Wednesday, April 10, 2019

BLOODLINE -- How Bingeing Leaches a Narrative of Tension

Bloodline Season 2:

The slow fuse lit in the first season of the Netflix series Bloodline, which finally exploded in that final episode, has branched off to another fuse and continues to burn, threatening to destroy the Rayburn family.  With the second season, it inches closer to entrapping John in the skein of lies that surrounds him, as the ghost of their brother, Danny, hangs over all their heads.  I have thoroughly enjoyed this season.  The writing has been top-notch, the acting, especially from Chandler and Mendelsohn and Spacek, stellar, and the setting is still spectacular, while also moody at just the right moments.  But that doesn't mean there aren't things that leave something to be desired.  In one aspect, the series has come to feel formulaic--though not lazily formulaic.

With John's decision to run for sheriff, it has thrust him and his family even more into the spotlight, and his opponent, incumbent sheriff Aguirre, wants to dig more deeply into the events surrounding Danny's death.  This means going back to re-question John and his family.  So now, their initial lies are compounded, because of some experiences in the interim, and Meg and Kevin, especially, find it necessary to add to the list of their lies.  Lies that begin to unravel as Marco, one of John's closest friends in the sheriff's department and his sister's former fiancé, becomes suspicious, thanks to his close relationship with the family.

All of this, from a writing standpoint, is great.  All the tension and drama, subterfuge and deception stems from character and is smartly done.  The formulaic aspect comes when the Rayburns, and others, are confronted with their lies.  Or, more specifically, when they are confronted with questions--from the police, from Sally Rayburn (their mother, played by Sissy Spacek), from Diana, John's wife--who suspect something is wrong and call them on it.  At each point, it seems as if there's nothing for the confronted party to do but admit to the deceit, and many times John or his siblings, Kevin and Meg, will preface a response with something to the effect of:  "I've been holding this in for a long time," or "I can't live like this anymore."  It feels very much like they will confess.  But in the end, they confess to something different.  As examples:  John tells his mother that he knew of Danny's son well before they brought it to her attention; Kevin tells Marco, the sheriff's deputy, that he didn't come clean about the burnt-out boat because he recognized it as one his cocaine dealer had docked at his marina.  Every time, they squeak out from beneath the specter of the big lie.

It's smart, and it speaks to how fully realized these characters have become, and how earlier scenes that had one intent are able to be repurposed for these later scenes.  But, you quickly come to realize that when confronted with suspicion by someone in a position of authority--even Kevin, the drug-addled alcoholic who has been frantic about Danny's death and always seemed the one who would crack under the pressure--the Rayburns will play as if they are going to confess and then swerve to offer something just as juicy and legitimately plausible, in order to deflect that suspicion.  It happens multiple times in the show, and it's meant to heighten the tension within the drama.

Which, again, isn't to say that it isn't done well.  All the swerves are quite plausible, coming from character and from their backstories, and they never feel forced (though the ease with which these characters sometimes offer up "second options" can sometimes feel inauthentic, but not enough to pull you out of the show).  It's just, once you know the pattern it does sap a bit of the dramatic tension from events.  Maybe that's due to the way we watch these shows now, one episode after another after another, with no time in between to mull over what happened and contemplate the consequences.  It is possible that the old pattern, from network days, of watching an episode a week, with regular breaks during production resulting in weeks without a new episode, might have hidden this pattern, at least a little while longer than an episode or two.

Ultimately, though, there's plenty to learn, here, as far as writing engaging narratives.  The big takeaway for me, from watching season 2 of Bloodline, is to try and have multiple narrative threads for characters, whether those threads are just family backstory or a drug problem that remains in the background or something else, because these are the things the writers of the show utilized for these swerves.  I suppose it's the same as stating one should create complex characters with full lives for your fiction, because, when all is said and done, that is what this is.  The writers seeded the show with these glimpses into the personal lives of the characters, including the messed up family dynamic of the Rayburns, and the drug issues for Kevin, and once those were established, they were able to pull on these threads to not only push the narrative forward but ratchet up the tension in the process.  It's certainly made for an entertaining series, thus far.  And maybe, if I weren't so addicted that I need to watch the next episode now, I wouldn't have gleaned the pattern so quickly.


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