Bloodline Season 1 Review: Fatal Family

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Netflix has yet another hit on their hands with their latest drama; a moody, slow-burning thriller filled with nuanced performances and gut-wrenching twists.

Please be advised that this post contains (minor) spoilers from the first season of Bloodline.

Television and real estate have at least one thing in common: it’s all about location. For many series, the setting becomes a character of sorts, enveloping the narrative with its various idiosyncrasies, and grounding the show with a sense of geographic originality. Sex and the City would be nothing without its glitzy Manhattan views, The Sopranos would lose its dusty charm without New Jersey, and I couldn’t imagine Friday Night Lights making anywhere but Dillon, Texas feel like home.

Bloodline takes place in the picturesque Florida Keys, a setting that perfectly shadows its stories ominous tone. The opening shots of the pilot feature gorgeous beach views, palm tree-lined walkways, and extras outfitted in bright, flowy clothing. Yet, nothing on this show is ever as beautiful as it appears on the surface. There’s darkness brewing just underneath. By the finale, we’ve literally been dragged through the swamp in the pouring rain.

The story centers around the Rayburn family, who own a vacation resort right off the beach. Robert (Sam Shepard) and Sally (Sissy Spacek) run The Inn, as it’s called, while their son John (Kyle Chandler) is a detective for the county sheriff, their other son Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) works on the harbor, and their daughter Meg (Linda Cardellini) is a lawyer. Then there’s their son Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), the black sheep.

The pilot begins with Danny returning home for the 45th anniversary of his parents’ hotel, bringing with him a harbinger of bad things to come. As he reinserts himself into his parents’ and siblings’ lives, the cracks in the facade start to reveal themselves, and we see just how much pain this family has truly experienced.

Bloodline was created by Todd Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman, who also worked together to create the legal drama Damages. Both shows employ a mesmerizing form of nonlinear storytelling that works to both create tension and add new dimensions to the characters.

The plot often zooms ahead to the future, so much so that we already know the basics of the finale by the time the pilot is over. It’s a risky move, but it pays off well, as the knowledge of Danny’s eventual death makes his every action immensely climactic. Just what is Danny going to do that leads to his own demise? Kessler, Kessler, and Zelman make great use of the Netflix format, allowing the episodes to blend into one another, while also ending each chapter in cliffhanging suspense so you can’t help but watch the next one. Truly, this is a show that is meant to be binge-watched.

More intriguing, however, is the way the series drifts into the Rayburns’ past. The flashback sequences creep up subtly, and often occur right alongside present-day versions the same characters they feature. This dreamy technique is fascinating, giving a personal touch to each family member’s memories.

“Part 4” is an episode that most explicitly details the darkness that haunts the family and has tainted everyone’s relationship with Danny. Bloodline deals heavily in melodrama, but it’s often able to reign things in before they become too soap operatic. There are moments where the tragedy feels overbearing, but, for the most part, it exhibits a refreshing amount of subtlety. These inner-psyche flashbacks help a great deal, making the trauma feel wholly authentic.

Robert gives a speech during the 45th memorial celebration that summarizes what he thinks of each of his children. John is the do-gooder, always looking out for everyone else. Meg is the intellectual, using her brainpower to offer expert legal counsel. Kevin is party boy, who also has a bit of a temper. And finally, Danny is the one always coming home to ask for money.

This introduction could have played out as an expository annoyance, but what’s so interesting about Bloodline is the way it subverts these initial archetypes with each episode. John hasn’t always looked out for his family the way he does now. Meg may be an ace lawyer, but she’ll never escape the desperation from her past. Danny might be a menace, but he’s a victim of tragic circumstance more than anything else.

These multifaceted characters couldn’t exist without the wonderfully layered performances from the cast. Chandler brings the commanding sternness he became famous for as Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights and imbues it with a level of modesty that gives way for moments of vulnerability. Cardellini is heartbreaking as Meg, covering her fragility with brave face that expertly hints at inner demons. Spacek fits the matriarch role excellently, and Shepard’s stoic delivery makes his character’s backstory all the more engrossing. Even smaller roles, such as Chloe Sevigny’s jaded Chelsea, feel very lived-in.

As Danny, Mendelsohn is pitch perfect. His delivery may seem mellow on the surface, but there’s a fiery sense of malice behind everything he says.  Danny is easily the most complex character on the show, and each new bit of information we get from him allows Mendelsohn’s performance to shine even brighter.

The one weak spot is Butz, who does his best with the material he’s given, but can’t elevate Kevin past being a hard-drinking hothead. He’s the only character who doesn’t seem to have a different side to him, and the stark contrast between him and his siblings is off-putting.

Still, if there’s one thing Bloodline is good at, it’s laying the groundwork for what’s to come. The pilot presents Danny’s shocking death, and then slowly builds up to it throughout the entire season with irresistible twists and turns.

For a while I wondered how this show would be able to sustain itself through multiple seasons, but by the finale’s end I was absolutely ready for more. Whatever Kevin’s problems might be, perhaps they’ll come to light next season. I certainly hope so, because this is one family that deals with conflict in incredibly captivating ways.

The Florida Keys may be a popular vacation destination, but it quickly becomes clear that the Rayburn’s would give almost anything to escape. I, for one, can’t wait to go back. Grade: A-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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