Bloodline: A Lie, Agreed Upon

Netflix Recommended Viewing

This is one of those shows that I didn’t fall in love with right away. It’s slow burning and willfully deceptive for the sake of being deceptive. Plot points are teased and dangled, non sequential snippets are sprinkled throughout, and reliably filtered incomplete flashbacks run amok. And while I normally love non-linear storytelling the effect was a little too apparent and indelicate. Which is fine, it has the feel of a good boilerplate pulp novel, the kind you consume in one sitting on the beach somewhere and while at first I thought 13 episodes were a little bit of a stretch for a story this self contained I changed my mind about halfway through. The reason for this is how well realized every single member of the Rayburn clan is and how well they are portrayed. Not a one side story drags or loses the momentum of the whole. Everyone’s dilemma is intimately connected and although Coach Eric Taylor….sorry, Kyle Chandler has top billing, it’s really all about Danny, actor Ben Mendelsohn. I’m going to get back to him later, but ultimately he is the one turning the wheels of this machine and watching his progression from black sheep to his truer form is as thrilling as anything I have seen on film. Although it lacks the macabre atmosphere and flourishing dialogue of True Detective, Bloodline exists in a universe that is not disimiliar. It’s Southern Gothic, it’s beautiful in a desolate way, and when the idea of god isn’t completely absent he is conspicuously nihilistic. 

I was able to successfully avoid binge-watching Bloodline, particularly because of that slow burning quality in the first half of the season. There is also narration of a sort but this normally clunky and overwrought technique is revealed to be something else entirely in a deeply satisfying way that I won’t spoil. In a sense, Bloodline is about lying successfully and the fruit of that poisoned tree. It’s in no way moralistic which is where the real brilliance of the story and that favorite category of mine, noir, emerges. That absence of heroes. Fully realized pathos precludes the idea of a good guy versus a bad guy, instead there is only damaged human being versus damaged human being. Or in some cases, human being versus their own damage. The effect is multiplied when family is involved. 

Ben Mendelsohn as Danny Rayburn. Holy career making performance. It’s not just how well the character is written and developed, Mendelsohn inhabits…well, no. He is this tormented soul that you immediately suspect, then pity, then hate, then like, then hate, then fear. All the while fully understanding the why and it becomes nearly impossible to separate the human being from the damage. This is the craft and without his turn Bloodline would have felt like an above average series on FX instead of what it is: a compelling drama about family, the cycle of violence and the inevitable consequence of an agreed upon lie. To wit, Mendelsohn owns this role with so much veracity he has redefined the concept of antagonist in my book. 

All around I’m deeply satisfied with this series. It’s adult without being exploitive. There is no sexposition (sex+exposition, a product of HBO and their incessant need to carpet bomb drama with rampant nudity for the sake of titillation), the science is sound, the characters, heartbreakingly real. And the monsters in Bloodline are distressingly human as are the ghosts. I think I’ve referenced Carl Jung before but it bears repeating, he said, I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to be. This is an admirable notion but not a universal one. Some people are what happened to them, products of their environment. People who are inexorably drawn back to the place where everything went wrong, unavoidably compelled to visit the sins of the father on their kin. And in a situation where no one is to blame, everyone is to blame. 

I don’t have anything to say about the finale, other than it was deeply satisfying and well worth the slow burn. I’m not spoiling it, you can’t make me. I was, however, struck by how comfortable I was with it, as ethically indefensible as that is to say. We’re not bad people,…but we did a bad thing. This conundrum is beautifully illustrated, and like any real art it left me confronting my own perceptions, in this case the idea of morality as it relates to family. How far is too far? How late is too late? And is an agreed upon lie better than a terrible truth.