Seasons 1-2 now streaming on Netflix
Among the many members of the Rayburn clan of Key Largo, the one who burns the brightest during the first season of Netflix’s immersive and stealthily profound suspense series Bloodline is Danny, the oldest brother and black sheep, played to scurvy perfection by the Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn. Smoldering with duplicitous resentment, he returns from a failed stint as a Miami restaurateur to the grand resort hotel on which the Rayburns’ smug small-town dynasty rests. He insinuates himself back into the family, leveraging the sympathies of his stoic mother Sally, who runs the hotel, and lawyer sister Megan, who is looking to escape to New York. The youngest son Kevin, who runs a boatyard, hates and fears Danny; he is not open to reconciliation. When the willful and malevolent father Robert dies suddenly, the gates of dark backstory open. It is revealed teasingly and parsimoniously. Years earlier Sally had tired of Robert’s abuse and left Key Largo for a time. To distract and entertain the bereft little sister Sarah, Danny took her on a boat ride. She drowned. Robert beat Danny severely, and the children—including Danny—concocted a story to keep their father out of jail.
In this light, Danny’s behavior is more understandable if no less creepy. Agnostically suspending judgment about his brother’s intentions is John Rayburn, a senior detective with the sheriff’s department and his father’s natural successor. The actor playing John Rayburn is Kyle Chandler. All of Bloodline’s featured players are, to be sure, terrific. Sissy Spacek invests Sally with her signature spooky innocence. As Megan, Linda Cardellini deftly straddles respectability and disrepute, as she did in Mad Men. Veteran stage standout Norbert Leo Butz makes Kevin a believably histrionic mess. And of course Sam Shepard is authoritatively sour and craggy as the judgmental, unforgiving patriarch whose rise in the community over the course of 50 years has apparently been far from victimless or virtuous. Thoughtful writing as well as superior acting steers the series well clear of being a cut-rate Dallas (though Sally’s obliviousness to the rancor around her sometimes approaches that of Barbara Bel Geddes’s witless Miss Ellie). But Chandler, in plumbing the depths of American arrogance down to its mottled core, is the essential ingredient. In this show, he moves from remarkable to revelatory.
Chandler’s Emmy-winning portrayal of football coach Eric Taylor in Friday Night Lights projected a man struggling to balance self-prescribed rectitude against tacitly acknowledged foibles and public pressure to win. Exploiting his unfussy, corn-fed good looks—especially the bushy bangs and the gently sloping eyebrows—Chandler developed an uncanny ability to impart authority and sheepishness at the same time. In recent film performances, he has noodled on this basic tension to make roles that might have been incidental sing unforgettably. In The Spectacular Now, he’s deadbeat dad to Miles Teller’s alcoholic teenager. The audience is prepared for a black-hearted lout, but instead gets a heartrendingly feckless man whose dissoluteness explains rather than caricatures his son’s problems. In Carol, the title character jilts her husband for a lesbian lover. Playing the cuckold, he is bestowed with only functional dialogue at best, yet his anger and pain, and ultimately his compassion, flow from his tone and physical expressiveness. As an outed CIA station chief forced from his post in Zero Dark Thirty, he nails the petulant acquiescence of a bureaucrat who knows he has no recourse. Chandler takes a minor supporting role in The Wolf of Wall Street and stamps it as the moral heart of the movie, playing an FBI agent who neutralizes the predatory Jordan Belfort’s japes and inducements with rope-a-dope Middle American caginess and sass and subdued righteousness. As suggested in a recent Film Comment podcast, the outsized impact of his ten onscreen minutes is the product of pure presence.
Chandler’s charisma comes into full flourish in Bloodline. Although he is the portentous occasional narrator (“We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing”) throughout the first season, John bides his time until it ends, such that he cedes the spotlight to the scheming Danny and his Prodigal Son act. But John’s insistent concern for family and appearances and the inside track he enjoys on Danny’s illicit drug-dealing activities by virtue of his position as a law-enforcement officer, as well as Chandler’s sheer gravitas, ensure John’s centrality to the story. He is inclined to protect Danny for the sake of the Rayburn name until Danny flirts with and blandishes John’s teenage daughter—taking her on a boat ride, no less—and wins her advocacy. Season 1 ends with that “bad thing” John has been talking about: with Meg and Kevin’s complicity, John kills Danny in a fight. In fact, he drowns him.
Guile, audacity, and reputation enable John to conceal the crime and hold the family together for a while, but Kevin’s impulsive stupidity (among other factors) undermines John’s stratagem for eluding justice while interlopers from Danny’s past expose the rot in the family’s foundation even to its putative champions, including the improbably blinkered Sally. The Rayburns’ abject deterioration occurs in their own eyes as well as others’. During much of this period, John manages to sustain and even enhance—with an electoral bid for sheriff—the family’s image of homegrown rectitude and strength. But if his clean, sure visage stays intact, his mind and body hesitate. In effective jolts of magical realism, Danny appears as a ghost, alternately taunting and bonding with John: they aren’t so different anymore. John is now a tragic figure alongside Danny.
One of the salient themes in the current Golden Age of Television is that violence is part of the American DNA, and easily triggered by special circumstances. In Breaking Bad, disease and destitution turn a diffident chemistry teacher into a drug lord. Insofar as the violent tendency is inexorable, it is subject to domestication in various forms (The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, Justified) and historical assimilation (Deadwood) as well as mythologization (True Blood) and dissection (The Wire). Bloodline adds the notion that extreme and corrosive violence is egalitarian: it can visit anyone who suffers a personal tragedy and indulges grandiosity. Walt White, Tony Soprano, Jax Teller, Raylan Givens, Al Swearengen, Sookie Stackhouse, and Stringer Bell are all extraordinary characters in one way or another. But John Rayburn is everyman. A case could also be made that in the value he earnestly places on a mere half-century of Rayburn heritage, however auspicious, John signifies a post-Cold War America over-awed by its own power and in denial about its brittleness.
Yet there is hope. John’s persona carries the material of redemption as well as sin. Eventually his artifice and hubris give way to candor and humility (which Chandler neatly captures in a touching late scene where John kindly dismisses the apologies of Chloe Sevigny’s Chelsea O’Bannon for her own wayward brother Eric). When Season 2 closes, John is morally wasted, driving broken and alone in the dark with a hollow stare. Seeing what he will do—fight, flee, or face the music—is reason enough to look forward to Season 3. He could be any one of us.