Drowning in the Guilt of Bloodline

“We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing.” When a friend recited Bloodline’s motto to me, my interest was immediately piqued for the Netflix show. As an avid fan of House of Cards, I was looking for another thriller/drama to satiate my craving for good television. What I discovered, however, was a show that exhumes the rottenness of secrets, guilt, and unconfessed sin.

The show’s central themes are in stark contrast (at least initially) with its paradise setting: the Florida Keys. The Rayburns, a picturesque family with four adult children, manage a quaint inn right on the water, and at first glance they seem to be everything a tight-knit family should be. They take care of one another, they are sacrificial, and they are deeply loyal. As the show progresses, though, we see that these traits, when enacted in the wrong context, demonstrate the family’s deepest flaws and contribute to the show’s theme of blood-guilt.

Even within the first few episodes, there is something subliminally off about the Rayburns, in part because of the uncanny way they are introduced. Instead of taking a traditional narrative arc, Bloodline unveils the characters’ back stories in splintered, almost dreamlike clips. Intentionally shaky camera work, voyeuristic angles, and furtive glances between those on screen seem to hint at something wrong, some secret the Rayburns are keeping from their community and, by extension, from us.

There are also flash-forwards that give a hint as to why the Rayburns feel so dark, even beneath the Florida sun. In one of these sequences, a waterlogged John Rayburn (Kyle Chandler) drags his seersucker suit-clad brother, Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), through the mire of mangroves. Danny appears to be either unconscious or dead. Each new episode adds to the weight of this scene, unveiling another aspect of its significance to the Rayburns’ crushing guilt and teetering secrets.

The show’s first season reaches a fever pitch in an act of violence—a drowning in the swamp’s shallow water—that sets off a chain reaction of cover-ups and lies and sends the Rayburn children into a spiral toward unforgiving, millstone-like guilt. The theme of drowning, of being pulled down into the ocean, occurs again and again throughout this series. (We learn that the Rayburns’ younger sister accidentally drowned in a boating accident with Danny when she was a child.)

Ultimately, the show purposefully undermines its motto. The Rayburns are, in fact, very bad people. Bloodline explores the lengths to which a family will go to preserve their way of life, even if it means smashing up those around them, committing atrocious acts of violence, and crafting eloquent lies to protect their name. It evinces the darkness of humanity, the frightening, feral potential we all have inside of us, and the overwhelming guilt that darkness can produce. And the Rayburns hold that guilt inside themselves. Even when Mama Rayburn (Sissy Spacek) is convinced to go to a priest, her attempt at confession falls flat. She gains no absolution because her confession is neither sincere nor truthful.

The guilt that the Rayburns carry is similar to what Audre Lorde describes: “Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.” Ultimately, in attempting to protect the family name and themselves from implication, the Rayburns display this impotent, destructive guilt.

Though the end of the series is a frustrating cliffhanger, with John Rayburn walking out on a dock toward Danny’s son, the possibility of honest confession tantalizes. And it is in this hope that Bloodline hints at something both true and good. For confession—raw, authentic confession—opens us up to forgiveness, which is not only alleviating, but redemptive. Proverbs 28:13 tells us, “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”

This does not mean that confession is an easy task. Oftentimes, confession and acquittal can be an incredibly painful process; I’m reminded of Aslan tearing off Eustace’s dragon skin in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But if we confess, as David did in Psalm 51, and accept the forgiveness Christ has offered us, we will be scrubbed clean. The weight of our guilt, unlike that of the Rayburns’, will be released, and we will float back up from the depths, break the surface, and emerge into new life.

Christy Chichester is an instructor at Penn State University, where she teaches Composition and Rhetoric, Writing in the Social Sciences, and Sci-Fi Literature. When she isn't teaching, writing, or grading, Christy can be found watching Star Wars, quoting Tolkien, or snuggling with her two pit bulls. Follow her on Twitter @CLChichester.

More articles from Christy Chichester »

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