TV: Ozark (Seasons 1-3)

Netflix’s crime saga Ozark hovered on the edge of my awareness for years without ever feeling like something I needed to watch. As outstanding and addictive as shows like Breaking Bad or The Shield might be, surely there’s something toxic about wallowing in such dreary criminal worlds for personal pleasure. Did we need another antihero story, encouraging us to sympathize with and root for villainous people? But frankly, these days I need gripping shows that transport me, and, well, any port in a pandemic. Enter Ozark, which absolutely fits the bill, even if you have to shield your eyes from its mean-spirited intensity and uncomfortable political subtext. It is absolutely a bingeworthy entertainment, but it takes a toll.

Ozark begins in Chicago, introducing us to the conventional-looking Byrde family. Marty (Jason Bateman) is a whip-smart, successful financial advisor. His wife Wendy (Laura Linney) is a stay-at-home mom who gave up political ambitions to raise her family. They have two children: attractive older daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and quirky younger brother Jonah (Skylar Gaertner). Outwardly, they’re a squeaky-clean, upper-class white family in middle America. Well, except that Marty is secretly laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel. When Marty’s shifty partner gets caught skimming dirty money, the cartel’s vicious handler Camino Del Rio (Esai Morales) shows up to exact retribution. Marty manages to talk his way out of being executed, but it comes at a steep price: he must relocate his family, start up a new money-laundering operation, and scrub eight million dollars in a matter of months. It’s an impossible task, but the Byrdes have no choice but to try, moving to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. There, relentless external pressure from the cartel collides with local organized crime and corruption, which turns out to be rampant, both among the rural locals and the wealthy out-of-towners.

What follows are three seasons (with one more to come) of high-octane criminal survival angling, as Marty, Wendy, and the kids— who quickly become aware of their parents’ secret criminal life—struggle to stay one step ahead of the law and their employers. Both prove equally ruthless. The FBI agent working undercover against them, Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner), is a sociopath who will go to any length to turn Byrde against his employers to take down the cartel. The cartel itself—represented at various stages by Del Rio, steely attorney Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer), and the head of the cartel, Omar Navarro (Felix Solis)—is severe, demanding, and unforgiving. Meanwhile, the locals prove problematic and challenging as well. There’s the troublesome, desperate Langmore clan, which includes teenaged firebrand Ruth (Julia Garner), who eventually becomes a tenuous associate. There’s also the powerful Snells, Jacob (Peter Mullan) and Darlene (Lisa Emery), whose farm in the hills serves as headquarters for a heroin production and distribution ring. As Marty and Wendy buy up and corrupt businesses to wash dirty money, they’re constantly challenged from every angle, as competing interests vie to blackmail, jail, or destroy them.

Unlike the Scandinavian crime shows I’ve been devouring lately, Ozark is not even remotely a slow burn. It starts at breakneck speed and never lets up, consistently stressing the family to maintain an elevated state of high-stakes tension. Maintaining such urgent life-or-death conflict over the course of thirty episodes, in increasingly complicated and dangerous circumstances, is a wicked writing challenge—and ultimately proves difficult to sustain. For all its impressive intricacies, Ozark feels like a runaway train threatening to derail at any moment, its narrative twists and turns growing increasingly outrageous. Every action, every reaction, every sketchy new character, every explosion of violence—it’s all jacked up to the extreme, the worst of all possible outcomes at all times, only letting up enough to leave the door open for further struggles. In light of the challenge it sets for itself, the show does a commendable job keeping it together for two full seasons. In the third, the strain starts to show a bit, as disbelief dangles by a thread.

Ozark also has likability issues. Who do you hang your hat on? Bateman is a remarkable actor with a preternatural talent for “smartest guy in the room” roles, but Marty Byrde is—for all his admirable resourcefulness—a hugely reprehensible person. While it takes a while for her arc to ramp up, the same holds true for Wendy, portrayed with equal brilliance by Linney. You don’t watch these characters because you like them, but because of how skillfully they’re portrayed. The show’s tertiary hero turns out to be Ruth, thanks to Garner’s spirited portrayal, but Ruth’s foul-mouthed opportunism is only mitigated slightly by the obvious abuse and poverty she’s struggling to transcend. These people are sympathetic only inasmuch as their opponents are even worse, and even the most likable of the supporting characters—Charlotte, Jonah, Harris Yulin’s crotchety Buddy Dieker, Jordana Spiro’s tavern owner Rachel Garrison, Charlie Tahan’s smart but disadvantaged Wyatt Langmore—have problematic traits and tendencies.

Of course, that’s also part of the show’s greater critique. Thematically, Ozark is obsessed with cause and effect, with fateful choices and their ramifications, and with the mental gymnastics people in dire straits will engage in to justify their behavior. There isn’t a character here who hasn’t deluded themselves into seeing themselves as an underdog hero fighting a stacked-deck situation, and as such, the deck itself is the show’s uber-villain. For Ozark, the cruelty is the point, illustrating the arbitrary lines between legitimate and criminal, which Marty and Wendy straddle while frequently deluding themselves about which side they’re on. America’s deeply unfair systems ensnare us all, Ozark suggests, and goes on to illustrate the ways class, privilege, money, and reputation elevate the unworthy and victimize the innocent, shielding some from accountability while throwing others under the bus. It’s an extended reflection on the national systemic rot, and as such feels like the perfect artistic background radiation of a Trump presidency.

In light of the preceding, should you even watch this? To be honest, I’m not sure. If you have a high tolerance for dark subject matter and reprehensible behavior in the interest of thought-provoking commentary, Ozark may scratch a certain itch. By and large, it’s  extremely well executed, and the acting is uniformly fantastic. Its fictional world-building is thoroughly immersive, making it a good candidate for those seeking a sustained diversion. It isn’t exactly breaking new ground, mind you—it reminded me at various times of everything from Breaking Bad to Bloodline, Justified to The Sopranos—but it slots in nicely with that kind of show. It certainly won’t be for everybody, but it definitely kept me interested, and I liked it, even when I felt that I shouldn’t.

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