Cruising into its second season, Bloodline needed to find its hook almost immediately. Ben Mendelsohn became the twisted centerpiece of the Netflix series in its freshman year, somehow outshining the likes of Kyle Chandler, Sissy Spacek, Chloë Sevigny, Linda Cardellini, and Sam Shepard. Mendelsohn made it impossible to look away from Danny Rayburn. The series slogged at times but could hook you right back in the second Danny was around again. Mendelsohn played all of Danny’s layers—broken, bitter, hungry for revenge—with such a low and smooth energy that it made his erratic behavior all the more disturbing. And then Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman killed him off. It was always the plan, and viewers were let in on the secret early on. The first several episodes of the season teased the fact that Danny would die at the hands of his family, and unlike with their previous show Damages, the Kesslers and Zelman didn’t work many sleights of hand into the mix. What we saw was what we eventually got, making Danny and the rest of the Rayburn’s fates inevitable and almost predestined. It was a stunningly dark and immersive first season. But it lost the character that knocked the Rayburns off their orbit, the character that then ironically made everything fall into place. So season two begins without Danny, and the season-two premiere is starkly different from the way the first began, suggesting Bloodline is trying to live up to its first season by being something else entirely.
There’s no foreboding voiceover from John. There are no boat explosions, and no one trudges through the swamps with a body on their back. In fact, the premiere doesn’t tease how the season will end at all. There is really only one flashback—to the night John abandoned Danny in a life-or-death situation. Mendelsohn’s presence in the second season was promised going into it, and he indeed appears here and at the end. The flashback is longer than it should be, especially since it shows us things we more or less already knew. That’s kind of Bloodline’s schtick: It takes its time. Sometimes, that pays off.
The sluggish pacing has become a defining quality of the show, with its lingering shots and intimate camera work that brings us into the characters’ headspaces. Everything is framed with such purpose, imbued with meaning and mood. The gorgeous cinematography of Bloodline is one thing that keeps season two looking and feeling like season one. The Kesslers and Zelman have seemingly opted for a more linear narrative this season, dumping the flashforwards altogether. Storywise, season two is coiling down a different path, but it all looks the same, the camerawork both sweeping and intimate, full of symbolism. When Meg arrives for a dinner with prospective clients, she startles ever so slightly at the restaurant’s name: Daniel’s. And when she rushes out later, the camera stays low, looking up at her ever so slightly, giving the illusion that she’s about to fall.
Setting is a significant element of the story, the marshy Florida Keys acting as a character in and of itself. It’s such a specific place, imprinted with years and years of Rayburn family secrets. The swamps and the ocean are the perfect backdrop for the perpetually brewing storm that is the Rayburn family. This place is almost frozen in time, noticeably low-tech and old-fashioned. After all, the greatest threat presented in the premiere arrives in the form of a cassette tape. (A cassette tape in season one proved to be one of the most important objects to the emotional framework of the show.)
The Rayburns and their physical surroundings are so inextricably intertwined that Meg seems like a fish out of water in New York, nearly disappearing against the cold and stiff skyscrapers and the harsh light of the city. Here, she throws back glasses of wine instead of the cheap beers she clings to down home. We never see Meg at home in New York, only bouncing between the office, a take-out place, meetings, and the too-noisy sidewalk. The message is clear: She doesn’t really have a home here. She left Florida because she was running away from all that was there and all that had happened, but she wasn’t running to anywhere in particular, and she spends the premiere just barely afloat. Linda Cardellini captures her unbalance in subtle but potent strokes.
Place isn’t the only non-corporeal character here. Time is, too. Just as in season one, the past is a bold presence in the premiere. There are no literal ghosts à la Mia Kirshner’s Sarah Rayburn to be found this time around, but Danny is here even when he isn’t. Even beyond the weight his siblings feel about his death, he lives on in the form of his unwelcome son Nolan. I hated Nolan’s introduction in the final seconds of season one—an untimely arrival for the characters on the show but an all-too-convenient arrival for the writers, who suddenly had a very literal way to keep Danny’s web of destruction and the father-son themes of the show alive. The show’s quite on-the-nose with the fact that he’s meant to stir up images of Danny for John: The young actor playing Nolan played Danny in flashbacks last season. Nolan’s mere presence is unnerving. But it’s hard to get invested in a character that’s drawn so broadly, a character that seems more symbolic than anything else. But the churning chaos of Danny Rayburn doesn’t just live on in him. Danny seems to have concocted an insurance plan ahead of his own death, working with Wayne Lowry to ensure control over John and the rest of his family even after he’s gone. They aren’t getting away from Danny any time soon. Just like Sarah’s death has had lasting ripple effects on the family, never allowing them to really escape the past, Danny’s here to stay. So it Robert, for that matter. It turns out he was sending checks to the woman who is allegedly Nolan’s mother. The family drama thickens.
With the premiere picking up so close to where the first season ended, John, Meg, and Kev are living in the direct aftermath of their actions. Meg is spiraling. Kev is manic, unable to find any semblance of chill, nearly blowing everyone’s cover first when he’s confronted by Belle and then again when Marco rattles his cage. John is nearly sociopathic in his handling of it all, unflinching as he lies to his colleagues and mother, so convincingly painting Wayne Lowry as the culprit in Danny’s death that it seems like he almost believes it himself. My guess is a lot of the success of this season will rely on Kyle Chandler’s performance, which is more or less burdened with the insuperable task of filling the Mendelsohn void.
Here’s the problem though: There isn’t a hook. At least, not yet. Season one barrelled toward the inevitability of Danny’s death, but season two isn’t heading toward anything. Everyone’s just trying to stay ahead of the storm, looking toward an uncertain future as the past keeps clawing its way back, pulling them down. That makes for tense and compelling storytelling in small swaths, but this premiere is all tension, no suspense. With the characters so swallowed up in the past, there’s no momentum. Bloodline’s extremely slow pacing was hard enough to pull off in season one, but it ultimately managed to make the slow-burn pay off. Now it just seems stuck in the swamp. It’s going to need some more gas to get through nine additional episodes.
- Welcome back to Bloodline TV Club coverage. We’re taking things a bit slower this time around, with reviews posting every other day as opposed to every day. The density of each episode and the show’s own meandering pace warrants a little extra time spent on these reviews. I’m weary as to where everything is headed, but I’m along for the ride! If nothing else, I’m just happy to see Chandler and Cardellini back on my television.
- John’s children are such typical shitty teens.
- Looks like Lenny Potts is hanging around for a bit longer.
- Belle and Kevin’s marriage is so underdeveloped, but Norbert Leo Butz is actually quite good (he’s my least favorite member of the ensemble) in the scene where he almost tells Belle the truth. Something about the way he looks almost directly into the camera is deeply unsettling and such a rare way to frame a moment like that. The direction on this show is always phenomenal, even when the writing lags.