I must admit that Bloodline was far from my first choice of Netflix series to watch, although it often showed up among the website’s suggestions for me. Before even giving the first episode a try, I’d gone through all of Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Love, Stranger Things, and parts of series I quickly gave up on (i.e. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt).
You must be wondering how I’ve had time to watch so many series, but if you were to spend three and a half months in a retirement community in Florida writing your dissertation, you’d understand.
I knew that Bloodline was about a family saga, and those can be quite dramatic and convoluted. So I put it off until I had no other suitable choice to spend a passive, mentally exhausted evening. Like with Stranger Things, though, the opening instantly pulled me in.
The Bloodline opening consists of a time lapse of the same beach scene, set to a beautifully simple and melancholic song. The song is called “The Water Lets You In,” by the Los Angeles band Book of Fears. The band says its name was inspired by a pamphlet “written by a paranoid schizophrenic who simply listed his fears alongside crude drawings which depicted the various things which frightened him. (…) Although the pamphlet is lost, it remains the inspiration for the music and lyrical content of the songs.”
Did you notice the poetry in the conjugation of the music, lyrics and sights in this clip? Unbeknownst to me before getting into the series, they would turn out to perfectly capture the essence of Bloodline (and perhaps the circle of life). It’s amazing how the choice of music can be so meaningful.
Bloodline revolves around that lost or elusive sea “diamond.”
And oh… drowning.
Guided by this notion, I’ll try to give as few spoilers as possible but still present you with some tantalizing plot points.
This is not a series I could binge on; I wanted to savor its layers without having indigestion. Bloodline is a heavy cake to get through, and one that will make your mind fat with reflection. It’s a diamond with various facets, and when you think you know it, you realize you really don’t.
(From now on, I promise I’ll go easy on the metaphors and cut to the chase.)
When the central family in Bloodline, the Rayburns, were still a young family, they lost the father’s favorite daughter at sea. One of her brothers has carried the burden for the death and become the black sheep. He comes and goes from the family’s life. Well into his adulthood, he ostensibly decides to settle back home in the insular Floridian community of Islamorada, where the family has long established itself. This turns out to be a bad idea for everyone, except the entertained audience.
It’s the starting point of the story, though it takes a while for the new viewer to find out even that bit (so, you’re welcome). Yes, it is a convoluted plot, and you have to pay attention to every piece as it reveals itself, in order to truly get it. But trust me, it’s worth it, because it’s brilliantly told. I had to make it to the very last episode of Season 1 to say, “aha, this is how they built and executed the narrative!”
The series creators’ character development and restraint in releasing their layers to the public have also impressed me.
(On a side note: One of the creators also wrote episodes for The Sopranos; another wrote the screenplay for Fool’s Gold and Anacondas. A winning cross of creativity and… diverse plot-making experiences?)
With patriarch Robert Rayburn (Sam Shepard) at the helm, the key family in Bloodline has gained much of its fortune and prestige from sea-related tourism. But – surprise! – old Rob may not be as shining as his well-established image would have the uninformed proletariat believe. Some from the proletariat, also not that squeaky clean (to say the least), know what we don’t, and want to bring him down. The viewer gets to know Robert mostly via other characters. And there are a lot of them.
Proletarians of note include siblings Eric and Chelsea O’Bannon (Jamie McShane and Chloë Sevigny), longtime friends of the black sheep. There’s also Det. Lenny Potts (Frank Hoyt Taylor), who may just have stirred the biggest hornet’s nest in the whole series.
Perhaps taking after old Rob, two of the sons (including the black sheep) try to make a living off the sea (at times illicitly), but fail. Forgiveness and redemption may also be lost at sea, replaced by the rottenness of revenge and corruption. Add a drug and human trafficking ring to the mix, and you’ve got quite an interesting little beach (in a horrible way). My life growing up in South Florida wasn’t nearly as eventful, I must say, since I managed to avoid jail, burning boats, haunting spirits and the desire to become sheriff.
The Rayburn children are very different, but all have something in common besides a very provincial upbringing and their parents Robert and Sally Rayburn (Sissy Spacek): They are all deeply screwed up. Perhaps as a direct result of such an upbringing and so many unresolved issues from their childhood.
First of all, there’s the black sheep, Danny Rayburn (Ben Mendelsohn). Sometimes you feel sorry for him, sometimes you feel like you want to hit him… just like the rest of his siblings. But he may have brought into this world more than you would have thought. John Rayburn (Kyle Chandler), the cop and family protector, Danny’s best friend and worst enemy, is both what a human being aspires to be and aspires to avoid becoming.
I have a girl crush on his wife Diana (Jacinda Barrett). She’s got such young looks and a strong personality. With whom will John’s loyalty turn out to lie, exactly, though?
Confused yet? Or intrigued?
Get used to the gray area, the ambiguity, the paradoxes, and possibly changing your mind about every character you meet. I do feel mostly bad for lil’ sister Meg Rayburn (Linda Cardellini) and lil’ brother Kevin Rayburn (Norbert Leo Butz), though.
Meg is too intelligent for her own good, and Kevin is too dumb for his. She’s the only one who could have really left Islamorada and made a life for herself, as a big-time lawyer elsewhere. But will she ever be able to? Will she ever break away from the Rayburn web?
For each one of the characters, I feel that Islamorada represents paradise, limbo and hell at different times. But for Kevin and Meg, it’s mostly hell these days. You could say the same for John, but the man’s made of a special kind of fiber, though one I haven’t quite figured out.
Ah, life isn’t that bad for most of us in comparison, after all. When you’re having a bad day, remember the Rayburns in Islamorada, and say a little prayer. Or just watch or repeat another episode. You’ve got two seasons right now; the third should come out sometime next year.