Bloodline Recap: Death Knell


Part 5
Season 1 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Sissy Spacek (Sally Rayburn) in the Netflix Original Series BLOODLINE. Photo Credit: Merrick Morton


Part 5
Season 1 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
RIP, Papa Ray. Photo: Merrick Morton/Netflix

The death of a loved one will typically gut the status quo of any family — but this sentiment is especially true on Bloodline, a show in which everybody has secrets. Hot on the heels of trying to bribe Danny to leave the Keys for good, Papa Ray croaks. Danny is particularly affected by the loss because he’s placed in an uncomfortable position of power: Nobody knows his dad asked him to go, and he can use this ignorance-is-bliss opportunity to finally start a normal life at the inn. If only life were that simple: Robert’s death instead invites an unexpected surprise that doesn’t change the status quo, but guts it, then lights it on fire and covers it in salt. Ouch.

News of the tragedy reaches a mystery man from Robert’s old Navy fleet who loves suspenders and keeps a gun in his glove compartment. The show paints this guy to be the Grim Reaper — never before has someone who’s really just a retired detective who didn’t do his job well seemed more inexplicably nefarious onscreen. Really, he’s not a big deal; the old news he bears, however, is a different beast (more on this later, because the reveal was expertly woven into the story). I was initially worried this installment would feel absurd, what with Robert dying only one episode after his near-miraculous recovery. We still haven’t reached the middle of the season, and one of the most important characters is gone; he went to a baseball game instead of dealing with the will, and he’s the main reason Danny can’t stay at home. Are you kidding me?

It might sound bad, but the writers here successfully took a page out of E. M. Forster’s Howards End, and the resulting episode is the strongest yet. Why? The patriarch’s passing sounds a get-your-shit-together knell for the entire family and, as in Howards End, it’s how the characters respond to unexpected tragedies that makes the story (at least in this episode) so captivating. On the surface, the characters dealt with the logistics of Robert’s memorial service, but underneath it all, we saw Danny question his ill-advised non-relationship with SeaSea, Kevin, and Belle (I swear I always hear “Mel”), hash out some of their separation drama, Meg put the kibosh on big-money developer Alec, and John come to grips with more lies. Why is all this important? Every character on this show wanted something from the patriarch before he died. Did anybody get what they wanted? Let’s see.

The writers and director would have you think that because of Robert’s death, Kevin and Danny are back on edge — maybe because Kevin’s flashing back to the earlier kayaking incident. But, like every sibling who wasn’t Sarah, Kevin wanted his dad’s approval, he wanted to measure up to the same public model of man his dad was perceived to be. As if his father’s death weren’t enough, Kevin has to endure Belle (uninvitedly) ambushing him at the service. Sure, Belle just wants to be supportive and pretend that things are alright, but she inadvertently starts a drunken fight with an emotional Kevin. It culminates with Belle telling Kev he’s not his father. (No shit, and low blow. Thanks, Belle.) This prompts Kevin to go on a wedding-ringless bender that ends with him drunk-driving to Belle’s house and apologizing for making her leave the service. What’s the deal? Unclear, but I liked how the writers plumbed the emotional depths of Kevin’s character to show us that he doesn’t want to be just a family man, he wants to be the family man he grew up with. That goal is impossible without Belle.

John’s biggest task this episode is composing his dad’s eulogy, but that entails pressure he doesn’t have the bandwidth to deal with — and he’s constantly interrupted by his wife and Danny. The latter tells him that as the eldest, he wants to speak at the service, too. He notes, “It’s like we’d be talking about two different people.” Maybe this is the seed that plants John’s loss of faith in his father, the belated realization that his dad was not an infallible god. The scene in which John and Sally talk about Robert’s past is unfortunately not so good — the dialogue is choppy, and Chandler doesn’t sound like John throughout any of it — but it drives this point home. John learns his dad had a rough childhood because he nearly killed his own abusive father while trying to protect his stepmom. For John, this probably both explains and brings into question Robert’s mean streak. At the service, he wings his eulogy and abandons the words he so carefully strung together. The result is an embarrassing speech, which, though it might be honest, underlines the fact that nobody in this family really understood who their father was or where he was coming from. It also seems nobody truly gained his approval. Not even the family’s golden boy.

Also at the service, Danny is given that opportunity to speak but declines. It’s unclear if Robert signed and made official his updated will and testament (presumably he didn’t, because he told Meg that he was near a decision after staring at the documents and ditching them for his ukelele) before his death, but that’s a whole other can of worms sure to come back soon. (At the moment, I’m inclined to believe the black sheep is technically in the will.) Crushed, we have to stomach the fact that Danny was never able to achieve any sort of copacetic closure with his father. Perhaps because of that, Danny ultimately lies about what went on at the bar, telling his family Papa Ray was going to give him more responsibility.

Robert’s ghost is all over the house, in flashbacks, belongings, and photos. Meg also succumbs to memories of Sarah. While her father was alive, Daddy’s baby girl was never able to match the bond Robert had with his older daughter. She went to law school maybe to impress him, but also maybe to escape these memories herself. Maybe she thought being the family lawyer would be a surefire way to win his heart as the new MVP of the Rayburn clan. She takes her frustration out on Alec by telling him she’s going to be perpetually unavailable. The Rayburn move would be to marry Marco and set up a small-town family. That’s what dad would’ve wanted, right? But now that Robert’s approval is impossible to get, a trip to New York City actually might be in Meg’s future. Wouldn’t that be the perfect escape-slash-rebellion? We’ll see how long the Alec moratorium lasts. My guess: not long.

Throughout all the dead-dad hullabaloo, the Grim Reaper, a.k.a. Lenny Potts, makes a number of cryptic appearances, first at a diner, then at the Rayburn house — and then a few more times at the Rayburn house. Ostensibly, he’s come to pay his respects, but he’s also here to finally get something off his chest: He was the one who poorly investigated Danny’s “drunk-driving accident.” As we know, it wasn’t a drunk-driving accident, but a Robert Rayburn mean-streak accident. All the flashbacks glom onto each other, and we see that John officially began the lie of how Danny got injured. Before leaving town, Potts, who still has access to the sheriff’s department’s archives, takes out an interview tape and gives it to Danny so he can learn the truth. In a bit of a red herring, John also goes to the archives to research his Juanita Doe case, but instead discovers that his interview with Potts has been checked out. He realizes, Fuck, another one of my well-intended white lies is probably going to start a lot of drama.

As usual, there’s a lot to hang onto and file in your narrative memory bank for this show. But I thought this episode did a good job of balancing everything. My only real gripe here is that this should’ve been the pilot of the series, and I wish we could’ve seen everything here sooner. The other three episodes, between this and the actual pilot, have felt like throat-clearing, and up until this point, none of the characters have made much sense to me. I think it’s starting to click now because we’re finally seeing how all the Rayburns are dealing with freedom, or the illusion thereof. All of them, in one way or another, were shackled to their family’s legacy and what was expected of them. Now Danny has nobody to win over, he just has a birthright to claim; Meg has no Sarah mold left to fill, and might finally become her own person by doing something crazy; Kevin’s expectations to provide a grandson are dwindling, and he’s coming to grips with being openly single; and John is going to be given the impossible task of making sure all his siblings don’t wander too far from the fold, so as to keep the family business — and his mother’s sanity — intact. What’s most scary, I think, is how toxically dependent these family members are on each other without even knowing it. Of course, we know it, and that’s what’s now making this show so fun to watch. But when they figure this out for themselves, the cord-cutting is going to be catastrophic. (Sorry, Sally.)

You get the eerie sense that with Robert’s passing, everybody’s morals have died a little bit more, too. If he was the family’s lynchpin (for better or worse), these characters are hopefully going to be faced with dilemmas that will either require them to spiral out of control more or go to drastic measures to regain some sort of equilibrium. It’s another testament to the writers that although we know some combination of both of those things inevitably happens, it’s impossible to guess who’s going to crack first and how. I guess you could say I’m officially hooked.

“Part 6,” please do not let us down.

Swamp Talk

• What the hell is that look on Marco’s face right after Papa Ray’s death? Marco, you dick, stop grinning at the snacks. Have you no decency?

• Meg: Great with the law, not great with silencing her cell phone (technology will likely be her downfall).

• I honestly find it so hard to believe that Danny is Eric’s “friend.” Eric is so vile, and Danny knows that. You expect me to believe that Eric and Danny are friends just because nobody else will accept the black sheep? How many people live in the Keys? Six? No? Well, Eric feels like a caricature of himself.

• John and his wife never have any fights, and his kids are cherubim. POWER FAMILY in the making, even though he’s still a slave to the Rayburn legacy.

• Up until now, this show was a dramatic social experiment to figure out how much patience you had.

• I hope that just because his character is dead that doesn’t mean that we won’t get to see any more of Sam Shepard; he played Papa Ray with a steely finesse that was fun to watch, mostly because he was as unpredictable as Kevin. If we get more of him in flashbacks, I will be a happy camper.

• “Like a whole library burned down.” I actually kind of liked that line, John. Stick to your guns.

• If I had a dollar for every time a character stared off into the distance without saying anything …

• Danny taking a painkiller at the service was a nice touch.

• Acting-wise, Sissy Spacek in particular triumphed this episode, deftly portraying a widow struggling to hold up the weight of the family business amid grieving. The early scene with her fiddling with her glasses on the porch while greeting the oblivious family choked me up. “There’s so much life going on under the waves; it’s all around us all the time, and we so rarely get to see it.” Her eyes did the rest of the talking this episode, and her unspoken words were even more painful and hard to swallow. She portrayed a wife who just wanted one more late-night conversation with her husband, cuddling at the inn, their kingdom. You could tell that whenever Sally was on camera, she was prepping to digest the “it doesn’t get any easier, but you get better at dealing with it” mantra. It felt beyond real. Like Meg, you get the feeling that if there’s anything Sally wants, it’s a mulligan on the past. God bless you, Sissy.

Bloodline Recap: Death Knell