The Buzz: 'Ozark' is Smart, Dark and Netflix's Newest Benchmark
Picture this: you’re a successful financial adviser in Chicago, living with your wife and two children. Meanwhile, you’re profiting generously by laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel and for all intents and purposes, everything is going according to plan. Fast forward. You find out your wife is cheating on you, your partner is executed for stealing from the cartel and now you are on your knees with a gun pointed at your head. The rouse, the façade, the fantasy… it’s over. Do you close your eyes and accept it? Or do you fight, understanding that for the foreseeable future, your back will be against the wall, suffocating from suppression, paranoia and the inability to please anyone? In the case of Ozark, it’s the latter; and that’s only the first episode.
Ozark stars Jason Bateman as Martin Byrde, a money launderer that convinces his drug cartel “employer,” to keep him alive to try and clean the dirty $8 million that was stolen from him. Within 48 hours, Byrde withdraws every dollar he has and moves his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) and kids, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), from the city of Chicago to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. The pressure is on for Martin as he attempts to quickly clean the cartel’s money through local investments, avoid the heat of the investigating FBI and juggle his unsatisfied wife and kids. From the first step he takes into the Ozarks, Martin feels the bright light shined upon on him by the locals, feds, cartel and his family. It is the fact that Bateman’s Byrde never allows himself to cover that light for even a second that drives the show at its core.
While the theme of money is an all too familiar one, it embodies the essence of Ozark. “Money. That which separates the haves from the have-nots. But what is money? It’s everything if you don’t have it, right? Half of all American adults have more credit card debt than savings.” While most American’s don’t solve their financial problems by going outside of the law, these opening lines help set the stage for the show’s foundation. “Money is not peace of mind. Money’s not happiness. Money is, at its essence… that measure of a man’s choices.” These words end the opening monologue and hook you into where Byrde’s motivations come from, as you watch his continuous attempt to climb the slippery slope of the seemingly impossible.
Bateman’s dramatic turn as Byrde is outstanding and a perfect casting choice even if he wasn’t first on the list. While Bateman is more well known for his comedic roles in Arrested Development, Horrible Bosses and Dodgeball, it’s not surprising to see him thrive in a dramatic, leading role. He is able to portray all of Byrde’s complexities to a tee. A clever and adaptive talker that gets what he needs using his superiority complex over the locals and quick wit over the cartel. A manic and fearful average Joe, in over his head in a corrupt world he knows he shouldn’t be in. A caring but numb husband/father; whose years of blinded determination to provide for his family's future has left his kids disinterested and wife unsatsified. But he still cares. His anger toward his wife’s adultery is fueled by a love he once felt. His attitude toward his kids comes off as harsh and controlling at times but everything he does is for them. Bateman really connects with the audience through his complex demeanor and creates a captivating character (coming from someone that does not enjoy Arrested Development).
The exhausting effects of the show’s circumstances don’t only focus on Martin. Wendy holds the burden of trying to support her husband’s laundering agenda and take care of her hapless children when she can’t even take care of herself. The fact that the Byrde children are aware of their parent’s illegal and duplicitous ways, creates a very appealing dynamic. A lot of shows like Dexter, Breaking Bad and Homeland have the protagonists shield their kids from their double lives. The fact that the Byrdes really are all in this together is an interesting, new angle. A great scene in which Jonah gives a speech to his class about the economic benefits of drugs directly illustrates the effect his self awareness of the family's laundering ways are having on him. Then there is Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), a local 19-year-old degenerate who struggles with the prospect of creating a better life for herself or adhering to her criminal reputation and the surrounding, low expectations that her family has for her. Finally, there is FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner), who’s impressive manipulative skills as an undercover agent get him closer to taking down the Byrdes, but also, personally attach him to the counterfeit life he has created. Wendy, Ruth and Roy highlight a bigger group of supporting characters that strengthen the show’s framework.
Ozark’s compelling characters, dark subject matter and well-rounded setting make this another great Netflix drama. Creator Bill Dubuque and showrunner Chris Mundy do a great job pacing the show in a fashion that makes it extremely bingeable in all the right ways. Jason Bateman gives a stand out performance that will hopefully (and I’d say probably) continue for a second season.