The Un-Welcome Home (Series Review: “Bloodline”)

Bloodline is the family reunion you’ve longed for even though you kind of dread it, and then you wish you’d never gone but it’s too late to back out. And nothing’s ever the same.

SnapShot Plot

In this haunting, superbly acted original drama series on Netflix, a black sheep son returns to his venerable family in the Florida Keys, but his presence soon wreaks havoc on those around him, threatening to reveal some nasty truths better left buried in the sand.

I urge you to stick with this long series (13 hour-long segments) even when it seems to ebb in low tide around episode 6 or 7, for it becomes a real nail-biter, with performances so acutely realized, you’ll be thinking about these characters long after the season closer. In a nutshell, its a story of the fallout surrounding the return of prodigal son, Danny Rayburn to his family’s illustrious beachfront resort and the mixed reception he receives from his three siblings and father alike. The moment he steps off the bus, a wave of trouble and doom seem to trail after him like a slow-churning tsunami making its inexorable way toward the Rayburn clan and all they hold dear.

In an impressive cast led by Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights fame), Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard, the emphasis is on the relationships that over time have cemented themselves around a family tragedy from their past, at the center of which oldest brother, Danny remains embedded and condemned. The truth of what precisely occurred those many years ago is revealed incrementally through an effective series of flashbacks as remembered by various members of the family. What heats up the drama, concurrently, involves Danny’s resurrection of his old ties to some unsavory local characters and his involvement in criminal activities that soon spin wildly out of control, dragging everyone down with him.

Australian actor, Ben Mendelsohn gives an astonishingly understated performance as Danny, a slouching loser whose face can change in an instant from injured altar boy to predatory blackmailer. He carries his tragic past like a chip on his shoulder, ready to remind the illustrious Rayburns just how badly mistreated he was, all the while trying to convince them (and perhaps himself) that nonetheless he’d like to be welcomed back into the fold. Mendelsohn’s uncanny gift for nailing his lines while seeming to carelessly throw them away makes his performance absolutely electrifying, albeit in a laid-back, alcohol infused rhythm in keeping with the tropical tempo of the Florida Keys setting.

Sissy Spacek (always uniquely peculiar yet heartfelt) is the matriarch of the Rayburn clan, who has blinders on when it comes to her oldest child and just wants everyone to get along. Kyle Chandler’s John Rayburn, a local sheriff, is the embodiment of the dutiful son, good brother, and loyal family man. I can’t imagine another actor more suited to the role than Chandler, as he personifies in his best work the quiet hero, the good man whose principled moral compass always points North, the guy who naturally feels responsible for the fates of others, especially in this case his own blood. Chandler does such a good job of evoking his character’s conflicted feelings about Danny that it is often painful to see, he’s that good in the role. His John Rayburn is the protagonist of the drama, and like a Greek tragedy, John’s tragic flaw is his unwavering loyalty and his desire to protect, which leads to ruin.



Parting Shot

When Todd Kessler, Daniel Zelman, and Glenn Kessler created Bloodline, they packed some heavy themes into a family saga that could have just as easily become a little sizzler of a pot-boiler. Instead what they succeeded in creating is a fully realized, evocative world in which these characters are so real you can almost feel their collective pulses, and the setting is so palpable you can feel your feet burning in the sand. And with terrific work from Linda Cardellini, Chloë Sevigny, Jacinda Barrett (another Aussie actor nailing an American character), and Norbert Leo Butz, we feel what’s at stake for these people, and dread what we come to realize is an inevitability.

Like the best dramas, no one character is all good or all bad. This goes double in Bloodline. Was Danny exiled unfairly? Probably. Is the siblings’ desire to protect their mother without a degree of selfishness? Maybe not. Doesn’t Danny – despite his sometimes malevolent impulses – nonetheless hold up a mirror to his family’s inner drives, exposing the things they’ve worked hard to suppress?

As I watched this series, I kept thinking about what Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, “You can’t go home again” . . . and concluded that, at least in some families, you really shouldn’t.

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For those Literature majors among us (you know who you are!) here’s the entire quote from Wolfe’s seminal novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, which seems a poetic and lyrical salute to the bittersweet themes expressed in the series:

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’ back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermuda, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
― Thomas Wolfe


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