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‘Bloodline’ Exposes The Tortures Of Family Secrets


No spoilers present, except in linked sources.

When I was in seminary doing my idealistic, Danny Witwer phase searching for personal truth, we were required to take a course titled Family Systems. Part of the class requirement was to uncover and chart dysfunction in our families back at least four generations. According to the Bible, the sins of the fathers are visited on the children for three or four generations (Exodus 20:5-6).

The professor presented the Kennedys as a model of ancestral dysfunction: a generational serial drama of illegal rum-running, multiple affairs, out-of-wedlock births, untimely deaths, and of course assassinations, among other lesser-known elements. My Southern family tree wasn’t nearly as interesting. In fact, the single noteworthy characteristic of my generational history was silence. No one wanted to say anything about anything, particularly if it was something interesting (e.g., “bad”).

Enter “Bloodline”: “We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing.” It’s perhaps the most piercing drama about the South since Pat Conroy’s classic works, particularly “Prince of Tides.” “Bloodline” is a pensive, moving Netflix-produced family drama about an older couple, played by Sam Shepherd and Sissy Spacek, and their family, who have developed a successful beach resort in the Florida Keys.

Just how they bought and developed it is under consideration, and, increasingly, the question their “bloodline” ask: Emmy-nominated Kyle Chandler’s detective John Rayburn, a daughter who is a lawyer, and the eldest son, the apparent bad seed and perennial screw-up. It is Emmy-nominated Ben Mendelsohn’s Danny Rayburn who sets events in motion that uproot and disturb the past and threaten to destroy the family.

Exposing Our Fatal Flaw

As a transplant to Los Angeles born and raised in the South, I am partial to any series set in the region that, like Toto, tugs back the curtain and pulls down the wizard’s pants. In that systems class we also learned that one member symbolically carries the surreptitious craziness of a whole family. That member is known as the scapegoat. Danny, the eldest bad son, is the scapegoat that, like Toto, tears the curtain back and threatens to leave everyone naked and running for their lives in the streets.

The saving grace of their moral and family disintegration, and what made the first season work, was Chandler’s detective as the moral center. He was the cement holding the family together. John Rayburn struggles how deeply he can look at his own family and still do his job with integrity. In the process “Bloodline” examines the inner machinations of a successful Southern scion and his seriously messed-up spouse and progeny with intuitive doses of insight, drama, and verve. In so doing it exposes the underbelly of American culture, the single flaw that tears our families and nation apart: silence about secrets.

Throughout the first season Chandler wrestles with the family secret that has put present events in motion, and with the powder keg of family emotions and interactions that dealing with older brother Danny creates. In the second season, Chandler’s character struggles with whether he can hold onto his morality and sanity—and hold the family together—in the face of one horrifically terrible second secret that threatens to drive them all apart. “Bloodline” exposes the cumulative effect of hidden secrets, the energy and the lies it takes to cover them up, and the explosive result when they are revealed too late.

John Bradshaw was, years ago, one of the first counseling professionals to write and publish broadly about how shame stokes secrets and how secrets destroy families. According to Bradshaw, shame is at the core of our compulsions and addictions, and keeping it secret disintegrates our family life.

In individuals it begins with denial, in families it is perpetuated through silence, and in political administrations it evolves into cover-ups. From the family down the street to Watergate to Barry Bonds to Hillary Clinton and Benghazi and the email scandals, keeping silent is the most damaging aspect of a secret. It is hardly ever the act itself, because we all have the potential of making egregious mistakes. It’s the cover-up that perpetuates the act, making it toxic. That is what brings us down.

The Need for a Blood Transfusion

The problem with examining on film how silence, secrets, and cover-ups in families turn children into accomplices who will do anything to keep the secret is that moral disintegration risks either turning the central character into a rogue or a statue of stone who can’t deal with what the secret has done to him.

As we watch Chandler’s John Rayburn, parts of season two make it seem he has become a little of both. It becomes a little painful and frustrating to watch. Once a character loses his moral center or initiative, he risks losing audience support—and John loses his balance on that tightrope for too long.

According to Lajos Egri in his classic, “The Art of Dramatic Writing,” a great protagonist is primed and ready to take action and in that action creates conflict. A great antagonist is caught up in a unity of opposites: not someone who wants what the protagonist has, but someone who has to have what he has. And he’s willing to give his life to get it. The first season got this, while the second season forgets it.

Because of that, “Bloodline” suffers from blood loss, and the drama, although still involving and insightful, now needs a transfusion to reemerge as a dynamic drama for a third season. “Bloodline” needs to rediscover its secret, but regardless it still reminds us that that we are all linked indiscriminately to past generations.

The Essence of ‘Bloodline’

I eventually got past some of the secrets to some of the dysfunction in my own generational line: adultery, schizophrenia, divorce, and alcoholism, but mostly just silence. There is also a great, great, great grandfather named for the progenitor of Methodism and the perfectionist theology of that period, which possibly hints at the reason for it all. If you have to be perfect, not only can you not make mistakes, if you make them you better not talk about it. Just be silent.

‘Bloodline’ provides a window into the soul of Southern culture, and through that window a look into America.

Here is the essence of “Bloodline.” They did a bad thing. Since talking about the bad thing will either tear them apart or land one of them in prison, they can’t talk about it. In not talking about it, they might slowly disintegrate, from both within and without. How to stop the disintegration without letting go of the secret and destroying themselves outright is now the essence of the conflict and the drama.

According to the Bible, the essence of Christianity, the result of the cross that stops the tide of curses propelled by generational sin, is the forgiveness and acceptance that allows mistakes to be brought into the light. Sometimes when things are brought to the light, correction and even punishment results. Sometimes the road to acceptance means taking responsibility and shouldering the blame and the consequences. This is the theory. In practice, redemption is more elusive, as “Bloodline” portrays.

Watching season two is like being responsible, like going down to the local Red Cross to give blood: you feel you’ve done a good deed, but the experience leaves you a little weak and in need of further nourishment. I say this in spite of the contradictory and paradoxical impulse I felt to get to the ending. Even with its slower pace, the second season still entertains, and more. I will miss it if there is no third season.

“Bloodline” provides a window into the soul of Southern culture, and through that window a look into America. In the conflict between John and Danny Rayburn we see a little of ourselves. The other Danny—Danny Witwer of “Minority Report,” played by Colin Farrell—finds the truth and redemption he’s searching for, but it does him no good personally. May the producers and writers of “Bloodline” avoid the same fate.