Nancy: Shades of Gray

Marco and John: Where did they go so wrong?

Marco and John: Where did they go so wrong?

Longtime readers of the blog know I like to binge-watch TV series (I’ve posted in the past about Justified and The Killing). My most recent obsession binge-watch has been the Netflix series Bloodline. Netflix has released two seasons of the show thus far and has ordered one more. The creators have said they have enough material for five to six seasons in total, so there could be even more coming.

Because I like to binge-watch series the way I like to read books – all the way to the end one time through, then returning to favorite episodes to analyze particular story arcs and writing techniques – it’s unusual for me to get sucked into a series so long before the ‘final chapters’ are available. But I’d heard good things about this show from different reliable sources, so I made an exception. The downside to this decision is that season two ended on not one but two cliffhangers, and I want to know All The Things right now! The upside is that there is enough crunchy writing stuff to review and digest that I can (almost) wait for the next season to be released sometime in 2017.

One of the crunchy writing aspects that has occupied a lot of my brain space for the past few weeks is the way the series has had two of the ‘good guys’ each do egregious things, pitted them against each other, and made us root for the one who did a Very Bad Thing over his now-antagonist who only did a Bad Thing. ***SPOILER ALERT***. To discuss what the writers did with this storyline and how they did it, I’m going to reveal some pivotal plot points. If you have any plans to watch the series AND you need to have your story come to you fresh and pure as the driven snow, you’ll want to take your leave now and go watch some adorable kitten GIFs. If you’ve already seen the series OR you’re willing to sacrifice some surprises in the interest of squeeing over good writing, join me for the rest of the discussion. 

Okay, now that we’ve gotten rid of the fainter of heart among us, let’s get on with Bloodline. First, a quick and somewhat spoilerless summary of the show. The Rayburns at the center of the show are a respected family in the Florida Keys with a thriving business (an inn), made up of the patriarch, matriarch, and three adult children, including the family rock and sheriff’s deputy, son John. But in the first episode, we learn there’s a fourth child – oldest son and perennial black sheep Danny – who returns to the Keys and brings with him a shady past, dangerous associates, and never-ending poor decision-making skills. While Danny’s presence rains hellfire down on the family, John does his best to hold everyone together, protect them from some really bad guys, and solve a heinous murder with his partner on the police force, Marco. And, as we should expect in a very good story, John starts to crack. The cracks get wider and deeper and scarier until, in the last episode of season one, John does a Very Bad Thing for what he believes are all the right reasons.

In season two, we see John unraveling in a much more personal way than in season one as guilt and fear of discovery eat away at his soul. We also see a major shift as his partner on the force suspects something is up with John, realizes just how bad it might be, then turns against his longtime friend for what he believes to be justice. But when you start throwing stones, you have to be careful about all the pesky glass in your own house, and so we learn about a Bad Thing  Marco did in his past.

What fascinated me about my own reaction to the standoff between these two ‘good guys’ is that John’s action was truly worse, happened onscreen, and threatens to take down his loved ones (who are of varying degrees of innocent) with him. Marco’s less terrible action happened offscreen and several years in the past, and (it could be argued) has only impacted one innocent person. And yet, over and over again, I found myself saying, “Damn it, Marco!” every time he went up against our very flawed and guilty protagonist John. How did the writers manipulate my emotions and better judgment that way? Of course I had to figure out how they did it so I could put those tools in my own toolbox for future use. Interestingly, when I actually sat down and analyzed this storyline that I love, I came away with a lot of criticism of the way the writers handled Marco’s character. But it ain’t over ’til it’s over, so I’ll reserve final judgment until the entire series wraps. In the meantime, my observations about the clash of the good guys through the first two seasons:

Set the stakes high and constantly raise them.

John. The whole first season of Bloodline shows us the many things that are at stake when Danny introduces terrible elements into the family’s fragile ecosystem. John’s parents and siblings, their inn and livelihood, and their good family name are put in increasing jeopardy. But the final nail in the coffin of the better angels of John’s nature is the perceived threat to his teenage daughter. In his mind, the very life of his child is on the line.

Marco. One of the few criticisms I have of this storyline is that, at least in season two, we never see what the stakes were when Marco made his bad choice to do the Bad Thing. This might be remedied in season three, at which time I might shift at least some of my allegiance behind this character.  For now, in the first two seasons, we only see Marco’s extended family – parents, aunts and uncles, cousins – in one scene. Marco is single, apparently never married, and has no children. His life and decisions, as presented thus far, are very much his own. It’s a bit of a cheap way to make us root for John, who faces nothing but high stakes, over Marco, who seems to have made his choice out of convenience and for personal gain.

Define the motivation and make it impossible for the character to escape it. 

John. The bad things happening to his world threaten the very core of John’s identity as a protector. (I could write a whole post about John’s journey from perceived identity to real essence.) The deep psychic would of this character comes from a time in his childhood when he couldn’t protect his sister and, as part of that whole bad scene, didn’t stand up for his brother Danny. The choices he makes at this current crossroads in his life are going to be impacted by those failures of his youth and his deep yearning to make those things right.

Marco. Marco’s investigation into the Very Bad Thing and what John’s involvement in it is morally and legally the right thing to do. Yet, even before we see the skeleton hanging in his own closet, Marco is pursuing his former partner and friend with such gusto and vitriol, and without so much as a thought about how destructive this could be for John and his family,  that the character at times comes off as petty and vindictive. Doing the right thing can be tortuous and painful, but for this character it isn’t. By the end of season two, his motivation in the John storyline seems to be driven by jealousy or hatred, while his motivation for his own Bad Thing is unexplained.

Hit the character with friendly fire.

John. The way the writers slowly but surely isolate John from his loved ones and turned them one by one against him is one of my favorite parts of this story arc. It’s incredibly painful to watch these character turn on the person who has spent his entire adult life protecting them and fixing their problems, only to learn that when the chips are down, they don’t have the same inclination or ability to protect him.

Marco. I do think the writers engender some empathy for Marco using this technique. John was more than his partner. He was his best friend and trusted ally. Long before he knows the nature of John’s secret, Marco knows his friend is keeping things – big, important things – from him. Marco, like John, sees himself as a protector and a confidante, and John’s actions cut him out of the picture, threatening that identity. The tricky part of this storyline is that John’s betrayal of their friendship in no way precipitated Marco’s Bad Thing, as it happened years earlier. But it does make us wonder if some of those elements of protection and being someone’s trusted confidante were somehow entwined in the choice he made. Again, I’ll be looking to season three to do more justice to this character.

I’m going to rewatch more episodes of Bloodline and continue digging into the approach to creating deeply complex characters while I wait for season three and hope it resolves some of the issues I have with Marco. In the meantime, have you read or watched anything recently that had you rooting for deeply flawed characters or gasping in surprise at just how far over to the dark side a ‘good’ character would go? Who is your favorite complex and multi-faceted character? What makes you love (or love to hate) him?


6 thoughts on “Nancy: Shades of Gray

  1. Interesting post, Nancy! I have to say that no good characters doing bad things leaps to my mind right away, but the movie that I thought of as I was reading your post was “Das Boot,” a German film released in 1981 that showcased a German U-boot out on a mission to destroy a convoy in World War II. It’s positively gripping, made more so by your understanding that you are essentially rooting for an enemy crew. Among other things, it’s an interesting revelation about the power of POV.

    • I remember the name of that movie but I don’t think I ever saw it. You’re right, POV handled well can (somewhat) lead the reader/watcher where the writer wants her to go. Another one that made me say ‘are we really rooting for this guy?’ was the Showtime series Dexter. The MC is a serial killer, but he’s a ‘good’ serial killer in that he only kills really bad people.

  2. Ah, this is very much where I’m thinking about things this month. So . . . John turns evil (only for a moment?) and does a Very Bad Thing in order to protect his daughter. Marco does his Bad Thing . . . to protect himself? (I understand that it may be fuzzy because it’s backstory.) What exactly was Marco protecting?

    At any rate, it does sound engaging. Don’t you love living in the modern world? We have a light ‘n’ fluffy TV show DVR’d right now, and it’s great — I can skip the commercials or go back and rewatch the crucial bits. It’s a Japanese show that seems to be about a young woman who has dropped off the fast track to become a maid. Her parents are downsizing, so she’s forced to find a new home in Tokyo, and she figures that a Marriage of Convenience would be her best bet — trading her housekeeping skills for rent, food and I assume some pocket money. (I don’t know why she has to get married to do this. Societal reasons?? I would assume you could have a live-in maid in Tokyo, but the thing is, questions like this lead to no story. So, let’s assume there are two people gullible enough to think this is the only way it can work.)

    Anyway, she is housekeeping for a very reserved computer geek who has let her see glimpses of his soft and tender inner soul, and they strike a deal. (-: The scene where she introduces him to her family was just remarkable! Mom beaming with pride that A Daughter Is Getting Married, Dad looking like someone struck him in the middle of the forehead with a baseball bat, and Career Aunt giving a betrayal-of-feminist-ideals speech. So far, no evil at all. It should be a very relaxing watch.

    • Oh, Marco’s personal reason for the Bad Thing was career advancement – I should have included that! It was a cover-up
      for someone powerful who could get him promoted on the police force. And it’s not like he needed the promotion/salary increase for an operation for his sick mother. Or maybe he did, but the writers haven’t told us that yet.

      So is the Japanese program you’re watching a sitcom? I would think humor is one of the hardest things to get in a different language (probably not for you at this point after so many years :-)). But our Danish relatives tell us that the Colbert Report never took off in Denmark because they had trouble following how/why his fake character was funny. But John Stewart’s show was huge (his humor they understood). Anyway, nothing to do with character, but I thought it was interesting.

      • That’s a good question. I don’t think it’s a sitcom. The situation is definitely comedic, but it’s a comedy drama that arcs over the course of the series (and I don’t think this type of series gets renewed — there may be a sequel, but the story has a definite ending point). Things aren’t wrapped up in 22 or 44 minutes.

        Some of it is definitely Japanese humor. I mean, we have Dad Who Won’t Let His Daughter Date Until Age 34 in the West. I just watched some late night host grill Hugh Laurie about his daughter potentially dating (I think it was an old Craig Ferguson bit on YouTube). So, maybe that humor is just as potent in the West as it is in Japan. I just haven’t seen this type of joke (My God, my baby is getting married! I would rip his guts out if society didn’t prevent me) so much in Western TV. The reaction of the young man who was entering into this marriage of convenience was also entrancing — he was totally reading Dad, and he held his files in front of him and kind of hunched over, bowing and repeating, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Mom is beaming like Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. And the young woman is kind of wondering what the big deal is . . . .

        We only saw episode one so far, but I think I’m going to make time for this one! Cute, simple story that has a lot of ways it could play out. I regret to report that there are no monsters, magic or sword fights in this one, but perhaps not every story would benefit from such additions (-:.

      • Should have said thanks for the promotion thing. Promotion is a powerful motivator. So many kids think they are going to only get this one chance, so they better grab it and exploit it while they can . . . . Then with a little experience under their belts, they realize they should have evaluated things more carefully and maybe waited . . . . So hard to wait when you are 23. (Or whatever age Marco was.)

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