What is Bloodline?

Netflix’s short-lived, three-season drama is about the checkered history of a Florida Key family, the Rayburns. The storyline converges on the archetype of the hostile brothers. John Rayburn, played by Kyle Chandler, is a devoted family man, a local law enforcement official and a pillar of the community. The apparent serenity of John’s life is interrupted when his older brother, Danny — a career criminal played by Ben Mendelsohn — returns to his family’s sanctuary-like bed and breakfast.

On the face of it, Bloodline is a story about a beautiful environment punctuated by a querulous, deceptive and ultimately murderous family. But it’s about much more than that. Heavy Biblical references and mythological themes play themselves out in this seemingly ordinary, though extraordinary, TV drama. Prior to any encounter with the plot the viewer is given numerous interpretive clues about the show’s Biblical origins.

Begin with the title. Bloodline is a double entendre: it denotes the intimations connecting the murder of Danny Rayburn by his younger brother, John, and it refers to the genealogy linking the various individuals together in a family lineage. There is a third potential meaning to the term, bloodline, which reveals the mythological foundations of the story: bloodline captures the psychological motivation behind the human proclivity towards violence and deception as such.

It turns out that Bloodline is not about the murder of Danny by his younger brother, John. Instead, it is about the murder of Cain by his brother Abel. The hostile brothers are not part of Rayburn family; instead, they stand in as emissaries of the human family. In a nutshell, Bloodline is an inversion of the Cain and Abel story.

In the Book of Genesis, Cain and Abel are the hostile sons of Adam and Eve. Cain rises up and slaughters his younger brother in an act of murderous vengeance, and in so doing, introduces violence into human history. Cain’s offspring go on to invent the weapons of war, birthing not just inter-personal violence but socially-organized warfare (see Jordan Peterson’s fascinating psychological investigation of this story here and here). Significantly, Abel is the good, law-abiding and altogether successful brother who is murdered by his resentful and vengeful older brother, Cain.

Bloodline inverts this storyline: the younger brother, John, slaughters his older brother, Danny. John is a law enforcement official and so doubles as the personification of lawful order and noble upholder of justice. John is also a faithful husband, a devoted father and a dutiful son. He is ‘successful’ in pretty much every way a middle class American would conceive of success, which makes him an ideal candidate for the position of Abel.

Danny, on the other hand, is a lifelong criminal. Rather than acting as a bulwark against chaos and social disintegration (like his brother), Danny’s criminal activity undermines the social contract and threatens the foundations of lawful order. Danny is estranged from his family, is jobless and does not appear to be governed by any overarching principles save self-interest and expediency. Danny is also a resentful, conniving ingrate, which makes him a shoo-in for the role of Cain.

The inversion comes when the (seemingly) good and law-abiding family man, John, murders his older brother in cold blood. Rather than fess up to his crime, John goes to great lengths to conceal his nefarious act. He also manages to rope his younger siblings in along the way (though it must be noted that his siblings are only mildly apprehensive about participating in John’s morally reprehensible scheme).

The plot has some interesting twists and turns, including the portrayal of a father (played by Sam Shepard) who is serene, loving and peaceful, but also unforgiving, violent and remorseless. That father, who eventually assumes a ‘heavenly’ or otherworldly position, looms over the storyline insofar as it was his actions that set in motion the fate of his family. As an adolescent boy, Danny was badly beaten by his father. Danny’s younger sister drowned in a boating accident, and because Danny had been captaining the boat and the time of her death, his father blamed him for the tragedy. After the vicious beating inflicted on Danny, the other siblings (at the behest of the matriarch — melodramatically depicted by Sissy Spacek) lied to the police about the ordeal in an effort to protect their father.

This episode in the family’s history signalled two things. First, the Rayburn family’s betrayal of Danny represents the ‘original sin’, insofar as it set in motion the string of events which led to the disintegration of the family unit and the end of an otherwise paradisiacal state. That disintegration, which began with one lie but quickly multiplied into a veritable pantheon of fabrications, ends with the murder of Danny by John. Second, this act of familial betrayal transformed Danny from the heir apparent (insofar as the first born male typically assumes the family’s property and status) into the scapegoat. In an effort to shield a violent father from justice, the family offered their eldest son up as a sacrificial victim.

Another clue to the mythological foundations of Bloodline — perhaps the clearest indicator, in fact — is the opening credits. I have never seen a depiction of the opening passages of the Book of Genesis in cinematic and imagistic form and I found the portrayal therein empirically brilliant. The opening lines of the Book of Genesis are a phenomenological account of the creation of reality through a series of speech acts by God. Those speech acts create many of the dualisms that form the bedrock categories of human experience.

‘In the beginning’ was the pre-cosmic chaos — a ‘formless void’ — and ‘darkness covered the face of the deep’. God said ‘Let there be light’ and this speech act demarcated darkness from light, separating night from day. On the second day God cordons off the heavens from the earth, bifurcating the celestial and terrestrial spheres. The water is then separated from the land, and so on. The final demarcation takes place on the seventh day when God rests, thus creating the labour-leisure dichotomy.

The title sequence of Bloodline captures this dynamic. The opening shot is situated on a beach overlooking the sea and, beyond that, the cavernous sky. The sun is soon displaced by the moon, as day becomes night. It takes but 20 seconds to lay out the light-darkness, celestial-terrestrial and water-land dichotomies. The tide moves in an out, which alludes to the cyclical rhythms of nature — the patterns and regularities which underpin any coherent account of reality. The scene then cuts to a series of ominous clouds, which signal the coming storm, before rays of light pierce through the thick grey cloud cover. In the foreground, five shadows with a human form appear on the beach. The image then cuts to a black screen. White letters, which initially appear blurry and out of focus, begin to sharpen and eventually come into focus, reading ‘bloodline’.

There is a four-part transition at play here. The viewer is brought from the scene on the beach, where all the phenomenological dichotomies were birthed, to the emergence of human shadows, then to the sharpening of visual focus on the letters ‘bloodline’, and finally, the show itself. I read this as the transition from the story of creation (Genesis chapters 1–2), to the creation of the human family in the form of the shadows. Next, the scales fall from their eyes and they awake into self-consciousness (imaginatively depicted using the change in focus on the title line). History begins thereafter with the story of Cain and Abel (played by Danny and John), which is the subject-matter of the show.

The first season of Bloodline was captivating, though the quality of the plot deteriorated in the second and third seasons. Despite the decline I found the show worthy of attention. I remain ambiguous about the moral message of the program, however. The Biblical story of Cain and Abel depicts human behaviour as falling on a spectrum, with good and evil forming the polar extremes within which all of human life takes place. The mode of being adopted by Abel points in the direction of the good (‘heaven’), while that embraced by Cain points in the direction of evil (and the creation of ‘hell’).

Bloodline appears to blur this distinction, if not obliterate it entirely. John stands in for Abel insofar as he is an upholder of the law, a devoted family man and a defender of the social fabric. But John is also Cain: he is deceptive, wrathful and homicidal. Danny is not much better. He may not be a murderer, but he is hardly a saint. The other siblings are too weak and/or incompetent to muster the type of evil that John imbibes, but weakness is not a moral virtue, so where does that leave things? The human characters that make up Bloodline, to paraphrase Nietzsche, are all-too-human, but there is a marked lack of moral virtue among them. I don’t know what to make of this other than as a statement that human beings are irredeemably bad.

The final scene of the final episode has John (who at this point has elevated deception beyond the status of a science into an art form) confront Danny’s son, Nolan. The two men square off on the pier adjacent to their family’s home. Despite the fact that neither character utters a single syllable — all they exchange is glances — the closing scene is rife with meaning.

John and Nolan confront each other on a pier, which is to say they are not on solid ground. They stand suspended above the primordial waters of chaos. In the background Nolan is flanked by the sea, which represents the chaotic potential out of which the world is made (good and evil, truth and falsity included). The sea was also the ‘weapon’ that John used to kill Nolan’s father (the former forcibly drowned the latter on a beach), so there is an allusion to what has taken place (actuality) and what may yet take place (potentiality). Will John do to his nephew what he did to his brother?

In contradistinction to Nolan, John is flanked by his family’s property and the house (of lies) they erected. John is surrounded by the concrete (as opposed to the abstract), the past (rather than the future) and the actual (vs potential). Will John confess his sins, chief among them that Nolan’s father was murdered by his brother? The question is left open-ended.

It is clear that John has become a prisoner to his lies and to his guilty conscience (personified by his dead brother’s ghost, who continuously haunts him), but will he finally speak the truth? The Gospel of John (8:32) is unequivocal: uttering the truth leads to spiritual freedom. Will John heed it? I am inclined to say ‘yes’, but that is speculative. The viewer is not given any reason to think that John, who at this point has been given many opportunities to speak truthfully, will finally come clean. In other words, the audience is deliberately denied the knowledge of his choice and must resort to a leap of faith in assuming which direction he will choose.

Will John speak the truth in an effort to bring about the good or will he continue to deceive, and in so doing, perpetuate the hellish nightmare of his family’s bloodline for another generation? This was a brilliant way to end an otherwise noteworthy show.

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