Spoilers for Season 3
The first season of Netflix’s Bloodline still remains among my favorite seasons of Netflix original dramas. It is slow-burn greatness, a noirish family drama that ends with a phenomenally bleak, intoxicating final four episodes that go down like whiskey: They burn, but they feel so good.
Daniel Zelman and the brothers Kessler — Glenn and Todd (Damages, The Sopranos) — would’ve been smart to leave well enough alone. The first season fetched both Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn Emmy nominations, and propelled Mendelsohn to a flashy role in Rogue One. Mendelsohn made that first season work, and with his character dead, the best the series could do was to conjure up a long-lost son (Owen Teague, who is very good but no Mendelsohn) and repeat the same motions until the inevitable murder at the end of the second season. In the moment, I liked the second season (though not nearly as much as the first), but it didn’t sit well in the weeks after it aired. Critics were also considerably less kind, and were it not for the acting awards the series brought to Netflix (Chandler and Mendelsohn were nominated for Emmys again in the second season, with Mendelsohn winning for Best Supporting Actor), I doubt there’d be a season three. Netflix lost its tax credits in the Florida Keys, and a third season was left very much in doubt, despite the second season ending on a brutal cliffhanger.
Six weeks after its premiere date, however, Netflix finally approved a third and final season, cutting short the showrunners’ hopes of dragging out the Rayburn story into an unnecessary fourth or fifth season. Nearly a year later, only the most passionate fans of an already presumably small fanbase, of which I include myself, have stuck around.
Was it worth it?
Most of the third season falls under the category of “necessary but not enjoyable.” Having seen 23 episodes already, I watched because I needed to find out what happens in the end. The first eight (of 10) episodes go through the motions, more or less. Like season two, it’s all about the cover-up, only the Rayburn family is not only covering up John’s murder of his brother, Danny, but also Kevin’s (Norbert Leo Butz) murder of John’s partner, Marco Diaz.
In the third season, John has lost the race for sheriff (a major second season storyline that gets relegated to an afterthought in season three); his wife has left him (a seemingly crucial plot point that gets lost in a time jump); and he has helped Kevin frame poor Eric O’Bannon (the terrific Jamie McShane) for the murder of Marco. John Leguizamo also returns, playing a character who is something akin to one of Shakespeare’s ghosts, stumbling around to remind characters of their sins but playing no role in the plot. Beau Bridges’ Roy Gilbert is pulled in to complicate matters further by adding a drug-trafficking storyline, but it sputters. However, the second season formula remains largely intact. John rescues Kevin from a bad decision just long enough for Kevin to make another bad decision that gets the family mired deeper in the muck. At several points over the first eight episodes, it all looks like it will unravel, but the momentum always seems to work against O’Bannon.
That was a more successful development in the first season when it seemed like John and the rest of the Rayburn family were being pulled under by the black sheep brother, Danny. In the third season, that dynamic has switched. John — the “golden boy” who saved his family by killing Danny in the first season — is now a murderer trying to cover up his sins by pinning them on an innocent man guilty of only being born poor and to the wrong family. In the first season, we wanted John to get away with his crimes; here, we want to see justice. By season three, once what felt like a forgivable sin is compounded by the same irredeemable mistakes repeated over and over to the point of tedium. John was once a “good man who did a bad thing.” By the third season, John is “a bad man who continues to do increasingly bad things.”
At least John is morally upright enough to feel guilt about those misdeeds. That guilt drives him to the brink of madness. Danny had no moral compass; Kevin is too dumb to understand the difference between right and wrong; Meg runs away (she’s missing for most of the season); and the family matriarch Sally (Sissy Spacek) cares only about the reputation of the family, not its individual members. (Spacek does rattle off a terrific monologue in the finale, however.) John has been carrying the guilt for the entire family for decades, and in episode nine, it finally breaks him. That’s when Bloodline shifts gears and finally starts to get interesting.
In an episode directed by Mikael Håfström (1408), John awakens repeatedly from a suicide attempt, and neither he nor the viewer has any idea what’s real and what isn’t, as John battles his demons in a series of dream sequences. It’s a reprise of the first three seasons, as John debates with Danny (Mendelsohn returns in the final two episodes) and Nolan about how to climb out from under a guilt so oppressive that it led him to try and end his life. Confession, it seems, is the only escape, but even in that regard, John can’t catch a break. In the final episode, O’Bannon rejects his confession — he’d literally rather spend 30 years in prison than let John clear his conscience — and the sheriff (David Zayas) dismisses John’s attempt to confess, chalking it up to stress.
In the end, John is faced with a choice: Unload his burden and confess to Nolan that he killed his father, Danny, or shield Nolan from that knowledge to save him from that potential trauma. Will the Rayburn secrets poison another generation? Or will John finally free himself from the crushing weight of all those secrets? We’ll never know, because Todd Kessler — a veteran of The Sopranos who directed the final episode of Bloodline — pulls a David Chase and cuts to black before John says anything to Nolan.
Here, it seems like an even bigger cop-out than in The Sopranos. Zellman and the Kessler Brothers wrote themselves in a corner at the end of the first season, and they spent two seasons backing John further harder and harder against the wall. They gave John two options in the end, but rather than face the potential consequences of either one, they balked. In an interview with Vulture, Todd Kessler offered his reasoning:
We’re trying to put the audience in the shoes of the characters. It’s a deeply personal question for John. It’s aligning the audience with that character, so you’re answering it for yourself, as opposed to being told what he did.
That sounds like doublespeak for, “Sorry. We just couldn’t make up our minds, so we left it up to the viewer to decide.” It’s a frustrating end that misunderstands the audience. The entire series was about the toxicity of lies, the weight of secrets, and the power of confession, and the showrunners robbed us of the only thing we wanted to hear. “Son, I killed your father.” We stuck around for one reason only: To see John unload that burden. It would not have been necessary to show us the consequences of that confession; it would have been enough just to know he had gone through with it.
In the end, the third season offers only another dead end and continues to mar an otherwise excellent first season. Indeed, Bloodline should serve as a cautionary tale for shows like 13 Reasons Why and Big Little Lies that insist upon continuing near perfect self-contained stories. Magic rarely strikes twice.