Ozark is the New Dark Side of Chasing the American Dream

If you’re not watching Netflix’s Ozark, go jump in a lake

When the camera panned away from Walter White’s cancer-struck, bullet-ridden body spread eagle on the floor of a Nazi meth lab, you could say it was a dark spirit of American ambition leaving its vessel. Consumed with his drive to financially provide for his family, Breaking Bad’s protagonist had descended into an amoral pit. He made a few attempts to pull himself out, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth his efforts. He was making millions, instilling patriarchal dominance at home, and expecting to die any day. In a capitalistic sense, he had made it. He saw his American dream with tunnel vision, ignoring dead bodies and irreversibly destroyed lives in his peripherals. Only his dream was compromised, having sacrificed too much – his family and humanity – to ever fully attain it. He bled to death from bullets he fired via remote control to kill the men who stole his money. Walter White died but his merciless motivation to have more survived, looking for its next host: Ozark’s Marty Byrde, TV’s new morally corrupt father chasing the American dream down a dark tunnel.

Played by Jason Bateman, Marty Byrde is an outsider. He is the man behind the man in his financial advising business. He barely speaks with or knows his kids. His wife is cheating on him and he doesn’t even confront her. But Marty has one thing going for him: he understands money. “It separates the haves and the have-nots.” He knows what it’s called (“scratch, wampum, dough, bucks, bones, sugar, cash, bills.”) He understands what it can and can’t do. He understands why it’s important and why people want it. “Money is, at its essence, that measure of a man’s choices.”

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This makes Marty perfect for his job: he launders money for the Mexican drug cartel. But when his partner Bruce starts skimming off the top, Marty is forced to concoct a plan to pay the drug lords back. He invents a desperate scheme to move his entire operation to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri to cash in on tourism and property as well as the potential for distribution. Del, his cartel handler, buys in.

Marty, without much consideration about uprooting his family, packs them up and heads to the Ozarks. The Byrde family: wife Wendy (Laura Linney), fifteen-year-old daughter Charlotte and thirteen-year-old son Jonah are immediately hit with culture shock. Lives uprooted to the Bible Belt, a wild country of hills, lakes, and dark woods, populated by townies, tourists, hillbillies, rednecks, and every type of lowlife you can think of. The Byrdes seem out of place in a world that makes a living off of sucking outsiders dry.

Off the bat Marty and Wendy become entangled in the fabric of the Ozarks. They both need to make money and insert themselves into the town’s businesses to launder Del’s money. A momma’s boy real estate agent who lets his dog lick peanut butter off his feet; Rachael, the mysterious and attractive owner of the Blue Cat Lodge; the preacher who gives his sermons on the lake; Buddy, the dying old man who lives in the basement of the house they buy; and the Langmores, the white trash low-level criminals are just a few of the characters into which the Byrdes crash their lives. It’s not long before Marty runs afoul of both Sheriff Nix and Jacob Snell, the man who controls crime in the whole area. How many deals with how many devils can Marty make?

“Is the lake dangerous?” Jonah asks. It’s a fair question. There is a duality to the lake and the people living there – a separation between residents and tourists, natives and transplants, the living and the dead. One does not wonder why the show is titled “Ozark.” The lake and the hills protect themselves. And the people who have lived there since before the Power Company flooded the area to build the lake do not forget. It’s something that Marty continues to overlook. The sheriff, the Langmores, Del, Buddy, the hills, the lake itself are all saying one thing: “You are not of this place. Outsiders don’t belong here. You are not welcome.”

It comes back to what Marty says at the opening of the show: money is a measure of a man’s choices. As the season progresses we see that Marty and Wendy were not forced into this way of life. An entire episode is dedicated to a long flashback of how Marty, his partner Bruce, Del, and Agent Petty, the sadistic FBI agent investigating them, came to be mixed up. Marty was not in the wrong place at the wrong time and Wendy is not the silent suffering wife or a babe in the woods – they are complicit. They chose this life. And subsequently they chose it for their children as well. The development of their children shifting into adulthood, becoming more aware of, and even participating in their parents’ schemes is a highlight of the show. Charlotte is caught in the middle of her two lives: her previous life as a rich private school girl in Chicago and her current life as an Ozark townie. It is Jonah, the youngest, who seems to have the sharpest eye for what this place is. He sees the lake for what it is, and we see him move down a darker path than the others.

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The distorted mirror image of the Byrdes is the Langmore family. Every small town in America has a family like the Langmores: poor, low class, small time crooks who always have a scheme ready to go. The patriarch of the family is Cade. But while he’s in prison it is up to his daughter Ruth to control her young cousins and older but dumber uncles. While Marty is dragging his family down into the mud, Ruth is trying to climb her way out. Early on when Marty and Ruth meet (Ruth robs Marty’s motel room while working as a maid) there is an instant connection between them. Without much explanation Ruth sees right through Marty when she says to him, “I do have this feeling, we both know, you’re better off dead.” Ruth sees Marty as her ticket out of the mud. Marty sees Ruth as his way into the Ozark community and as someone who is smart enough to keep up with him. Like in the Bible, Ruth will have to choose where she belongs. Julia Garner (The Americans) steals the show as Ruth, but like Marty, her choices will affect her family.

Death, betrayal, drugs, hillbillies, fire and brimstone preachers, and stripper beatdowns – this show has it all. Jason Bateman’s writing takes his dry comedy style and turns it into a darker, more bitter interpretation. You get the feeling that even after all the disappearances, “boating accidents,” and drunk FBI agents shooting at things that this show is just getting started. Jacob Snell pushes Marty down a path where it seems unlikely he can return.

You witnessed from beginning to end Walter White’s painful descent from humanity, how he embroiled his family in his life of crime. When you meet the Byrdes in Ozark they are already there. You get to wonder whether they fight to pull themselves out or go deeper in, fully embracing this new life. Walter White introduced us to a protagonist who slowly changed for the worst to provide for his family, but he struggled with his actions along the way. Marty Byrde, however, has no such qualms about his moral descent. He is riding quietly in an elevator going down, and I have no idea which button he is going to push.

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Season 2 will premiere on Netflix August 31.

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