TV: Bloodline (Season 1)

BloodlinesPosterBigNetflix’s hot streak continues with Bloodline, a masterful slow boil that blends mystery and family drama in a distinctive Florida Keys setting. The Rayburns are pillars of a bright, sunlit community whose empire is built on a successful resort hotel founded by inscrutable patriarch Robert (Sam Shepard) and his wife Sally (Sissy Spacek). Their children are son John (Kyle Chandler), an upstanding local police detective; Megan (Linda Cardellini), an attorney who helps run the family business; and Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), who owns a boat charter. It’s a family whose reputation precedes them, and they’re about to be honored with a pier dedication, an event that lures the family’s drifting, black sheep son Danny (Ben Mendelsohn) back home after many years away. A trouble-making outcast, Danny immediately sends nervous ripples across the pristine surface of the family’s world.—but it turns out the Rayburns aren’t as pure as they appear, and Danny is at the center of their dark past. His return dredges up tragedies and transgressions of family history that ultimately threaten to tear it apart anew.

Bloodline opens quietly and confidently, setting its hooks in with a combination of flashbacks and flashforwards that hint at the Rayburns’ past troubles and intense, forthcoming traumas. Watching it progress is a little like seeing a lit fuse crawl toward the looming shadow of a massive powder keg: for all the calm surfaces, it’s clear something horrible and explosive is coming. Structurally, it’s exceptionally sure-handed, revealing just enough glimmers of backstory and foreshadowing to keep the viewer guessing about its past and future mysteries. Then, gradually, it layers in detail to fill in the picture, clarifying both mysteries. It’s a gutsy strategy that pays off in a brilliantly woven finale that ties in all the audio-visual fragments you’re expecting, but in an arrangement that is subtly surprising and ingenious. Meanwhile, the acting is exquisite, with all the primary players—especially Mendelsohn and Chandler—delivering Emmy-worthy performances. The handling of these characters is deft, particularly Danny; he’s a reprehensible, menacing presence, but nuanced enough and explored so richly that his viewpoint is almost sympathetic. He is no shallow, standard villain.

The show does have a few drawbacks. It’s not very diverse or progressive, and its tone is relentlessly dark and unforgiving. I suspect not all viewers will welcome it. Those who do might find its perfectly elegant finale to be marred by an odd coda that open-ends an otherwise complete and satisfying mystery, perhaps to pave the way for a second season. Issues aside, I think it’s an immersive and worthwhile watch for fans of fine acting, intricate mystery, and patient, confident story-telling.

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