What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
– “Waste Land – The Burial Of The Dead”
It’s strange, I admit it, but T.S. Eliot‘s poetic lines on cultural decline and the fragile human spirit are making me think of the Rayburns. They’re the pillars of the Florida Keys community at the center of “Bloodline,” the new original Netflix series created by Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman. In case you didn’t know that, or haven’t caught up with the entire season yet and wish to have nothing spoiled, this article will be waiting for you when you return. Otherwise, consider yourselves warned!
How is one’s fate defined by one’s family? That central question lies at the heart of “Bloodline,” where the overarching sense of the inescapable is a dominant force, sung like an omen before each episode: you drown before the water lets you in. In its essence, the story tackles that question by creating a tragic anti-hero out of Danny Rayburn (Ben Mendelsohn), defining his fate through his siblings, and most especially, John (Kyle Chandler). Every major action is anchored by an incident that happened over thirty years ago, when Danny’s younger sister, Sarah, drowned while under his watch, and each family member plays a part in the sordid memory. Robert (Sam Shepard), the father whose bad temper manifested in a violent reaction. Sally (Sissy Spacek), the mother who did what she felt she had no choice but to do. John, the middle son, whose role as spokesperson created a burden too heavy to bear. And the two younger siblings, Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) and Meg (Linda Cardellini), who knew no better. Unearthing dark secrets from a seemingly perfect family unit isn’t new, but “Bloodline” uses the familiar to build something incredibly multi-faceted and complex around one original central figure, resulting in a neo-noir mystery with a most original victim.
What makes “Bloodline” an especially intriguing dysfunctional family drama is how centered around Danny its family’s dysfunctional qualities are. Take the thirty-year gap between Sarah’s death and Danny’s return as a great reflector of this. These thirty years barely get filled with facts throughout the entire season, but it doesn’t take long for us to conclude how disastrous Danny’s adult life has been up until the first time we see him on that bus. Colluding with shady characters, consistently flaking on family affairs, and rarely finishing anything legitimate that he starts (be it cooking school, or opening a restaurant); Danny is the walking definition of dysfunction. His addiction to painkillers and chronic shoulder pain aren’t as subtle as his vision of an adult Sarah following him around, but all three reveal the overwhelming guilt he lives with on a constant basis. On the other side of the fence, we get no indication that the Rayburns were dysfunctional in those thirty years. Haunted, of course, but dysfunctional? Hardly. They continued to build their hospitality business into a profitable success, and created a respectable bedrock for their community. The painful memory has been subdued and all have gone on to live their respective lives in relative peace and harmony. Well, OK, major signs of skeletons come out in Kevin and Meg’s inabilities to control their personal lives, but as a family unit, (assuming everyone just got used to Robert’s gloomy countenance), things have been going pretty well. Until Danny returns.
In order to understand Danny as a tragic anti-hero, one must remember the devil is in the details of the opening episode. The nature of the toast he wanted to give at the anniversary becomes clear with the benefit of hindsight, after it causes Sally to burst into tears much further into the season. By the time his toast makes the comeback, Danny is already the story’s villain, and so much has happened in the interim to make us forget that crucial moment when he opted to put the paper in his back-pocket and continue playing the role of the black sheep. Then there’s Eric O’Bannon (Jamie McShane), Danny’s best friend. After all the dealings he got in with Eric and Wayne Lowry (Glenn Morshower), it’s easy to forget that Danny initially turned Eric’s offer down in the first episode. If you think about how close the two of them are, that’s a huge deal. “People think I’ve got two brothers,” Danny tells him at a later point in the season, “they’re fucking wrong. I’ve only got one.” Holding the toast and refusing Eric’s offer indicate that Danny had genuine intentions when he asked John to talk to Robert about staying for good. He actually wanted to try and make things right.
When Robert hands off the decision to the three siblings of whether he should stay or go, Meg asks, “Why do we have to decide?” — no one has the answer. As they’ve done in the past, the Rayburn parents shift major responsibility to the siblings, and it all lands on John. It’s he who overrules Kevin and initially decides to let Danny stay, and it’s he who changes his mind after Danny embarrasses himself in front of the guests. When John tells him that it’s not going to work out, Danny sets his sights on the destructive path he takes for the entire season. “Your life is not always gonna be this perfect,” Danny warns him cryptically. He reminds him of the same when they meet for the final time in Episode 12.
Episode 5 is a major turning point for the season, so much so that it makes everything before it feel like prologue. Two major events occur that shift the dynamic and bring Danny to a breaking point: Robert’s death, and the recordings of John and Kevin’s statements to the police following Sarah’s death. Robert’s sudden passing at the beginning of Episode 5 gives Danny the perfect opportunity to keep hatching his poisonous schemes, but it’s the tapes that are more relevant to Danny’s tragic arc. When Lenny Potts (Frank Hoyt Taylor), the officer in charge of the case thirty years ago, gives him the tapes, Danny hears how John lied on record. It destroys him, and effectively starts his out-of-control spiral. Coupled with their moment on the boat in the first episode, this marks the second in two key events where John inadvertently causes Danny to turn a darker corner.
In Episode 6, Danny’s drug binge ends with a vision of John busting him, and Sarah’s ghost asking him, “is it you, or is it them?” Danny puts the gun to his temple, chooses, and shoots. The tragic anti-hero’s point of no return.
Of all the inevitable things that occur and get constantly emphasized in “Bloodline,” Danny’s doom is right at the top. He was doomed before the first episode even started, but it’s only after hearing the tapes that his self-destructive feelings manifest into an insatiable appetite for revenge. Using Robert’s shed to smuggle drugs through the inn, the attack on Kevin and his subsequent needling about how he slept with Chelsea (Chloe Sevigny), his threat to reveal Meg’s affair to Marco (Enrique Murciano) and constantly hanging Robert’s will over her head, changing details in the way the family business is run, egging on John to flirt with other women, creeping out John’s wife Diana (Jacinda Barrett), and gifting John’s daughter the same necklace that killed Sarah; everything is cloaked under Danny’s attempt to “make them feel how I feel.” When John confronts him on the beach and asks him when it’s going to end, Danny’s response says it all: “It doesn’t end for me, John. Why should it end for you?” Keeping Danny’s drug-fueled-vision from Episode 6 in mind, bringing down his family (represented through John), is the equivalent of shooting himself in the head. By choosing himself, he chooses both.
The tragic bond at the core of “Bloodline,” ultimately, is the one between John and Danny. The way it’s wrapped around a neo-noir mystery is a remarkable achievement. The show’s biggest sub-plot is John’s homicide case of the burnt victims from a human trafficking deal gone wrong. As the season progresses, and Danny gets involved with the people behind the murders, the two plot lines start to converge. This allows Kessler and co. to create the most original neo-noir technique in recent television history: “what we did to our brother,” John speaks in voice over, “we had to do.” He says this as we see him pouring gasoline on Danny’s corpse and burning him in the boat, replicating the deaths of the burned immigrants in an attempt to pin his death on Lowry. That “bad thing,” they did, remember? Turns out to be the entire family’s (but especially the siblings’, and especially John’s) treatment of Danny. Treating him like he wasn’t one of their own, and casting him away. Danny was always the rebellious yin to John’s responsible yang, Sarah’s death and the family’s cover up of Robert’s violent reaction opened the doors to decades of scapegoating. In this sense, John committed fratricide long before the two meet at the end of Episode 12. Credit must go to the show’s creators, for stitching the immigrant homicide case so expertly to the tragic story of Danny Rayburn, in order to comment on what the biggest crime in “Bloodline” really is.
As TV shows continue to soar during this golden age of television, the bar keeps rising higher and higher. “Bloodline” is far from flawless (the flash-forward structure, for example, worked much better in the creators’ previous show, “Damages,” whereas here it’s hardly necessary and slightly distracting), but right now it’s the greatest example of how profoundly effective the 13-episode format can be in modern storytelling. Of course, shows have to be technically sound in order to represent their story in the greatest possible light, and the team behind “Bloodline” does an outstanding job in every technical department. Breathtaking cinematography, an immersive soundtrack, and a coyly observant camera, all enhancing the viewing experience by a noticeable degree. The picturesque location of the Florida Keys, divided between gorgeous coral reefs and dark mangroves, is captured with an eye for the sensual and the symbolic. And yet, all of this would turn to dust if the story didn’t reach as deep as it does, and the writing and performances weren’t as spectacular as they are. “Bloodline” boasts a very good-looking cast, and everyone shines in their respective roles; each Rayburn family member has at least two highlight reels under his or her belt. But it’s Ben Mendelsohn who steals the show. He’s 50% of the reason why Danny is such a compelling and trailblazing personality to watch. Those who’ve felt the Australian actor in “Animal Kingdom,” “Killing Them Softly” and the like, have seen how his uncanny ability to alter the atmosphere of any room cuts through the screen. In that sense, there has rarely been a casting this perfect. He conquers the role, imbibing Danny with unnerving pathos, shifty calculation, and damaged soul-searching. Together with the writers, he meticulously builds the character like a crescendo towards a deafening climax. Kyle Chandler is right behind him, however. John is no Coach Taylor from “Friday Night Lights,” regardless of how deceiving his appearance is, which makes the role (and Chandler’s performance) that much more exciting to watch.
Ultimately, the quality of the show lies with the storytelling, and the central tragedy in “Bloodline” reaches the seabed of the deepest ocean. Sibling rivalry is a trope as old as Cain and Abel, and it’s so intricately woven into “Bloodline” that it becomes near-invisible in its active role as the show’s expansive theme. While “Bloodline” is concerned with the entire Rayburn family, as its title suggests, Danny is its centrifugal force, and more than any other Rayburn relative, (even slightly more than John), the show’s lead character. In many ways, Danny Rayburn is the tragic anti-hero television has been waiting for ever since Walter White was laid to rest on the floor of that meth lab. That familiar adage, “the sins of the father…,” is bleached against the stony rubbish of Danny’s harrowing life, its desperate roots and brittle branches growing out of something more complex and wholly familial than one father’s sins. The broken images of a childhood, all whirling around the merciless vortex of one life-changing tragedy, continuously suffocate and diminish his perspective, and any potential wilts before ever getting a chance to blossom. As the water splashes, and the sun reigns supreme in the paradise of Florida Keys, Danny remarks to his niece: “What a place to grow up, huh?”
A rhetorical question he’ll never know the answer to.