A mother’s prerogative
Mothers. Don’t mess with ‘em. They protect by essence…and will come to the party; nukes, knives and nunchuks blazing, thrashing and swinging. Sally Rayburn in particular – the weapons might be metaphoric in the case of this apparently mild-mannered mother but do not be deceived; she’ll manipulate her enemies into submission with ferocious tenacity. Even if her children are killers – brutal, bald-faced prevaricators. Blood is potent stuff; its flow transcending the conventions imposed by reason and morality – as explored in Bloodline; Netflix’s excruciating, now-ended, three-season drama series.
Bloodline is a show about family; about the abuse of power and the fragility of love but it is also a show about decisions. Mostly bad decisions. Like; what happens if, say, you kill your brother, frame a drug dealer and involve your neurotic, substance-abusing siblings in a grand cover-up? And then your mom finds out. Nothing good – that’s for sure.
Harbinger of chaos, oldest brother Danny Rayburn comes back to town and upends the family mojo – it’s nothing new except this time he ends up dead; murdered by brother John (Kyle Chandler at his best). And it’s no surprise, really; Danny is slightly psycho. His passive-aggressive mode of menace is not only intimidating but horrifying; hair-raising. Viewers are putty in the hands of Ben Mendelsohn, whose sentient portrayal of crazy, conniving Danny makes an accomplice out of us as we champion his death; breathing a tangible sigh of relief when dear Dan is departed. But the respite is short-lived. The aftermath of Danny’s death turns Bloodline into a pull-your-hair-out-smash-the-screen-white-knuckle type of ride! No joke. It’s barely watchable but utterly addictive. You’re either crying, cringing or grappling for the hard tac, which is essential for getting yourself through three season’s worth of Kevin Rayburn (played expertly by Norbert Leo Butz) and his cornucopia of dumbassery.
Amidst all the tumult, demented Danny is granted reprieve. As it turns out, he is the victim of a massive injustice – inflicted years ago by father Robert (who dies from natural causes early on in the show) and perpetuated by Machiavellian matriarch Sally (Sissy Spacek). In fact, the reason that John Rayburn knows how to mastermind an almighty cover-up is because his momma showed him how. When Danny is beaten by his dad, who blames him for the accidental drowning of little sister Sarah, Sally coerces her children into the arms of an almighty untruth. They lie to the police about ‘the incident’; resulting in a family secret that lives on for decades. This prophylactic lie saves Robert but destroys Danny and ultimately takes the life of the Rayburn family; the very thing that Sally acts to protect.
Sissy Spacek brings a characteristic fragility to her portrayal of Sally Rayburn, which the audience easily buys into. With her dainty demeanour and delicate constitution, Sally easily gets away with the ‘I was doing what was best for my children’ gig – parents relate. Sally’s plight strikes a chord because although lying to keep a child from going to jail is extreme, mothers and fathers are faced with tough choices all the time. Bloodline is a macrocosmic interpretation of the microcosmic decisions we make every day; presenting an exaggeration version of ‘when things go wrong’. Do we always make the ‘right’ choice – no, there’s no way. And if we dare to think otherwise, Sally Rayburn uses the force of the matriarch to kick the pedestal from under our pious feet; compelling us to acknowledge that, as parents, we mess up; we don’t always do right by our children. It’s a difficult truth to face.
Sally is the glue that keeps the Rayburn family together but she is also its most toxic, pathological element – an idea that is explored in the show’s final season. There’s a court case…Kevin, who has bludgeoned (of course he has) friend and chief detective Marco Diaz to death and framed poor Eric O’Bannon is called upon to testify as an essential ‘witness’ to the violent crime in question. It’s almost laugh-worthy. But Kevin testifies – and lies. John testifies – and lies some more. And then it’s Sally’s turn to extrapolate fact from fiction. It’s her moment to come clean. She doesn’t. Not only does she lie; she is compelling, using tears and a semi-version of the truth to strong-arm the jury into feelings of empathy. It’s a chilling, brilliant performance by Spacek – and exposes Sally as a ruthless, guileful woman rather than a mother reacting to a series of unfortunate events.
It’s no coincidence that, like Sarah, Danny, dies by drowning – taken by the same water that usurped the life of his sister; it’s an eerie invocation of history and brings to the fore a ‘sins of the father’ type of vibe. Although in this case…sins of the mother as well. Not once does Sally suggest telling the truth as an option to John, Kevin and Meg – who do what they’ve been taught; they lie. And as initiator of the first, formative mistruth, Bloodline pits Sally as the reason for the disasters that follow. When Life offers her a chance at redemption, she slaps it in the face. Full on. But those of us who have lived a little will know that Life is no push-over; there are consequences.
When Cane killed Able back in Bible times, God punished Cain to a life of wandering, but set a mark on him so that no man would kill him. Because death is reprieve. Perhaps a life in prison is also reprieve. Bloodline suggests that the psychological torment resulting from heinous behaviour is the worst form of punishment. Kevin’s criminality finally catches up with him and he is caught by the cops (although he’ll probably find a way to screw jail up too); Meg runs away (the best decision of the entire show). John, as killer, and Sally, as enabler, seem fated to lives of suffering. Both become delusional as the pressure of the lie catches up; Sally sees visions of her long-deceased mother. She also tries to sell The Rayburn House hotel but cannot – she is bound to the defunct family (and its premises) that she’s nurtured into being. John, in a crazy Groundhog Day episode, is trapped in an abyss of dream repetition seemingly powered by the re-emergence of not-so-dead Danny. John snaps out of it but the ghost of Danny (perhaps John’s conscience) persists, encouraging John to tell his nephew Nolan (Danny’s son) the truth, which will put an end to the cycle of lies. John cannot un-kill his brother but he can change the course of his family. Will he? Does he?
The decision is yours.
Watch Bloodline at Netflix.com.