The Keys: Wading into the Swamp of “Bloodline”’s Second Season with the Show’s Creators

The first season of Netflix's Kyle Chandler–led serial drama offset its idyllic setting with a story of white-knuckle familial tension. Now creators Glenn and Todd Kessler and Daniel Zelman are doubling down.

Soon to be in its second season, Netflix’s dramatic thriller Bloodline, at its best, approaches a near-iconic look at a seemingly self-assured American family in the throes of total crisis. Its power is a product of exploitation: of the contradictions in its geography (set in the Florida Keys, the show projects both paradise and its seedy underbelly), of its individual characters’ latent insecurities, and of one family’s tendency toward emotional and physical violence.

But the show’s motivations are largely rooted in the pursuit of truth and in a recognition that heightened states of expression can sometimes get at a more honest version of the truth than that which one finds in pure reality.

Finding a way to dramatize these concerns was the nascent intention of brothers Glenn and Todd Kessler, with longtime partner Daniel Zelman—together, the creative team behind Bloodline (and prior to that, FX’s Emmy-winning, Glenn Close–starring legal drama Damages). Zelman and the Kesslers are from families of three boys; both sets of parents have been married for fifty-plus years, making for a pair of dense family histories. The brothers met Zelman almost thirty years ago, and in that time they’ve gotten to know each other’s families intimately.

“Coincidentally, there were similarities between the eldest siblings in both of our families, and some of the conflict and drama between the eldest and the parents,” says Glenn Kessler. “After Damages, we were looking for subject matter and recognized that, since we’ve been talking about family for so long, we should see if we could do something with that.”

Much of what took place in the first season of Bloodline was directly informed by the wealthy Rayburn family’s sordid past, the details of which were only slowly shaded in by the deliberate progression of the show’s plot. A kind of mirror effect of this audience-oriented experience, then, became the characters’ own gradual understanding of their worsening circumstances throughout the season.

“We recognized that if certain things [in families] go unchecked, the dynamics that start to exist at a very, very young age have the potential to carry through into middle age and beyond.” — Glenn Kessler

“We recognized that if certain things [in families] go unchecked, the dynamics that start to exist at a very, very young age have the potential to carry through into middle age and beyond,” says Kessler. And sure enough, relational damages indeed came to a head at the end of the season for responsible middle brother John (Kyle Chandler), immature younger brother Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), and overachieving little sister Meg (Linda Cardellini).

The resulting brutal act of violence—the murder of the siblings’ black-sheep eldest brother Danny (Ben Mendelsohn in a richly nuanced turn)—was made known to audiences as early as the first episode. And Bloodline is a richer show for it—for being less concerned with what’s going to happen with this family than with why it will happen. Where some critics seemed to dismiss the series for revealing its first season’s endpoint so early, it was a gambit that actually rewarded the deeper attention the show was asking of its viewers.

The decision that initially seemed to let all the suspense out of this ostensible thriller actually just cleared the way for a more patient method of building it: as we learned about the fissures formed—the cracks in the facade of a healthy family unit—the mystery genre trappings Bloodline set up early on started to work in reverse. Instead of being frustrated about the future that we already knew, our attentions tended to gravitate toward discovering the secrets of the past and piecing together how they shaped its readily apparent consequences.

Linda Cardellini in "Bloodline" / photo courtesy of Netflix

Linda Cardellini in “Bloodline” / photo courtesy of Netflix

Bloodline’s second season relies on a noticeably different energy than its first. There’s no explicit foreshadowing of the endpoint to flash back from like there was in the first season; instead, the show magnifies intensity by drawing on another mirrored aspect of its construction.

The first season eventually built to the reveal of a series of dark, shameful secrets about the aftermath of a certain tragedy in the Rayburns’s childhood: the accidental death of a fifth sibling, the violent retaliation of the late family patriarch (Sam Shepard) against Danny, and, crucially, the lie that Mama Rayburn (Sissy Spacek) made her children tell to keep the family together. By the season’s end, the same siblings bound to that past lie had actualized a new one, fabricating the scenario in which Danny died to avoid their own culpability.

To Zelman, lying in Bloodline is a function of the Rayburn family preserving its image. “Like most families, they have this identity that’s very important to the idea of everyone feeling like part of the family. It’s very scary for that to no longer be the case.” But if the lying in season one increased the dramatic stakes in a narrative past that we were encouraged to investigate, the lies in Bloodline’s second season are afforded an added jolt from their present tense—and seem to activate the show’s genre machinery in new, exciting ways.

“In the second season,” says Kessler, “the characters are living these double lives, and for the first time ever, they’re forced to deal with each other, but without the buffer of Danny’s negativity.” And not only deal with each other, but also with the weight of their shared lie, an albatross that each wears differently.

Meg runs away from her lying past, attempting in vain to start over with a job in New York City before being pulled back to the Keys to deal with managing the aftermath of Danny’s murder. Kevin obsesses with his lie, letting guilt and stress find an outlet in alcoholism and a newly acquired coke habit. John, meanwhile, actively tries to reject the possibility of the lie having any further effects on his life—and when he recognizes that’s not a possibility (through a terrifying cocktail of blackmail, unaccounted-for loose ends, and the show’s sometimes cruel reliance on inconvenient coincidence), the great efforts he takes to suppress the truth give this season much of its momentum.

Ben Mendelsohn and Kyle Chandler in "Bloodline" / photo courtesy of Netflix

Ben Mendelsohn and Kyle Chandler in “Bloodline” / photo courtesy of Netflix

And then there’s Danny. By the end of season one, Danny’s life was over—a fact that Bloodline’s creators made us specifically aware of almost as soon as they possibly could. But the mystery of Danny—like those of the rest of the Rayburn clan—was not resolved.

“We see Danny as so flawed,” says Kessler. “Within the context of the family, he can’t win; anything he does is seen as a fuck-up. However, in the aspect of the show that’s more mythic, he’s the monster.”

In Bloodline’s second season, the brother John murdered comes to him in the form of heavily symbolic visions that taunt John’s failures and try to coax him into the kinds of compromised behaviors he used to condemn Danny for engaging in. Danny’s lingering presence greatly benefits our understanding of a character who, despite Mendelsohn’s incredible efforts, has sometimes lacked coherency.

According to Zelman, Danny’s inconsistencies have been entirely intentional: “They’re based on real-life things, certain family members that have been really unpredictable. Danny can be the life of the party, or he can be the most charming person in the family—he’s the social one, [the one] who can go out and make friends and talk to people. But he can also turn on a dime and be impossible.”

In the first season, the indefinability of Danny was occasionally problematic—can he really be a misunderstood victim of circumstance and an omnipotent villain at the same time?—but the new season helps us understand where to draw the dividing line between the contradictions of the character.

Danny’s redefined role is comprised of two very different temperaments: one skewed by John’s subconscious, and another, more earthbound one presented in a series of flashbacks to Danny’s past, when he worked as a restaurateur in Miami. The latter moments are notable for being devoid of any of the siblings’ experiential filters.

Owen Teague and Kyle Chandler in "Bloodline" / photo courtesy of Netflix

Owen Teague and Kyle Chandler in “Bloodline” / photo courtesy of Netflix

The Miami scenes seem to come from the memory of a new character, one hastily introduced in last year’s season finale: Nolan Rayburn (Owen Teague), the son that no one knew Danny had. These scenes chronicle the series of tragic accidents and tough decisions that led Danny to the desperation we saw throughout his time in the Keys.

Danny remains as crucial to the show’s moral and spiritual development throughout its second season as another heavily metaphorical presence in Bloodline: the Florida Keys. In the first season, our perception of the Keys mutated with our perception of the Rayburns—the idyllic setting of a magic-hour waterfront estate and its harmonious inhabitants, seen in the opening moments of the pilot, gave way quickly to the foreboding swamp John is made to wade into by the end of the same episode.

“The Keys are tiny; they’re also beautiful,” says Kessler. “In the show they represent the pull of family and also the claustrophobia of family… It was intentional that the first season would take place down there for that reason, and that in the second season people would try to leave.” For the Rayburn siblings, the Keys are no longer the comfortable place they were before Danny’s death. And just as the characters’ perceptions of paradise are disillusioned, so too are our assumptions about the family and their supposed good intentions.

Without Danny to represent a kind of repository of the siblings’ negative energies, and without John’s moral assuredness to anchor the family’s own sense of goodness, things spin off their axis.

Without Danny to represent a kind of repository of the siblings’ negative energies, and without John’s moral assuredness to anchor the family’s own sense of goodness, things spin off their axis. Kevin, in a downward spiral of addiction, finds himself on the brink of losing his business, and with it his identity; running his boatyard independent of the family is the achievement that’s given him some stake in claiming the credentials of his father over his older, more qualified brothers. Meg, who once thought of herself as the family rationalist, now has to take that role to greater and greater extremes, helping John with an increasingly dubious campaign for county sheriff that has her abandoning almost all the moral high ground she once ascribed value to as an attorney for her family’s estate.

But as with the Rayburn family’s mythology, it’s John who sets the tone. In running for the sheriff’s seat, he’s forced into the role his life has seemed always headed toward, but it’s now one for which he could scarcely be less well-suited, and that personal dissonance makes him more untethered from his conception of himself than any other member of the family. It’s a torment of a path for him, one this season seems most concerned with resolving. As John goes, so go the Rayburns—or so the case has been thus far. He has been, after all, the family’s (and the series’) anchor. But considering where we leave him in season two, and diverging paths of the Rayburns, he may not be such a bellwether for long. FL

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