Why You Should Make Netflix’s Bloodline Your Next Binge-Watch
The familiar dynamics of siblings are showcased for TV’s best new ensemble.
Netflix has entered the original TV production game to, let’s say, mixed result. House of Cards, Kimmy Schmidt, and Orange is the New Black are all smart, fresh shows with their own not insignificant sets of problems. Now, they’ve made their venture into family drama with Bloodline, an interesting idea not just because it’s from the creators of Damages, but also because it might have the best ensemble cast working today.
The thing that really interested me about Bloodline is the fact that it was actually described as a family drama hidden under a crime thriller. I love family dramas, whether soapy (yes, I have been watching Empire, and I love it) or feel-good (I contend the ’70s triple threat of The Waltons, Family, and early Little House made for one of the best moments in TV history). I love family dramas so much because I find familial dynamics to be fascinating dramatic fodder; it’s an inescapable force in everyone’s life (no matter your relationships), and it plays a role in who you are and in how you relate to people. When shows focus on the interpersonal relationships between siblings and parents, I am especially fascinated by how different the universal experience can be. That is all to say, a crime thriller seems like the perfect way to explore family dynamics among adult siblings; after all, that family focus is why The Godfather transcends typical mob films.
Bloodline isn’t about organized crime, exactly, but certainly suggests the Corleone Family Tradition; and if this family has a Fredo, it seems to be the oldest child Danny (Ben Mendelsohn). While his three siblings stayed at home to stay close to their family in The Florida Keys, Danny wandered. Narrator Kyle Chandler’s John is a detective and next in line as the family patriarch after his father (Sam Shepard). Then there’s youngest son and middle child Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), a boatyard owner; and youngest child and only daughter Meg (Linda Cardellini), an attorney who manages the family’s business and legal needs with their hotel. Their mother (Sissy Spacek) is a loving, earthy type who seems to place all her children and husband’s happiness ahead of her own, as so many mothers do.
Then Danny comes home from wherever he’s been, and asks if he can join the family business. While his mother is delighted to her have her prodigal son home, his siblings and their father are far less excited. Dad’s already cut Danny out of the will, and tells the siblings that it’s their choice if Danny is allowed to stay. All this alludes to the fact that, despite being the oldest child, Danny isn’t the golden boy we’re used to seeing on-screen; his father seems to outright despise him, and he is met with nothing but resentment and mistrust by his siblings. Is Danny a threat to exposing their secrets? Or is he the bad seed come home to roost? It takes considerable time to get a grip on who Danny is, which is where the heart of the show lies – especially in the way each family member interacts with each other.
One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the way they nail family dynamics. The literal oldest son, Danny, and the figurative one, John, hold a tension between them which remains unspoken for nearly the entire season, while Danny and younger brother Kevin are constantly in conflict. Perhaps the most fascinating relationship, however, is between Meg and Danny, because of the roles they play in the family. Meg essentially managed the business for her father out of a sense of familial obligation, while Danny returns and takes his place out of a sense of inherited right. This is a family business which “should” be handed down to the eldest, and daughter Meg is uncomfortable with Danny taking on any responsibilities once held by her father. When Danny seems to get closer to their mother, Meg becomes the most protective one in the family, perhaps because she has clearly previously had the closest relationship with their mother. In the midst of this, Meg also clearly stresses over giving up her freedom in marriage the way her mother did when she married Meg’s father.
It doesn’t hurt that, in a cast of universally-brilliant performances, Cardellini and Mendelsohn are award-worthy. Despite still looking very much like Freaks and Geeks’ Lindsay, Cardellini has never seemed more dynamic on screen as the conflicted sister who just wants to be the peacekeeper. Her range is incredibly impressive, from steely determination to emotional mess, and the specific connections she has with each family member is the work of an actress giving a lived-in performance. Some of the best and most anxiety-ridden moments are Meg’s confrontations with Danny, when they talk and talk but never say the emotions they are trying desperately to hide.
But, as most critics are saying, the Bloodline actor most likely to be seen at awards ceremonies this year will be Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn. For some, he’s a discovery; for others they’ll know him from other dark roles in Animal Kingdom and Starred Up (my favorite performance from last year). Australians have known him since he was a teen actor on TV (like Cardellini) playing a wide range of roles. Here, Mendelsohn’s performance is deserving of being called remarkable for the same reason that Empire’s Taraji P. Henson is Emmy’s Best Actress front-runner. They both understand acting for TV, utilizing the media to show the widest range of emotions and reactions they can, while maintaining a sense of reality for the characters. Because of their skill, the mystery and twists they can get away with while maintaining character make their roles seem all the richer. Mendelsohn appears to suffer the wounds of a child, informing his paranoia about being with the family, which makes him a simultaneously scary and sympathetic character to watch from start to finish.
I don’t speak lightly when I talk of childhood wounds. The family backstory involves abuse, but takes an interesting turn because of the siblings’ relationships and long-held family secrets. From the minute one of the family members speaks of an injury caused in childhood, you know there were problems in the household. But where the show really shows its strength in the writing is in how they’re handling that history; it isn’t treated lightly or as something to be justified, and everyone seems to be aware that using it as an excuse for Danny’s behavior causes more problems. The family’s inability to communicate or to move past their long-standing issues is the cause of their problems in adulthood. They are so desperate to hide their family shame, they have turned against Danny; and in response, Danny turned against them. All the while, mother Sally seems to be kept in the dark by her children, both because they don’t want to worry her, and because she tells her children she doesn’t want to think of the hard truths. If her husband is too forceful with their children, she is far too passive.
The issue I have with this show, having finished all 13 episodes, is the fact that using the Damages story structure, specifically flashing forward to the season’s ending, might actually hurt the show. The crime story involving John and Danny being on opposite sides could come together naturally, without constantly hinting at a twist. It places too much importance on the crime story, and detracts from the family relationships which drive the story. Also, it makes the series seem rather rushed, because they are constantly trying to move towards this conclusion, rather than giving a few moments to just watch the family members marinate. When Danny spends time with his family (out to dinner with his mother, family time with John’s kids, a joyride with his dad and brothers), not knowing the ultimate ending would have allowed me to get even more emotionally involved. And when Sally finally realizes the truth about her son, crying at the table, we would have shared some of the same sadness. For a show which relishes “the slow burn,” I think rushing forward was a mistake, because it should be a show about family first, and crime second.
The show looks great, and uses the Florida Keys to brilliant effect. The really couldn’t work in a more populated place, and the storyline requires (for obvious reason) a small town; a tourist town near the water where people escape and hide. The steamy, swampy settings fit the story’s dark tones, and the summer flashbacks could be nostalgic if they weren’t so disturbing. The one issue I have with the cinematic qualities on screen are minor: there are times when it was so dark, I couldn’t tell what was going on, even after adjusting the brightness of my TV and computer. Otherwise, the show looks great, is brilliantly edited, and makes good use of score (there are very few pieces of popular music). It is, at times, rushed, but I never felt bored or as though I just wanted to get through the 13 episodes.
I just feel bad most critics reviewed the show after only three episodes, because the best were yet to come.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.