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27 December 2016updated 03 Aug 2021 11:54am

Why Sophocles would have applauded Bloodline

By John Banville

The recurring trope of almost every cable television series these days is extreme violence, frequently involving the capture, rape and slaughter of young women. Even Henning Mankell’s relatively cosy Wallander series, in its numerous manifestations – Wallander has been played by at least three actors – and the semi-comic Inspector Montalbano serve up frequent, grisly helpings of sex and violence. The Sopranos, the first and still the best of the lot, did not flinch from the rawer aspects of the criminal life, but the bloodshed was always secondary to the drama. In its successors, however, the makers have been steadily ratcheting up the horrors, and seemingly there is no limit they will not breach.

So, what a risk it was for the creators of the successful Glenn Close series Damages to embark on, of all things, a good old-fashioned family saga. The folk in the Netflix series Bloodline, set in the Florida Keys, are the Rayburns, Robert and Sally, played with consummate artistry and ease by Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek, and their three sons and daughter. Things are going fairly swimmingly at the family-run Rayburn House resort hotel, until the unexpected return of Danny, the eldest son, a deeply damaged but amiable black sheep. When he shows up, Rayburn House slowly begins to turn into something very like the house of Atreus.

The plot of Bloodline has its instances of extreme violence and its morgues are full of mutilated young women, but the unflinching way in which it portrays the savagery at the heart of family life would have been acknowledged and applauded by Sophocles. The twin glories of the series, however, are the quality of the acting and the range and subtlety of the writing. Very little screen entertainment nowadays is made with an adult audience in mind. Bloodline, almost uniquely, is for grown-ups. 

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