After watching the Bloodline season two premiere, I joked to my wife that the show might as well be called Things Are About to Happen: The TV Show. I had no idea how right I was.
In its first season, Bloodline tried my patience by endlessly spinning plates covered in dread-soaked portent that seemed like they might never add up to anything.
It worked, in the end, because it kept flashing forward to a very dark day for the eldest brothers in Florida's Rayburn family, and because the performance of Ben Mendelsohn as oldest brother Danny was so impressively magnetic. When the clouds finally burst and the show erupted into a squall, it was too late to improve my opinion of the season as a whole, but boy, were those last few episodes satisfying to watch.
Season two lacks both elements. The flash-forwards have been replaced by ill-advised flashbacks, which are mostly present to make sure Danny (who died in season one's next-to-last episode) is still a part of the show. Consequently, Bloodline season two feels flabbier, even though it's three hours shorter (10 episodes to season one's 13).
The first eight episodes of the season are pretty much just the characters waiting for something big to happen.
To be sure, the season's final two episodes get to a point where the Big Thing appears to ruin everybody's lives, but everything on the way there is a humorless slog, albeit with generally good performances.
Let's break down the good, bad, and weird of the second season. Spoilers for the full season follow.
Good: Kyle Chandler is magnetic as John Rayburn
In season one, Kyle Chandler was his typically strong self, but the actor was hamstrung by having to play the less interesting character — the good son who tried to keep everything together in the face of Danny's criminal escapades.
Chandler seemed to be playing a riff on the straight-edged characters he was best known for, while Mendelsohn, largely unknown to American audiences, was terrific as the brother who had been horribly wronged as a child and never let go of his anger, to the point that he might utterly destroy the family name.
In season two, John has a big, big secret to keep — he's the one who killed Danny, before framing a local drug lord for the crime — and consequently, the season centers on how a seemingly good man tries to keep his secret from coming out and his reputation from being ruined. That, needless to say, is a lot more interesting than what he was given in season one.
And Chandler rises to the occasion. We don't really get to see him play the more toxic side of his characters, but Bloodline suggests he'd make a great villain in some project someday. The more he tries to avoid becoming the brother he murdered, the more Danny's old connections to the criminal underworld ensnare him into worse and worse behavior. By the time the season ends and he's seemingly leaving the Florida Keys forever, you absolutely buy that the "good son" would cut and run.
Of course, he doesn't get the best material throughout the season. In particular, his run for sheriff feels like a plot tossed into the first half of the season to give him something to do. Chandler's bringing his A-game; the writing can't match him.
Bad: Pretty much generally the entire story of the first eight episodes
There is a scene in this season in which John's daughter turns to him and says she's figured it out. She knows that he killed Danny, and she can prove it, and there's nothing he can do about it. And then it instantly reveals itself as a terrible daydream he's having, induced by his guilt.
Now, granted, that's not the sort of thing you'd buy actually happening. The show's protagonist isn't going to be undone by his teenage daughter randomly guessing his darkest secret.
But it's indicative of how Bloodline structures stories, which is to say that things are about to happen, and will maybe happen, and could start happening any moment now. And then the show abruptly walks itself back, so nothing actually happens until the season finale.
The series does this so many times in the first eight episodes that I actually started laughing at its attempts to keep from doing anything that would have actual impact on the rest of the characters and story. Not just John but his sister Meg (Linda Cardellini) and younger brother Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) are trapped in an endless cycle of someone almost figuring out their secret, then not figuring it out.
This is why structuring an entire 10-hour story around a secret that must be kept at all costs is such a tricky thing to do. When the only card the writers have to play is "somebody figures out the secret," then they have to delay the playing of that card as long as possible. Bloodline never finds a way to make the delay even slightly intriguing.
Good: Those last two episodes really do pull a rabbit out of a hat
They're genuinely exciting, and the last half-hour of the season is a solid example of a series seeming like it's not going to go there, then ultimately going there. The characters make choices they can't take back, and the season ends on at least three moments that seem like they'll permanently alter the show's status quo. (Should it get a third season, I'm sure the series will just walk them back, in keeping with its previously established patterns of behavior.)
But here's the thing: The season's final two hours are predicated on something that probably could have been revealed much earlier.
Namely, somebody else has evidence that points toward John being responsible for Danny's death, and when push comes to shove, he goes to make a deal with the cops that will end in the various Rayburn siblings going to prison.
There's honestly no reason the show waits this long to reveal this information, especially because it's not like anything that happens along the way is all that interesting.
The plot line about the local drug trade, in particular, might have been more interesting if the Rayburns had someone out there who could blackmail them. Bloodline has always lacked dramatic tension and conflict, and it's a little baffling how both seasons have delayed making them a part of the story until the last possible moment.
Bad: These aren't very well-drawn characters
For the most part, the characters in Bloodline, though well-played, fall into very broad types that aren't terribly new or different.
John is the good son. Meg is the daughter who tries to escape but keeps being sucked back in. Kevin is the wayward youngest child. All three are stuck in the quicksand of their family, but we know they can never escape, because if they did, there wouldn't be a show.
They're almost all defined not by what they do but what they won't do, which is sell out their family. And it's hard to build a show around characters who are mostly defined by temptations they don't give in to.
Bloodline wants to be a series about the weight of family ties, one that succeeds based on atmospheric dread. And to be sure, the series' atmosphere, in the sun-drenched, rain-soaked Keys, is worth hanging out in for a while. In the best hours, the show approximates some sort of blood-stained vacation.
Yet it's so relentlessly self-serious that it becomes increasingly tough to sit through. There's no levity or break from the insistence that what we're watching is a very important story about a family falling apart. If the characters were more active, or even just funnier, that might make them more palatable to hang out with. As it is, they're all mostly there to glower and worry about what they stand to lose.
Weird: Danny still has a storyline
Season one ended with the introduction of Nolan, the son nobody knew Danny had, showing up on the scene shortly after his dad died. It was a Hail Mary pass if ever there was one, series creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman seemingly hoping that they might recapture some of the spark Danny brought to the show with the kid he never bothered to mention.
In season two, his son is part of the proceedings, but he's mostly shunted aside to hang out with various side characters. He spends much of those exciting final two episodes sitting around with his grandma, played by the utterly wasted Sissy Spacek.
Instead, the show finds ways to keep Danny around, and to keep Mendelsohn under contract, by dipping into a mostly tangential flashback story that introduces a couple of vaguely important characters in the present but largely has nothing to do with anything.
This might be okay as a kind of origin story of Nolan (since it involves his mother, played by the great Andrea Riseborough) or as a way to incorporate John Leguizamo into the cast as an unpredictable, dangerous former associate of Danny's. But then the show has occasional scenes where the ghost of Danny grins at John and offers him dire pronouncements of what's to come.
This is just like this show — the best character, neutered and made into a ghost, while everybody else sits around and worries about what's to come. Bloodline is like watching a storm build up over the waves on a beach vacation. By the time it finally arrives, you've moved inside to play board games or something, and you miss the spectacle entirely.
Bloodline is streaming on Netflix.