minor characters may occasionally feel a little as though they have been adapted to a particular perspective rather than a greater plot thread) and, as Season Two ends with a violent twist, there is still no obvious route towards the finale of Season Three, which is where the tale is terminated.
Well worth watching, and notable for the development of some already fine but under-appreciated actors in large, meaty roles.