Damned Lies: Deception and the Southern Gothic in Bloodline

This post is spoiler-free 

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That’s it — that’s the whole show.

Bloodline is a show about people who lie. They lie to each other, themselves, and us, the viewers. They lie out of desperation. They lie to hurt someone. They lie when the truth would do. The show centers around the Rayburns, a family of people who came from nothing and have found success and prosperity running an inn in the Florida Keys. Season one, currently the only season on Netflix, opens with the family celebrating the news that the city will be naming a pier after them to coincide with the inn’s 45th anniversary. But their golden reputation as pillars of the community is complicated when Danny, the oldest, ne’er-do-well son, comes back for the occasion.

This is what it looks like when two people lie at each other in paradise.

John, the second oldest and most responsible brother, opens the first episode with a voiceover narration:

“Sometimes… you know something’s coming. You feel it in the air. In your gut. You don’t sleep at night. The voice in your head’s telling you that something is gonna go terribly wrong. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it. That’s how I felt when my brother came home.”

Though John’s narration is intermittent, it provides the viewer with guidance when it comes to how to interpret Danny. But it doesn’t take long for the viewer to begin to question if anyone, John included, is telling the truth. Temporal shifts, flashing forward and backward, cut into the series in an unsettling way, forcing the viewer to determine not only the order of events but also whether or not we’re actually getting the whole story. What episode one’s flashback montages would have us believe gets turned on its head entirely come episode two. But the destabilizing effect is also a deceptive one. I felt that there were clues I was following and aspects I was questioning from the beginning – but I was surprised when I realized that the characters I thought I could trust needed a second evaluation.

Speaking of destabilizing effects: the camerawork does a hell of a lot to help us feel like we’re complicit in the deceit. It’s often shaky, partially obscured and hiding behind a bush or peeking over a window ledge. It’s an excellent voyeuristic effect, and it’s well-placed alongside the conniving schemes in which the characters engage. We’re part of these conspiracies, and, like John, we know something is going to go terribly wrong.

Just having a relaxing time lounging on the beach. Photo Credit: Saeed Ayani

The ways in which the characters themselves force the viewer to question who is lying and who is telling the truth is where the series is most effective. The many interwoven plots are not created equal, and though I wanted to see how John wound up where he was in the opening flashback, the plots aren’t what kept me coming back. While there are a few red herrings thrown in, the twists and reveals aren’t as spectacular as they could have been because the audience has been in on the schemes the whole time – even if we’re not entirely sure if we can trust what we’re seeing. Though John is the only character who gets a voiceover, each character has a point of view sequence over the course of the series. In this way, each character becomes a narrator – and each one is revealed to be unreliable. There are different types of unreliable narrator: some are naïve, some are mentally unstable, and some are just liars. It’s up to you to figure out which kind Meg, Kevin, John, Danny, Sally, and Robert are.

What makes Bloodline a compelling binge-watch (and re-watch) is the combination of these unreliable narrators and what I’m interpreting to be a Southern Gothic tone. The show’s tagline at once admits and disavows some sort of evil: “We’re not bad people… but we did a bad thing.” Many of the Rayburn clan members have guilty memories that (literally) haunt them. The unwelcome return of the past is a hallmark of Southern Gothic, and there are many elements in Bloodline that show that it swells with the unnervingly disturbing aspects of the genre.

Go, John! Save your brother from that horrible swampy mangrove! …Wait.

A main feature of Southern Gothic literature is a family’s history, and the Rayburns have a complicated one indeed. Secrets, cover-ups, lies, and betrayal are all part of the genre, and Bloodline has these in spades. Characters are never what they seem on the surface, and the happy and successful Rayburn family of episode one quickly starts to show its cracks. Delusional characters are often included in the genre, too, and without spoiling anything major, let’s just say that there’s something strange about one of the guests at the Rayburn celebration. In fact, one of the opening scenes sets the tone for the unnatural, promising a gothic overtone: there’s just something off about Danny’s travel companion. I mean, who speaks to someone sitting several rows behind them on a bus??

And what about that bus, travelling down the single road that connects the islands, seen in sweeping camera pans that make you question how a place like this exists? As mentioned, Bloodline takes place in the Florida Keys which, though south, is a separate region with a distinct social, political, and cultural history from the Deep South to which Southern Gothic usually refers. Though the setting is unique in that it’s a tropical paradise with beautiful turquoise water and palm trees, the relentless, sticky heat, mysterious mangroves, and buzzing mosquitoes contribute to the oppressive environment which is often at play in Southern Gothic works. Even the beauty of the setting itself (which, I confess, was a big reason I kept watching) takes on its own sinister tone when it starts to seem too perfect – and too imposing – and crosses over to the sublime. Characters are always slicked with sweat, fans run constantly to no real avail, and between this and how difficult it is to trust anyone, the characters seem caught in a perpetual literal and figurative haze.

Bloodline is probably worth it for the performances (and scenery) alone, but I recommend it for the interesting use of unreliable narrators and Southern Gothic themes. But I would caution anyone looking for season one of True Detectivelevels of writing, plot, or Southern Gothic occult oddity. Despite some plot holes, less-than-developed characters, and too many F-bombs in place of decent dialogue, Bloodline is an enjoyable and strange series. I’m eagerly awaiting season two to see if the Rayburns get what they deserve.

Spoiler: it’s not going to be alright.

Caroline Diezyn is a podcast co-host and blogger at NetFlakes, and a PhD student, writer, and artist in London, Ontario. You can find them on Letterboxd and Twitter.

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