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The Byrdes sitting at a table Photo: Tina Rowden/Netflix

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Ozark got better by stepping out of Breaking Bad’s shadow

In the end, the Netflix hit was unflinching as it took aim at the ‘American Dream’

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When it premiered, Ozark was met with a certain degree of skepticism and even suspicion. Though it garnered positive reviews, many TV critics had mixed emotions about the latest sleek Netflix drama. “A lot happens but not much is going on,” wrote Mike Hale of The New York Times, while over on Vox, Emily St. James found the white guy antihero trope lazy and overdone. It was universally acknowledged that the show was binge-worthy — the metric streaming services furiously chased back in the day. But it was just as quickly described as “tired,” “phony,” and as “taking itself suffocatingly seriously.”

Not helping matters was the fact that a critical darling loomed large over the show, inviting comparisons that Ozark would never match. That show, of course, is Breaking Bad, the crown jewel of the good-guy-turned-drug-kingpin genre. It was inevitable to put them side by side given some of their similarities. After all, in Ozark’s earlier episodes, it did seem like Marty (Jason Bateman) was going to be the heart of the show. It’s his voice we first hear, waxing poetic about how “money is, at its essence, that measure of a man’s choices.” When we meet him, though, his decision-making is nothing short of catastrophic. To avoid being shot in the head by his pissed-off cartel clients, Marty strikes a deal: He’ll help them launder millions of dollars in exchange for his life. To do so, he moves his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), and two kids, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), to rural Missouri, where he hopes his criminal activities will be easier to pull off undetected.

In both Ozark and Breaking Bad, we had two middle class men trying to provide for their families. Circumstances had driven them to the underworld of drug trafficking. These mild-mannered, bland suburbanites do unspeakable, horrible things. Ozark came off as the less-talented younger brother overshadowed by the successful, deep, and intelligent older heir. Even at its best, Ozark never lived up to the ambition of Breaking Bad.

This did not stop it from becoming a Netflix hit. Buoyed by multiple Emmy nominations in Outstanding Drama, Lead Actor, Lead Actress, and Supporting Actress, Ozark shook off the “meh” reactions of its first season. When the fourth season debuted, it hit a historic high of 4 billion minutes of viewing, per Nielsen ratings. What made it so irresistible?

[Ed. note: Spoilers below for the end of Ozark.]

Julia Garner looking down at a coffin at a funeral Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix

The show was far from perfect. The first couple of seasons were grim, plodding, and dark — in a very literal sense. Constantly awash in a blue-gray filter that muted the region’s natural beauty, it did feel like a humorless award-baiting attempt. The writing was both chaotic and repetitive. As one viral tweet so perfectly described it, so much of the action focused on errands. The twist came from the show’s love of turning those errands into life-threatening scenarios that required Marty, Wendy, or their protégé turned foil, Ruth (Julia Garner), to renegotiate some questionable deal. The accents were thick, the world overwhelmingly white aside from the Mexican cartel leaders (problematic, much?), and the dialogue could sometimes verge on cringe.

The performances, however, breathed life into even the most staid parts Ozark. Bateman’s and Linney’s outstanding performances are the reason this despicable pair can be so watchable in the process. During its four seasons, the Byrdes become less and less sympathetic. The bland, mild-mannered accountant evokes even-keeled naivete in the beginning, but he reveals himself to be more sinister as the body count rises. As for Wendy, she quickly leaves behind any sympathy we had for her as a mom screwed out of the labor force. Marty might have made the deal with the devil, but only with her blessing. And once she realizes that her strategic powers surpass that of her husband, she leans in like a true cold-hearted Sheryl Sandberg follower. Chilling, calculating, and using up every benefit of the doubt afforded to educated white women, Wendy becomes a more formidable presence with every passing episode.

She is not the only female character that overshadows Marty, who never truly fulfills the antihero role that was projected onto him. The women trafficking, hunting, investigating, and often killing in Ozark complicate the theory that this was (only) about some bargain-bin Walter White. Wendy, cartel lawyer Helene Pierce (Janet McTeer), poppy seed matriarch Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery), the ethically slippery Clare Shaw (Katrina Lenk), the tactical and grieving Camila Elizondo (Verónica Falcón). They all represent obstacles to Marty’s plans, but not because they are in any way more compassionate or morally superior to Marty. More often than not, they foil him because they are more hungry than he is for what this world can provide. Wendy has her eyes set on the big payoff that this sojourn through narco hell is supposed to grant. Darlene fiercely defended her own economic autonomy. Helene fought to shield her daughter, Camila was relentless in her vengeance, and even Clare Shaw did not hesitate to put her self-preservation first. All this while Marty buries himself in spreadsheets and gives his “aw, shucks” response to every high-stakes moment.

The Byrdes being hugged by a woman while their faces are covered in blood Photo: Netflix
Darlene in Ozark holding a shotgun and looking down at a man in a convertible Photo: Netflix
Four people sitting around a table in Ozark Photo: Netflix

The only one that could make that claim in this underworld is Ruth Langmore. With another knockout performance, Julia Garner offered audiences someone to root for. The scrappy, strong-willed, smart-mouthed local ended up being the heart of the show precisely because her ties to her loved ones were genuine, raw, and vulnerable — qualities that eluded the Byrdes. Her doomed love affair with Ben (Tom Pelphrey), Wendy’s troubled brother, drove home this point even further.

That storyline, introduced in season 3, was the game changer that Ozark needed to elevate itself beyond the meandering exploitation of its earlier seasons. It’s like the show finally found its footing by being its unabashed self: hyperbolic, dizzying, and unwilling to give any redemption to its main pairing. While previous seasons had relished in plenty of deaths, those killed were by no means innocent bystanders. They all had blood in their hands, and the world was probably better off without them. Ben was the major sacrificial lamb that highlighted how far the Byrdes were willing to go to achieve a life worthy of their socioeconomic aspirations.

It also blew apart any illusions we may have had that the Byrdes put their family first, despite the rhetoric of family protection running strong in Ozark. However, it resists being taken as a serious ethos, despite Marty once telling Del (Esai Morales), his first cartel contact, that his ethics are “to protect and provide for my family.” What’s more, the Byrdes are not outliers in this sense. From top to bottom, every good-standing member of society in Ozark — with few exceptions — are as bloodstained as the Byrdes. The obvious example is the Navarros, the merciless cartel that nevertheless boasts a dedicated family priest, shell businesses, and suave-looking MBA student nephews. To say, though, that they have caused more deaths than the opioid crisis created by Shaw Medical — another family business — is questionable. To say they have sowed more chaos than Senator Schafer, a man willing to tamper with federal elections, is also up for debate. Their justification can be legacy, loyalty, devotion. But it’s all bullshit.

The Byrde family of Ozark gathered around Laura Linney comforting her Photo: Tina Rowden/Netflix

The only thing that seems to separate them from the Langmores or the Snells is that they discreetly order hits while at fancy dinners. Hell, at least the Kansas City Mob was trying to get union protections.

Ozark gave an initial wrong impression. If its goal was to become the next Breaking Bad, it was right to ultimately abandon that vision and double down on its ridiculously pessimistic worldview. This wasn’t a story about a family’s fall from grace. It was a story about how a system built up around the American middle class family is already rotten. In Ozark, every self-serving, greedy, and power-hungry impulse was justified under the banner of preserving and providing for family. As long as the Byrdes could keep repeating that to themselves, though, like a mantra, they could rationalize the violence they inflict to maintain their respectable position in society. As the show progressed, it was made clear that their hunger for victory overrode their desire to be safe. And what was that victory they held onto? The illusion of being outstanding parents with two beautiful children by their side. Financial wealth, which is very different from simple stability. The folksiness of a family business. A foundation to keep up with their civic duties. Respectability. As Ruth asks Wendy late in season 4, “Is this really to protect your family?” All signs point to no.

And this is what sets Ozark apart from other shows that have a crime family at its center. Walter White, in the end, found a way to protect Skylar and his children before his demise granting him some absolution. In the case of The Sopranos or The Americans, the family ties humanize the characters. For Ozark, the concept of family first has perverted our sense of what is right and wrong in a way that has a spillover effect in society. By the end of the series, those who remain in power — who are affluent, who are still welcomed members of society — are those who have inherited it from the despicable acts of their parents. Shaw Medical is going nowhere. The Navarro cartel will continue to thrive, thanks, in no small part, to the FBI’s dependence on the cash seizures it can get from them. The Byrdes will get to play do-gooder thanks to their foundation.

In this sense, the show was unflinching in its critique of the American Dream. They reframed it as a nightmare of our own making and one few people are willing to part with if they ever achieve it. Ruth, who had a chance to free herself from the Langmore curse and become the poster child of social mobility, finds her luck short-lived. The system was not built for people like her. It was built for children like Jonah, who will continue the cycle of violence his family initiated and build upon the socioeconomic power they have achieved on the backs of corpses. The Byrdes might have achieved their happy ending, and yet the feeling viewers will leave with is that of an unsettling realization that this ending satisfies no one else except the monsters we’ve seen onscreen.