Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

Family is messy. Even if your people hail from Pleasantville and go by the name Brady, the debris might be hidden but it’s there, under the rug… waiting for an unassuming foot to trip over its awkward camouflage. The mess will ebb and flow in extremity, depending on who’s in town and whether it’s Christmas, but there will always be something – Lego houses smashed, dollies snatched, clothes unreturned, arguments, affairs, an unpleasant divorce, an unpleasant marriage, an unruly teen, a contested will, the child given up for adoption, the crazy uncle who lives in the attic – grandpa was a mass murderer and, worse, Aunt Mildred a royalist. The thing with family is that a common gene pool is not a prerequisite for getting along.

On the worst days, when insanity and family seem to assimilate into one morose monster, a juggernaut of hate and frustration (just keepin’ it real), it’s not too far-fetched to imagine a Mangrove swamp, a storm, and a man with a limp body draped over his shoulders – the man struggles through the rain and roots until he reaches a pre-placed boat, where he dumps the body, lights a fire and swims away as said boat explodes; evidence obliterated. That man was John Rayburn. But it could have been you.

At least, that’s what the creators of new Netflix series Bloodline would have you believe. The show, by the same team (Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman) that delivered award winning legal thriller Damages, follows the story of the Rayburn family, a tight-knit clan reuniting at mum and dad’s for a party celebrating the 45thanniversary of the family business – a local hotel situated in the sunset extravaganza of the Florida Keys. The setting is idyllic until Danny Rayburn (played by Aussie acting genius Ben Mendelsohn) arrives and delivers a dose of ominous, perfectly encapsulated in the show’s opening lines:

“Sometimes you know something’s coming. You can feel it in the air, in your gut. A voice in your head is telling you that something’s about to go terribly wrong and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. That’s how I felt when my brother came home.”

Thirty seconds of show-reel and everyone wants to know, ‘what’s the deal with Danny?’ The entire Rayburn family – Robert and Sally (Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek) and their three other children, local sheriff John (Kyle Chandler), peace-keeping attorney Meg (Linda Cardellini) and hot-head Kevin Rayburn (Norbert Leo Butz) – seem to be in a state of ambiguity at the return of estranged son and brother Danny. As it turns out, they have good reason; Dan-Dan’s a little cray-cray.

The blood we share with our brothers and sisters, mums and dads, unites us in life but blood can also be spilled; it is an equivocal force – like family, like humanity

Like Glen Close in Fatal Attraction, only without the rabbit, Michael Douglas and the wannabe love stuff… but Machiavellian, yes. As the Rayburn story unravels with noir-esque intonation, Danny serves as a catalyst for buried secrets and dark memories, which are revealed primarily through the voice of John Rayburn. That rug…? It’s been lifted and what’s underneath is crime, cover-up and a stark exposé on human nature.

As the truth is exposed, bit by ugly bit, Bloodline stalks into dangerous territory; pondering just how far family ties will go in the tolerance of reprehensible behaviour. Danny, the enigmatic outcast, is charismatic and even charming, and yet there is something off about him, something not quite right, that keeps binge viewers (the joy of Netflix) white-knuckled all the way through the series.

Every word Danny utters, every move he makes is imbued with a strange nonchalance that is subtly charged with years’ worth of emotional angst. Mendelsohn plays it brilliantly, making even the most mundane of tasks – sipping coffee, smoking a cigarette, preparing a fish for dinner – utterly insidious. Creep-factor aside, the Rayburn family’s back-story wins Danny audience empathy. To a point. Even though Danny is implied to be the product of a corrupted childhood (a fact that should absolve him from his sins somewhat) viewers can’t quite condone the pathological manipulation of one’s family.

Ironically, it’s John Rayburn who wins the viewer loyalty card. John Rayburn; who does something pretty atrocious (use your imagination or, better, watch the show). What’s up with that? Isn’t Danny the victim – of abuse, neglect and criminal cover-up? Whilst the show passes a moral judgement on Danny, by manoeuvring him into a place where his perverse interaction alienates all audience affinity, Bloodline also calls viewers out on an apparently tainted sense of loyalty to John, who wasn’t shaped like his brother, he simply chose (to do a bad thing).

Ultimately, there is no easy answer. Family is messy – remember? The blood we share with our brothers and sisters, mums and dads, unites us in life but blood can also be spilled; it is an equivocal force – like family, like humanity. John Rayburn says, “We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing.” John was a good person (in all conventional meanings of the word); he tried to fix things with his brother. But what if things can’t be fixed and the stakes are high? Bloodline takes its viewers to that place; where anger, hurt, fear (all corollaries of love) threaten to take over. If we’ve been brought up right, we’ll talk it out and move on, right? The scary thing is; John Rayburn loved his brother – but it wasn’t enough. It just wasn’t.

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