The last four episodes of the first season of Bloodline are among the best things Netflix has ever done. They're searing, dark stories of a family pushed to its utter limit, and even a fairly lame twist to close out the season can't get in the way of their cumulative power. (You can watch the complete first season here.)
The problem is that the road to those episodes is a complete mess that points to all of the issues with the Netflix broadcasting model. The show's creators told Quartz Netflix encouraged them to think of the season as one big story, and it shows. The first nine episodes of this season are torturously slow, plagued with irritating storytelling decisions, and never as clever as the creators seem to think. The last four episodes redeem the meandering start and middle, but only just.
And in its own way, Bloodline points to all of the things Netflix will need to figure out moving forward. Right now, the streaming giant has a tendency to create shows where the storytelling mostly suggests and hints at something big coming up, without anything actually happening or any character arcs actually advancing forward.
It's a good way to keep binge-watchers consuming episode after episode after episode, but it's a lousy way to tell a story. Bloodline stretches that tactic almost to the breaking point. There has to be another way.
A warning: this article has spoilers for the show's entire first season, but very little you couldn't figure out after watching the first few episodes.
A dearth of good characters
At its heart, Bloodline is a family drama about the tragedy-stricken Rayburn clan. Old demons resurface when black-sheep brother Danny (Ben Mendelsohn) returns after years away for an anniversary celebration for the resort that his parents (Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek) run. His siblings John (Kyle Chandler), Meg (Linda Cardellini), and Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) are varying degrees of unhappy to see him again, but, hey, he's family.
As the first season unspools, the tragedy at the heart of the Rayburn family history gradually becomes clear. There was a fifth Rayburn child, sister Sarah, who died under circumstances that remain mysterious to the audience for much of the season. She was only 10, and in the wake of her death, several terrible lies were told that turned Danny against his family and they against him.
The problem here is that Danny is pretty much the only good character on the show — and we know from episode one that something very bad, if not deadly, is going to happen to him down the road. The series' creators, Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman, created the old FX and DirecTV show Damages, which told one story in the present day and another story via flash-forwards. Over the course of the season, the present would gradually catch up to the future, as things grew more and more dire for the main characters.
The creators have repurposed this device, somewhat, for Bloodline. Not every episode features a flash-forward to a future where the other siblings are closing ranks against Danny, but enough of them do to give viewers the gist. This means the show desperately needs to invest them with personalities beyond "responsible brother" (John) and "caretaker sister" (Meg) and "soul set adrift" (Kevin). It never really does, choosing, instead, to hope the actors can make the emotional beats land. They can, but I would be hard-pressed to tell you anything about their characters beyond "broad character type played by excellent actor."
The show lavishes most of its time and attention on Danny, defining the other characters in opposition to him. It's a bit of a curious strategy, especially because Danny dies in the penultimate episode, at the hands of John. That makes the whole season a bit of a tightrope — the writers have to give us enough investment in Danny to feel something when he dies, without giving us so much that we're tempted to tune out after he does.
Slow storytelling that obscures what's really happening
Here's the other problem with all of this: those first nine episodes are often almost painfully slow. There are times when it seems as if the entirety of the show will consist of the characters staring at the ocean while noodling on ukuleles and saying noncommittal things about how beautiful the Florida Keys are.
These episodes point to one of the biggest problems with Netflix's model (outside of the one unqualified success it specifically developed, Orange Is the New Black). Too often, the streaming service seems set up to offer the suggestion of a story, instead of an actual story — the better, as mentioned, to keep people watching. Too much of those first nine episodes is taken up with vague hints of something dramatic happening just over the horizon. Indeed, we know something will happen, because of the flash-forwards.
But that's no excuse for the characters to spend so much of the season talking about something they all know about — namely, Sarah's death — while never really cluing the audience in on what's going on.
Yes, mystery can be a valuable tool in storytelling. There are times when a big, surprising reveal is the best possible plot device out there. But mystery can't be your only tool, and it too often is on Bloodline. The season wants viewers to keep watching on blind faith that this stuff will eventually make sense. That's a lot to ask of a new show, even a new show that has as talented a cast as this one does.
Look at it this way: if we don't know why anybody on the show is acting the way they are, it makes it that much harder to invest in why they're doing what they're doing. One of the main reasons the last four episodes are as good as they are is because all of the cards are on the table. The writers have pulled their final reversals and reveals, and the characters can start working toward motivations and goals.
Plus every time the show wants to suggest a twist or turn, the audience is likely five or six steps ahead of it. (For instance: when Danny keeps teasing John's daughter with a gift he's purchased for her, it's only too obvious it will be a replica of the necklace that inadvertently led Sarah to her death.) There's something to be said for predictability and formula, for being satisfied as the puzzle pieces lock into place. But that also means the audience can't be too far ahead of the storytellers, and viewers too often are on Bloodline.
There's still a lot of good here
And yet as the season progressed, I found myself more and more drawn into Bloodline. It's almost a necessary offshoot of the Netflix model. Even if the streaming service purposely weights its dramas toward a slow build (with Orange, again, excepted), all of that build can feel worth it if the payoff is spectacular enough. I don't know that Bloodline has an ending for the ages, but it has one that feels appreciably weighty for everything that came before. In fact, I liked it a fair bit more than any single season of House of Cards. That's not a ton of praise, but it is some.
And if you are the kind of person who watches TV just for the acting, then Bloodline is going to suit you nicely. Chandler, Mendelsohn, and Spacek all give searing performances. In particular, the final confrontation between Chandler and Mendelsohn is filled with meaty moments that both actors sink their teeth into.
And even if this show would seem to have no chance at a second season, the series has nicely set things up for one in the closing moments of the finale (apart, of course, from that closing twist, which is a weird echo of one from the closing moments of Transparent). If the first season was about the family forming a stronger bond than ever to push one of its own out of the nest forever, then the second seems as if it will be about what happens when those bonds unravel.
Plus the show's visual palette, from some of the best directors in TV, offers a constant, hazy vibe that captures the feel of the laid-back Keys, where the day seems to stretch on endlessly over the blue, blue ocean. Indeed, the story Bloodline tells visually might be even more interesting than the one it tells through its scripts. Here's the belated malaise one feels at the end of a vacation, when everything starts to tilt toward apathy and boredom, when the only thing that might get the heart pumping again is the slow seep of blood in the water.
But that vacation vibe just nods toward the series' issues all over again. Sure, Bloodline is a nice show to visit (over a weekend binge-watch, maybe), but would you really want to live there?
Correction: This post originally misrepresented a plot point in the flashbacks, in regards to the nature of the lies told after Sarah's death. The post has been updated and corrected.