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[Warning: The following story contains spoilers for the series finale of Netflix’s Bloodline.]
Netflix’s dark family drama Bloodline comes to an end with John (Kyle Chandler) facing the son of his older brother Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), whom John killed back in the show’s first season. The kid, Nolan (Owen Teague), is looking for answers about how his dad died. As the audience wonders whether John will tell him the truth, breaking the family tradition of lying and secrecy, the screen fades to black.
While co-creator Todd A. Kessler won’t reveal what John and Nolan talk about, he’s not trying to leave viewers hanging.
“The intention of that ending is to really have the audience pick up where that leaves off. It’s not meant to be coy. But we’re not answering it,” Kessler tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Instead, as Kessler explains, by that point, the audience should be able to put themselves “in the shoes of the characters” and decide for themselves what happens.
And although the series has come to an end, viewers should recognize that the lives of the remaining Rayburns — John, Nolan, Meg (Linda Cardellini), Sally (Sissy Spacek) and Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) — and those of the show’s other characters continue. And the Rayburns will continue to be affected by what they’ve done, Kessler says.
And hopefully the audience can relate in some way to the personal decisions the Rayburns make.
“Hopefully the experience of the series and spending time with the characters is one that will resonate and reverberate and maybe comes to mind maybe six months later, or a year later, or who knows how much afterwards,” Kessler says. “Our approach in general is not to have all of the ends resolved but hopefully it sticks with you as the characters have stuck with us.”
He says that similar to his prior series Damages, which like Bloodline he co-created with his brother Glenn and longtime collaborator Daniel Zelman, the characters in Bloodline are not done, even though the show is.
“The desire with both Damages and how that ended and Bloodline, these characters and their search for meaning and identity continues and is not something that is wrapped up,” Kessler adds.
Still, the show had to fade to black at some point, specifically after the 10-episode third season that Netflix determined would be the end of the series.
Read on for Kessler’s thoughts on the ending, why the Rayburns seemingly got away with two murders while Eric O’Bannon (Jamie McShane) took a 30-year plea deal and whether he’d work with Netflix again.
Why did you want to end the series on John and Nolan and on Nolan wanting to find out what happened to his dad?
So much of the series is about dealing with the truth and perspective and where those two things collide. John is really the center, in essence, the moral center of the series, of the story, of the family, from the very beginning of the first episode with his voiceover. And so is his personal dilemma about how he deals with what happened between him and Danny and the family history and whether he can put an end to what’s at the core of this family of not dealing with truth. So the ending of the series, coming down between him and Nolan, is what he has come to realize and then looking at the next generation and figuring out whether he can change the direction of this family or if that’s even possible. Ending on that moment of the two of them and how John is going to address the truth felt like the most relevant and also resonant ending for the series.
The series ends before viewers see what the two talk about. Did you toy with the possibility of including part of that conversation and not leaving it open-ended?
It’s meant to leave the audience with answering it for themselves: What is the right thing to do? Is the right thing to do to confess to Nolan about what happened, and that helps clear John’s conscience and may in essence lead to changing the family and changing the family dynamic? But it also puts a huge burden onto Nolan because what is he going to do with that truth? So much of this third season is about putting the audience in the shoes of these characters, trying to align the audience with the characters’ predicament. It’s not meant to write out that whole scene and have it portrayed, because in essence we’re watching it play out.
In some ways the Rayburns, and John specifically, get away with what they did to Danny. I mean, they’re clearly tormented psychologically by it but in terms of legal consequences, they don’t really face those. Why did you decide to focus more on the psychological consequences and not have these characters face legal ramifications for what they did?
Because so much of the storytelling is really about exactly what you’re saying — the personal consequences, and it’s not really about the legal ramifications. The events of the show are meant to be an extreme and, hopefully, not meant to be that an audience relates to them at every step. But in our daily lives, the decisions that we make with family, grappling with relationships are not blown up to the legal proportions but are very internal — internal decisions about continuing relationships with family members, with friends and the deeply personal decisions that we all face. In essence, removing the external threat of being caught, being arrested, being put through a legal process, the center of the show is just these deeply personal decisions that we all make in regard to family relationships and family history in pursuit of that truth and how we can hopefully either free ourselves or come to clarity on the roles we play in family.
Meanwhile, Eric O’Bannon ends up going to prison, agreeing to a plea deal for 30 years for something he didn’t do. Why did you want that to be the fate of his character?
Well, because very much there is a reality to the decisions that the Rayburns have made in order to save themselves. The weight of that — what we as an audience can experience of the burden of guilt, the burden of trying to save themselves but someone else takes the fall for it, the collateral damage that Eric O’Bannon goes through or experiences — that all revolves around the truth, that the truth will never be exposed and other people are victims to that. So Eric O’Bannon, it’s his decision to take the plea for 30 years and not have it go to trial because he sees how Sally and John and Kevin have all manipulated the truth and the deck is very much stacked against him. Really it’s Sally, in somewhat of the most masterstroke of manipulation of the entire series, who uses the truth to build up her credibility. And from the audience we know and Eric O’Bannon knows that then she lies yet has won [over] the jury, and so for Eric it’s a choice of potentially facing the death penalty or taking a plea of 30 years. That’s the very specific reality that he’s faced with. But we the audience and Eric and the Rayburns know it’s a complete manipulation. So it’s very much collateral damage what happens to him.
The ninth episode is almost entirely a dream sequence of a few different things that John envisions. And watching it, there’s a sense of confusion as it starts out. Why did you want to devote a whole episode to that? It’s structurally very different from the rest of the series.
From our point of view, as crafting this and why this episode, the ninth, the second to last, why take an episode to do this for John, is to really enter into his psyche and to put the audience, once again, in the shoes of John where he’s confused and he doesn’t know what’s going on and he doesn’t know what’s reality and what’s not reality. It’s very much in essence a mental breakdown for John. It moves off of the format of previous episodes for the entire series because this is really delving into John’s subconscious. And it allows Danny to reappear; it allows us to explore more of John’s subconscious, what he’s thinking and wrestling with and his true showdown with his own identity in his role within the family. There was no way of getting to that level of storytelling without taking John on this journey. It’s very much about John and so much of the series has been about John and he’s the one who has the greatest crisis of conscience. And he’s the one who obviously killed Danny. So [we wanted] to take an episode and really delve into not only what John is thinking about but also put the audience in John’s shoes and have it be uncomfortable. John has committed this action at the end of the first season of killing Danny, and that’s never going to be settled for him personally whether he gets arrested, doesn’t get arrested, any of that. It’s a crisis-of-conscience episode.
As you were putting together the final season, how much did you think of the fans and their expectations and questions they had for the end of the series, and how much did you focus on what you’d envisioned as the ultimate endpoint for the series?
Very much the ultimate endpoint of the series is kind of where we left off, which is, there is no resolution. It’s a deeply personal and conflicted story. In terms of what the audience thinks they want, obviously there are ways of telling the story where they get arrested, where John gets killed, where there’s a comeuppance for these characters. But from the beginning of how we conceived this series, that was not how this was intended to play out. Some people tend to like things that are more life-affirming, relationship-affirming, family, it will work out, there will be resolution. But the reality of this with the Rayburns is hopefully going to a place that’s deeper that resonates with a sense of, “What does that actually mean? What would I do if I was in their position?” As opposed to, “I can close this story, end the series of Bloodline and feel like it’s more affirming or reaffirming or there’s a sense of hope or rightness in the world.” Obviously with how the world is unfolding, every hour it seems, it doesn’t have to go that way and it doesn’t always go that way. So the feeling for us from the very beginning was this was going to be a family tragedy, and going all the way to the most powerful stories that are tragedies, things don’t tend to resolve themselves in a tidy way.
This was your first time working with Netflix. Given your experience with Bloodline, would you do another series or movie with the streamer?
Yeah, absolutely. They’re an extraordinary company, and they’re extremely supportive and their desire is to do things that other places aren’t doing or actors, writers and directors aren’t doing and really give the creative community a platform to basically express themselves. We’re very fortunate to have done three seasons of the series. We’d hoped we might get an opportunity to do more, but there’s many factors that go into their decisions. But we’re very satisfied with how the season and the series turned out.
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