Meet the Rayburns: they’re just your garden variety dysfunctional Florida Keys family.
Let’s bitch it out…
Bloodline is the new drama from the people behind Damages, Daniel Zelman and brothers Glenn and Todd Kessler. If you’ve watched Damages, then you have an idea what to expect from Bloodline, with the sunny neo-noir shores of the Florida Keys standing in for the mean streets of NY.
‘Part 1’ focuses on a reunion of sorts as friends and family of the Rayburns gather to celebrate the forty-fifth anniversary of the family B’n’B and a forthcoming dock commemoration. Parents Robert (Sam Shepard) and Sally (Sissy Spacek) appear laid back and chill on the surface, but they clearly hold their adult children to a high standard (our introduction to Sally finds her critiquing the tardiness of the various kids while Robert’s tendency to strum a ukelele does nothing to reduce the sting of his barbs). There’s an air of expectation about how the weekend will go and everyone is tiptoeing around the elephant in the room: the return of eldest son, Danny (Ben Mendelsohn). Other reviews describe Danny as the black sheep of the family and while that’s appropriate, this opening chapter does a great job of presenting him in different lights so that we can understand why the rest of the family is both cautiously optimistic and incredibly cynical about his appearance at the festivities.
The nearly singular focus on Danny ends up being both a strength and a weakness. This first episode is really the Danny and John (Kyle Chandler) show, leaving the other characters little screen time to develop their characters. We learn next to nothing about younger siblings Meg (Linda Cardellini) and Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) outside of a few cursory character traits and their opinions about their reformed older brother (she’s willing to offer Danny a second chance; he believes a disappointment is inevitable). This leaves the burden of the first episode firmly on the shoulders of Mendelsohn and Chandler. Thankfully they’re both more than capable. The relationship between the brothers is firmly established in the early minutes when John is tasked with picking up Danny from the bus stop. He does this to appease his mother, but also to ensure that everything goes smoothly. This character trait is reiterated repeatedly via John’s voice over, which sets the stage for the fiery flash forward, and also confirms that John is the mediator / fixer of the Rayburn family (Robert wryly notes this in his dinner toast when he applauds John for protecting not just the family, but “the whole damn island”).
The interactions between Danny and John are the best part of this opening chapter of Bloodline. There’s a wary resignation in the way that John handles his older brother and although the series isn’t subtle about Danny’s many, many disappointments, this new chapter carries a sense of finality. Dramatically this makes sense: we’re tuning in to this chapter of the Rayburn family saga because this is when the bad shit happens. Chandler wears the weariness like a second skin, while Mendelsohn excels at veering back and forth between the sympathetic black sheep and the plotting schemer. If Bloodline tips its hand too much with its frequently unnecessary voice over and ominous foreshadowing, its simply a testament to its neo noir underpinnings. The Rayburns may think that they’re not bad people, but this first entry clearly suggests that they’re not exactly good people, either.
- The moment that Mia Kirshner shows up on the bus, I knew she would be trouble. The actress, known for portraying characters like Jenny on The L Word and nearly naked Mandy on 24, is practically synonymous with crazy, danger and death.
- With that said, her unnamed role is deceptive: she clearly knows Danny on the bus (she mentions the draft of the speech he discards) and they skinny dip when she shows up later at the dock bar. Her sudden disappearance in the water and the fact that we don’t see her exit the bus while John sits waiting leads me to believe two things: 1) she’s either a figment of Danny’s imagination (hence his hallucinating her pendant on the ocean floor) or 2) she’s merely his partner in crime. While the second is more likely (how else did Danny end up naked on the pier?), the first portends much more serious issues that may explain why John lights him on fire in the coda.
- Either way, are we in agreement that she’s the abusive, unstable woman in the late night story he relates to John’s wife, Diana (Jacinda Barrett)?
- John is called out late when a body is found in the water. It’s unidentified, but his partner believes the girl is around 16 years old. Again, knowing Damages, this murder will play a larger role moving forward. With that said, jumping away from the murder immediately after tracking the body down feels jarring.
- There’s another young girl in this episode, a sunny edge-of-death hallucination that Danny remembers as he nearly drowns following a combination of booze, coke and swimming. Thus far this is the only glimpse of the past that we’ve seen, despite frequent references to it from most of the Rayburns.
- One of the first people Danny meets upon his return is Eddie O’Bannon (Jamie McShane), who might as well wear a shirt that reads “Bad News.” This character feels far too stereotypical: the same town crook who immediately ensnares a character in a criminal enterprise. With that said, it sounds like Danny has never been far away from a life of crime. There are repeated ominous mentions of debt monies owed to the men who helped Danny start his ill-fated restaurant.
- Sheryl (Betsy Graver), Danny’s date, is exactly the kind of nightmare that his siblings expected when they fought over whether or not to allow her to sit at the family table. I cringed over every “woot” and debaucherous dance move.
- All of the talk about Meg’s relationship with Marco (Enrique Murciano) and the matching outfits in the flashforward suggests that things go terribly wrong at her wedding. Am I hot or cold?
- Finally: shout-out to Katie Finneran (as Kevin’s wife, Belle) and Steven Pasquale (as Meg’s mysterious adulterous hook-up). Love you both; hope you get to do more in the future.
Your turn: were you impressed by this first episode? Does the flashforward to the boat fire pique your interest? Did you find the voice-over overbearing and/or unnecessary? Who do you want to learn more about? Is Danny playing the family or is he truly reformed? Is Mia Kirshner’s character real or imaginary? Sound off below, but as with all of our Online TV coverage, please restrict your comments to the episode being reviewed so others can avoid spoilers.
Bloodline is now available in its entirety on Netflix. New reviews will be added every Friday.