The first season of “Bloodline,” a Netflix drama with a cast any series would envy, barely escaped its time-jumping introduction. The show opened by teasing the death of black sheep brother Danny Rayburn (Ben Mendelsohn), then flashed back to how younger brother John (Kyle Chandler) wound up dragging his sibling’s body through the swamps of southern Florida. That set the series up for a massive payoff, but “Bloodline’s” season finale didn’t quite fulfill that promise; just as it didn’t quite pay off on the “prestige drama” label its all-star cast, seasoned behind-the-scenes talent and Netflix pedigree thrust upon it.
Well, now it has.
Season 2 of “Bloodline” flies by the first season in nearly every episode, mainly because it’s no longer tied down by a wonky timeline. While one can certainly admire the ambition of the freshman season’s construction, the series proved itself to be so damn great at crafting small, intimate moments of personal conflict that it became frustrating to see them overwhelmed by the overarching mystery of, “How did Danny die?” In Season 2, those notes feel all the more relevant, personal and edge-of-your-seat thrilling because we have no idea what’s going to happen next.
Don’t forget, these writers have always thrived in secrecy. Series creators/showrunners Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman and Glenn Kessler find their groove in Season 2, incorporating a handful of exciting surprises — both in story and storytelling techniques — at various points throughout the season to keep things fresh, build tension and expose the inner workings of John’s brain. The most noticeable and successful of these is the latter — evident to anyone who’s seen the trailer — using Danny as a human sounding board to John’s thought process. At intermittent points throughout the season (timed to John’s ever-mounting stress), Danny will appear and talk back to his older brother. It’s as though they’re having a conversation, but John never speaks. Danny responds to the thoughts in John’s head, leaving the viewer to speculate at what he’s thinking based on implications made in Danny’s responses.
This trick works wonders on dual levels. First, it lends mystery to John; providing just enough of a peek inside his mind to elicit more empathy than ever for the burdened family man we all know now as a cold-blooded murderer. The clever technique helps warm that blood without shaking off his ultimate transgression, but it also brings back the best side of Ben Mendelsohn, an actor so incredible in Season 1 it hurt twice-over when his death was confirmed in the final episodes last season. With his pseudo-resurrection (and a few flashbacks), the writers have found a seductive, original and highly effective means to make Danny as much of a part of Season 2 as Season 1, as his spirit continues to haunt the entire Rayburn clan. (His presence isn’t overused, though, as the writers are wise enough to know that less is more with a choice like this.)
Of course, it also allows for Mendelsohn and Chandler to go head-to-head, a delicious battle of wills you never want to end. And in these battles audiences can see not only a whole new side of John, but the actor playing him as well. While always a magnetic screen presence, Chandler finds ways to win scenes without saying a single word. So much of his performance is based in reaction, and yet you never feel like he’s taken out of the conversation. The scripts place an impossible amount of weight on the interpretation of his mannerisms; watching him judge, assess and act on information provided to him, and Chandler turning John into a sponge somehow makes you want to root for him in spite of less than noble intentions.
More importantly, not once are you left wondering what he’s up to — unless it’s intended — and the tagline from Season 1 actually feels more appropriate now. He did a bad thing, but is he a bad person? You can tell he can’t anymore, fighting every day to figure out if he’s gone beyond the point of no return, and reassessing with each new development where that line ends. For as little as John Rayburn has in common with Coach Eric Taylor, Chandler should be equally rewarded at the Emmys this year — one trophy to match the other.
He’s far from the only cast member to deliver a tremendous turn, as Mendelsohn helps Danny become even further fleshed out in a few telling flashbacks. Spacek gets several crackerjack scenes herself, exploring the captivating inner workings of the lonely family matriarch, and Linda Caredellini continues to impress as the lone Rayburn sister, strung out for too long, too often and by too many people. The group helps mask a few problematic plot holes early on, filling them with enough conviction to allow “Bloodline” to cruise all the way to its…well, controversial finale.
Though I prefer this season to last (by a significant amount), there’s an argument to be made over which provides a better closing note. Yes, last year’s finale was largely ruined by the premature foreshadowing of the pilot, but it did tease where things were headed to an effective degree (and Owen Teague is superb as Danny’s son, Nolan). Season 2, as it did with its entire construction, essentially establishes an opposing trajectory. Wrapped in mystery, it’s an ending that could frustrate those who were looking for “Bloodline” to go out with a bang after such magnificent buildup, but the final image feels all the more fitting the longer it sits with you. No matter your preference for how things end, at least it’s clear we’re better off not knowing before we get there.