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Bloodline asks how far John Rayburn is willing to go

Illustration for article titled Bloodline asks how far John Rayburn is willing to go
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This felt like the episode of Bloodline I’ve been waiting for. It doesn’t necessarily fix all the shortcomings of the season, but it’s a rare episode of the series that has a conclusive and engaging arc all on its own. So many episodes of Bloodline feel like table setting, and that’s certainly true of the first three installments of this season. Bloodline does a lot of building—slow, meticulous building. In season one, it all came together, but the writers hooked by teasing what was to come. In season two, they’re asking for even more patience. But “Part 17” has a clear beginning, middle, and end. It sends John on an specific arc that reflects the more zoomed-out question he has been grappling with for the entire series. On a macro scale, John has been asking himself the question of whether he is good or not. Last season, his series-defining monologue—doled out in bits and repeated often—included what became the first season’s tagline: “We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing.”

At the time, John was a little more convinced by his own words. But John’s great at lying, especially to himself. The events of season two have chipped away at his supposition that the Rayburn family is inherently good, that he is inherently good. In “Part 17,” he asks Marco if he thinks he’s a good person, and Marco doesn’t hesitate to say yes. Then again, John may insist Marco is close like family, but John’s been lying to him for a long time now. Marco doesn’t really have all the pieces to the Is John Good puzzle. Only John does.

As he’s grappling with the big question of his moral standing, John also considers the very specific and time-sensitive question of whether or not to give into Wayne Lowry’s demands. As I guessed in my review of last episode, “Part 17” wastes no time in blowing up the Lowry deal, which would have been way too convenient. Kevin pulls a Kevin and messes everything up, stupidly thinking that if he returns the product to Lowry then everything will be right. It makes things right for Lowry, who decides to finance his own drug run to get back in good graces with the higher ups. And he wants John to give him the insider information necessary to pull it off.

Rearview mirrors have become a crucial framing device on Bloodline. John saw his younger self in his rearview mirror earlier this season. Last episode, John interrogated Eric in the backseat of his car, the camera fixating on the rearview mirror throughout the scene, rooted in John’s point of view. Early on in “Part 17,” John sees adult Danny in his rearview mirror—not exactly a ghost, but John’s own conjuring of his big brother. “When’s it gonna end, John?” Danny asks, with an evil laugh. Rearview mirrors in this show take on their figurative sense, becoming portals to the past. Bloodline co-creator Daniel Zelman directs the episode masterfully. The first sequence of the episode—when John sees and hears Nolan as Danny before being pulled back to reality—is subtle and tense. Even the fantasy sequences on Bloodline don’t seem all that fantastical. They’re grounded and visceral, like deep dives into the characters’ psyches. Another brilliant one comes later in the episode, when John watches his family in the kitchen. It takes a second to realize that we’re watching John’s imagined rendering of their conversation, his imagined rendering of how his family will think of him once the truth gets out. For most of the episode, we’re in his head, and the intensity of his decision-making process is palpable. Kyle Chandler makes a very compelling case here for being the new focus of the show, taking the torch from Ben Mendelsohn as the most captivating member of the ensemble. It didn’t seem possible, and yet, I found myself unable to look away from him in the same way I did with Mendelsohn last season, noticing every breath, tick, and look.

“Part 17” is over an hour long, but in the case of this episode, every second counts. With every passing moment, the weight and urgency of John’s decision swells. Every direction choice is packed with meaning, adding to the emotional storytelling as well as the overall tone of the episode. When John sees Danny again later in the episode, it isn’t through the rearview mirror. Danny’s sitting in the passenger seat now. They’re on equal ground, because in that moment, John is considering becoming Danny. He wants to know what Danny would do. He tries to put himself in the mindset of his wicked brother, lighting a cigarette. There are other strong parts of the episode, which lays more groundwork for Evangeline and how she might threaten the already unstable dynamics of the Rayburn family. But “Part 17” is an engrossing episode because of John, because of his complicated but cogent arc throughout. The episode poses a simple question: Will John do the right thing or will he cross yet another moral line in his attempts to cover up what he did? For once, Bloodline answers the question.

It’s a much more compelling character choice for John to have set Lowry up. I genuinely wasn’t sure which way the episode was going to go at first. Bloodline effectively builds suspense, even when a certain outcome seems so sure. Zelman and the Kesslers fuck with your head a bit, but not in the overt and over-the-top way Damages did. We’re just positioned so close to these characters and what they’re feeling, their confusion, turmoil, and fear, that it’s not always easy to see clearly. John does the right thing. He uses the information Lowry fed him to catch the villain once and for all. He is far from being a good guy, but he isn’t Danny either. And John gets lucky: The tape doesn’t seem to be a threat anymore, because Lowry’s dead. That’s another twist that isn’t all that shocking and yet still lands powerfully. Vicente, the father who lost a daughter in one of Lowry’s trafficking schemes, took justice into his own hands. He confesses immediately, and it’s an effective and compelling contrast to John’s struggle all episode. Even though John resolved to turn on Lowry, he didn’t go so far as to confess his sins. Vicente doesn’t give any of it a second thought. John’s face as he’s realizing what Vicente is saying, as he realizes Vicente didn’t hesitate to confess because of his faith, says so much. Again, Chandler kills it all episode. John may have answered the episode’s most pressing question, but the question of his goodness, of what is truly right in this fucked up mess, lingers.


Stray observations

  • Meg loses her job and then fully spirals, leading to a very uncomfortable interaction between her and Marco. Linda Cardellini is really spectacular at playing drunk and depressed.
  • Kevin is so reckless that there’s almost no way he’s not going to get himself killed this season, right? The Rayburns are a dying breed at this point.
  • I think it could end up being very interesting if Nolan doesn’t really have nefarious motives at all. It’s sometimes hard to remember he’s just a kid—and a kid without much of a support system at that—because all the Rayburns are treating him like he’s a threat.
  • All the scenes on this show that are thrown in the reds and blues of siren lights are really stunning.