From the beginning, Netflix’s Bloodline has had a Ben Mendelsohn problem it didn’t quite know how to deal with. Aside from Mendelsohn, the show boasted a stellar cast that includes Kyle Chandler, Norbert Leo Butz, Linda Cardellini, Sissy Spacek, John Leguizamo, and Beau Bridges. And yet, despite the enormous talent producers Todd Kessler, Daniel Zelman, and Glenn Kessler managed to assemble, and the very specific, very lived-in sense of place that breathed life into this series’ Florida Keys setting, the element that actually made Bloodline lively was one thing it killed off in the first season. Amidst the twists (and flashforward gimmicks in the first season) the series’ slow burn “We did a bad thing” narrative strived to equal the heat of Mendelson’s performance, but it was like a wet match compared to the actor’s smoldering intensity.
After killing off Mendelsohn’s black sheep Danny Rayburn in the first season, Bloodline faced a monumental challenge of how to incorporate a now-dead character into the story, while still capitalizing on the actor’s performance. The solution was to resurrect Danny via flashbacks along with a device that turned him into the manifestation of the other characters’ guilt – mostly that of his younger brother John (Chandler), the cop who murdered his own ne’er-do-well sibling and subsequently watched his life go down the crapper. The effort worked… for Mendelsohn, anyway; he would go on to win an Emmy for his performance the same year he starred as yet another doomed character, this time opposite a resurrected Peter Cushing.
The echoes of Mendelsohn’s presence reverberated weirdly through the rest of Bloodline, though. The more the show relied on the power of his electric performance, the more apparent it became that Danny Rayburn was more than the inciting incident of the series as a whole; he was what made the series tick. That’s not to take anything away from the other actors; they all deliver terrific performances – Butz in particular in season 3 – but the other Rayburn children themselves are mostly hollow characters in comparison to their deceased older brother, an issue that’s made self-evidently worse as it becomes clear their individual story line’s can mostly be summed up as a succession of “X does something stupid.”
Aaron Sorkin has built a career writing characters who are very special and, when not the noblest person in the room (which they frequently are), are assuredly very good, and sometimes even the most competent person, at one particular job. Everyone, from Sorkin’s depiction of Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg to Will McAvoy on The Newsroom to The West Wing‘s Josiah Bartlet and more, can all be defined by their general competence at a specific thing. Bloodline is the exact opposite. Throughout the series’ first two seasons, and especially in the 10 episodes that comprise Bloodline‘s third and final season, the members of the Rayburn clan (what’s left of it, anyway) routinely make the worst possible decisions at the most inopportune times, effectively serving to make every bad situation demonstrably worse.
This isn’t anything new. Season 2 ended with youngest sibling and all-around human clown shoe Kevin (Butz) – i.e., “the hothead of the family” – killing his sister’s ex-fiancé and police detective Marco Diaz because he was getting too close to the truth. Season 3 begins moments after that deadly encounter, running through a painstaking process in which Kevin waffles back and forth regarding what to do next, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs back to him and his siblings until he makes a deal with the devil – this time the devil comes in the form of Bridges’ Roy Gilbert – and gets a bullet in the gut as a get out of jail free card. But it’s not just Kevin. While the youngest Rayburn is being shot, his sister Meg (Cardellini) ceases her panicked search for him to get blindingly drunk with Chloë Sevigny (which, okay, sure). All the while John is sitting on a bus, deflecting the passive advances of a teenage girl and ignoring both his siblings’ rattled phone calls.
It is easy to argue that part of the appeal of Bloodline is watching regular people struggle to come to terms with the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves – circumstances brought about by their own desperate, immoral actions. And yet, at a certain point, you have to wonder whether or not the Kessler brothers and Zelman have overestimated the entertainment value that gross incompetence can present, when it’s not being played for laughs. The Rayburns’ penchant for making bad decisions could be interesting if the characters themselves were drawn as more than just stock types, and their actions were colored by something other than ineptitude (very well acted ineptitude, but still) that baldly registers as a device to manufacture tension simply because the story demands it.
The third season is almost completely absent an appearance by Mendelsohn, which means the surviving Rayburn children and their mother Sally (Spacek) must carry episodes by themselves. As a result, the hours drift more than they move; they become a hazy blur where motivations are increasingly indistinct and characters like John Leguizamo’s two-bit crook Ozzie Delvecchio or John’s put upon wife Diana (Jacinda Barrett) lurk on the margins of the story and seem to undergo considerable personality shifts every time they reappear because the story needs them to. The same goes for Meg, who gets the sort of short shrift normally reserved for supporting character not one of the three siblings at the heart of an epically dysfunctional family drama.
By the time the series reaches its final two episodes, the story is running on fumes. The penultimate hour is little more than a pastiche of the journey David Chase took through Tony’s subconscious during the early episodes of The Sopranos in season 6. Bloodline is known for its blunt statement of what the audience already knows, not for its lyrical asides, so the nature of the penultimate hour, along with the incident that drives it, comes out of nowhere, and its execution is as clunky as its arrival. The episode drives home a message that’s been clear since John Rayburn’s opening monologue, yet it stops well short of deepening the audience’s understanding of the character in question.
The final season is marked with an aimless repetition of bad situations becoming superficially worse. There was never going to be a conflict as essential and as charged as the one that ended when John killed his brother. Bloodline took an admirable swing at making the repercussions of Danny’s death as absorbing as his long-simmering resentment toward the family that shunned him, but it fell short. In the end, the Rayburns couldn’t escape their ghosts, but neither could the series.
Bloodline seasons 1-3 are available in their entirety on Netflix.