[This is a review includes details from the first three episodes of Bloodline season 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
When Bloodline premiered on Netflix in 2015, the series began at the end of its first season. It was a narrative twist familiar to fans of creators Todd Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman, who were also behind the similarly structured, similarly paced, and similarly toned Damages – for which Glenn Close took home two Emmys. Both shows kicked off in medias res, with their ostensible protagonists in an unenviable situation the viewer was then supposed to be intrigued enough by they would settle in to watch as a series of twisty events took them down a path to a prearranged endpoint. The technique is not unlike reading the last page of a book first to see if you like the ending enough to invest the time in experiencing the story as it unfolds from start to finish.
It’s a matter of preference, as most things in the world of dramatic storytelling are, and there is some value in using the formula as it can generate immediate audience investment in not only the as-yet-unrevealed narrative, but also in the characters involved. Starting with a spectacle and then looping around to the beginning is enticing, especially when so many shows are driven by linear storylines. It is even more enticing when the series in question is a slow-burn drama like Bloodline, one that doesn’t experience many highs or lows, but instead maintains a consistent level of simmering tension and a soupçon of dread. As the first season proved, this method of storytelling, asking the audience “Would you like to know how this happened?” right off the bat is also tailor-made for Netflix’s all-at-once television model. With a single question driving the plot of the 13-episode season, the bingeable nature of the series made the above question an easy one to answer.
But at the end of the day, it’s just narrative math. Knowing his death ahead of time underserves the drama inherent to having a guy like Ben Mendelsohn’s sweaty Danny Rayburn in any situation, and the unraveling of his siblings isn’t even on the table until his story has ended. That’s why, at the start of season 2, it’s a welcome change to see Bloodline isn’t jumping forward to another defining moment in the future. In fact, as the season gets underway, the series has made an interesting switch to the here and now, while becoming increasingly fixated on the past.
Much of that has to do with an effort to keep Mendelsohn involved in the project but to expand his role beyond that of a mere flashback. Danny may be dead and gone by the hands of his brother John (Kyle Chandler), but he’s still calling the shots; he’s still a thorn in the side of his siblings and an even greater threat to their futures since, you know, they colluded in his murder and its subsequent cover-up. But it’s not just the tension Bloodline wants to get from Mendelsohn’s continued involvement in the show; he’s one of the best actors working today and given his increased profile playing the heavy in the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One, you’re going to have a hard time finding anyone to complain about the show being so focused on a character the audience knew died from the beginning.
It’s not a perfect scenario. Danny’s continued influence relies on the show telling viewers they didn’t get the whole story the first time around, that there were bits of what Danny was up to no one knew about. It’s an unusual device, suggesting the show is something of an unreliable narrator. But there is enough intrigue in knowing Danny’s story is a known unknown – essentially the exact opposite of what it was in season 1 – that it is easier to overlook a dead man as one of the fundamental movers and shakers in a series whose primary narrative is now fixed in the present. It is also risky since it requires the writers to retro-engineer an unseen past for Danny that has a direct and potentially devastating impact on his three living siblings.
As far as the other Rayburns are concerned, John, Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), and Meg (Linda Cardellini) are scattered as the season starts and their lack of sure footing helps keep the story off kilter in a satisfying way – a new sensation considering no endpoint was given when the season kicked off. Kevin has descended into a pit of guilt and is making a series of poor decisions as a result, while his sister’s relocation to New York City hasn’t put the necessary distance between her and the truth about what happened to Danny. John takes a much more central role early on in the season, as he attempts to steer the investigation into Danny’s death toward Wayne Lowry (Glenn Morshower) and the cartel, while dealing with the late in season 1 arrival of Nolan (Owen Teague), Danny’s supposed son.
Watching the three siblings try to get away with murder while also dealing with the emotional fallout of the “bad thing” they did is more fulfilling than watching the storyline build to a set point of climax. It’s also much darker than the first season; the elements of noir built into the first go-round are jet black here as basically good people are compelled to make a series of unsavory decisions in order to shield themselves from facing the consequences of the crime they committed. It doesn’t break new ground in the world of crime fiction, but it does hit a number of satisfyingly familiar notes.
On the downside, Bloodline season 1 earned a reputation for being a slow-burn series, one that, even with the benefit of the binge-watch, proved downright lethargic at times. As the second season takes on a much more linear approach early on (flashbacks to Danny smoking and talking into a tape recorder notwithstanding) the slow burn is noticeably slower. There’s intrigue with regard to Lowry’s confrontation with John and the revelation that Danny was so far ahead of the game, but Kevin and Meg’s threads see them making too many dumb mistakes that makes spending time with them a frustrating time suck rather than the anxiety-inducing effort the show was likely intending.
Still, Bloodline doesn’t have the same hook as it did before and you have to give it credit for not going down the same road twice. With any luck, the rest of the season will find a way to pick up the pace and make this the family crime drama more people are talking about.
Bloodline season 2 is available in its entirety on Netflix.