Warning: This contains mild spoilers for the basic setup of Bloodline’s second season.
“We’re not bad people,” said John Rayburn (Kyle Chandler) in the first season of Bloodline. “But we did a bad thing.” That was the hook for Netflix’s slow-burn family drama, a pulpy tale of loyalty, lies and long-buried secrets. In the stormy closeness of the Florida Keys, it was muggy, heavy-going television, relying on flashforwards to artificially ramp up the tension – before a blinding flash of a finale. Season 2 is a different beast. It relies on flashbacks instead – and that humid intensity that once gave way to lightning sparks feels more like a damp squib.
Warning: Spoilers for Season 1 ahead.
The bad thing in question, of course, was the killing of Danny Rayburn (Ben Mendelsohn), the proverbial black sheep of the family, who waltzed back into their lives, after disappearing for many years. He brought with him old memories of young Rayburn daughter Sarah dying (in an accident that Danny was blamed for) and their father’s subsequent abuse of him. Both secrets simmered below the surface, somehow never spoken about by these family members until the point we tuned in – and even then, not for many, many episodes. The cast were on fine form, but they were fighting a tough battle with an unbelievable script.
Season 1 ended with John bumping off Danny, only for Danny’s son, Nolan (Owen Teague), to pop up out of the blue, asking what happened to his dad. At the same time, John is running for Sheriff, prompting his rivals to start digging up any dirt they can. And, of course, there’s local drug dealer Wayne Lowry (Glenn Morshower) wanting to get revenge, not to mention his lost stash.
It’s a significant shift in narrative momentum – the driving question is no longer “What will happen?” but “Will anyone find out what happened?”. Creators Todd Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman have given up on their flashfoward device, designed to drive up the feeling of doomed fate, and are now deploying flashbacks to explain what went down before the first season. On the plus side, that means we get some more Ben Mendelsohn, as we’re given insights into his years in Miami, when he became caught up in the restaurant (and drugs) game. On the down side, there’s nowhere near enough of him, as if the writers shoe-horned those bits in, after realising that something was missing.
Norbert Leo Butz (Kevin) and Kyle Chandler make for a decent guilty duo, with the former losing it more than usual, as he struggles to keep his calm. Chandler, meanwhile, is good at treading the line between all-American hero cop and compromised criminal on the verge of discovery, his facial expressions constantly shifting. John Leguizamo also proves a nice addition to the ensemble as Ozzy, a former associate of Danny.
While Leguizamo neatly bridges the past and present, though, the show’s inability to decide whether to move on from Danny or attempt to delve into his story further means there’s little threat to keep you hooked or emotion to keep you invested – especially without the teasing cold opens that kept viewers coming back to slog through Season 1. Is there any doubt that Danny will pull through a perilous situation in the past? No. Are there any repercussions for his actions in the present? Not really. It doesn’t help that the script still favours dramatic silence over speech; our characters remain as un-confrontational as ever, still leaving things unsaid for unrealistic lengths of time. That means the Rayburns have learned nothing from their lack of communication over the years, which means the characters aren’t growing, which means it’s hard to have sympathy for any of them.
One pointed conversation sees John’s wife spell the absurd problem out: “If you’re so fucking curious, why don’t you ask John yourself?”
When confrontations do happen, the dialogue is so on-the-nose that it only highlights the unbalanced writing. “I thought we wouldn’t still be dealing with this shit, John!” cries Kevin. “It’s all about Danny still. He won’t fucking go away,” says sister Meg (Linda Cardellini), as an uninteresting subplot about her legal career fails to come up with an alternative storyline worth following. The programme’s lack of nuance is made even clearer by the use of Gil Scott-Heron’s Your Soul and Mine over one episode’s closing credits (think True Detective Season 2), and the decision to end another with Henry Rollins shouting “I’m a liar, liar, liar”.
The result is a disappointing step down from an uneven, but occasionally strong, opening season. It’s felt most of all in the scenes with Danny’s mum, Sally (Sissy Spacek). When her troubled son was still around, their attempts at false reconciliation had some genuine subtlety to them. Now, we just get Sally’s grandson swearing at her, while she’s reduced to a two-dimensional plot function: the one hiring detective Lenny Potts to find out how Danny died.
“You always looked out for your brother, even until the end,” she observes at one point, suggesting that the possibility of her discovering the truth is, inevitably, going to be stretched out for an entire season. It’s telling that there are only 10 episodes for this second run – and equally revealing that the first three even try spending time with Lowry, just in case we happen to find him likeable enough to care about (a contrivance involving him and John confirms that the show is grasping at any straws it can to manufacture suspense and keep Danny’s ghost in play). A glimpse of Andrea Riseborough may yet steer us into more intriguing territory, but at the moment, this ensemble drama is lacking a compelling ensemble, and has no idea what to do about it. Mendelsohn, without a doubt, was the best thing about Bloodline Season 1. Without him, we’re just left with a lot of things that are worse.
Season 1 and 2 of Bloodline are now available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.