Warning - Season One Spoilers
On the face of it, Marty Byrde appears to be an average guy – a robust career as a top financial advisor, a nice house, an attractive wife, and two kids. But Marty’s world is about to fall apart.
The opening of Ozark, the Netflix series created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams, which debuted in July 2017 and quickly went on to become one of the subscription channel’s most popular original dramas, makes it quite clear, in Marty’s own words, his personal philosophy and hints at the dark places that his life is destined to be heading:
Scratch. Wampum. Dough. Sugar. Clams. Loot. Bills. Bones. Bread. Bucks. 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. 25% have no savings at all. And only 15% of the population is on track to fund even one year of retirement. Suggesting what? The middle class is evaporating? Or the American Dream is dead? You wouldn't be sitting there listening to me if the latter were true. You see, I think most people just have a fundamentally flawed view of money. Is it simply an agreed-upon unit of exchange for goods and services? $3.70 for a gallon of milk? Thirty bucks to cut your grass? Or, is it an intangible? Security or happiness - peace of mind. Let me propose a third option. Money as a measuring device. You see, the hard reality is how much money we accumulate in life is not a function of who's president or the economy or bubbles bursting or bad breaks or bosses. It's about the American work ethic. The one that made us the greatest country on Earth. It's about bucking the media's opinion as to what constitutes a good parent. Deciding to miss the ball game, the play, the concert, because you've resolved to work and invest in your family's future. And taking responsibility for the consequences of those actions. Patience. Frugality. Sacrifice. When you boil it down, what do those three things have in common? Those are choices. Money is not peace of mind. Money's not happiness. Money is, at its essence, that measure of a man's choices.
In his Chicago office, Marty is watching a video of his wife, Wendy. In the video she is cheating on him with another man. He continues to watch the video over and over despite the fact that he is currently entertaining potential new clients. It seems the falling apart has already begun. But if Marty thinks that Wendy’s infidelity is a crisis point in his life – well, its about to get a whole lot worse. After returning home and pretending that he is oblivious to her affair, Marty receives a phone call from his business partner, Bruce: “Del is here” and wants to meet “at the warehouse” ASAP.
Del, it transpires, is a drug lord working for a much larger cartel and Marty’s company has been laundering money for them for a number of years. But someone became greedy and has skimmed off the profits to the tune of five million dollars. Marty arrives at the warehouse to be greeted by Del, Bruce, Bruce’s fiancée, and the owner of a trucking company and his son. At first Marty is unaware of the deception or the severity of the situation, and convinced that the blame lays elsewhere, he berates Del for his gullibility. “This is an intimidation audit. Yeah? I mean, you think you can just come in here unannounced and rattle some cages, and someone's gonna admit to skimming? I mean, you're fishing. And, I mean, people steal, I get it. But you got a distribution chain downstream that's run by meth heads and drug dealers. That's where you're gonna find your Aunt Carlottas. They're not in here. We've been laundering money for Mr. Navarro for ten years. That's right. The only thing you've done here is you've involved a civilian. And, you know, to be honest, this "Dale Carnegie - Pablo Escobar" ruse? I think that's beneath you.”
In response to Marty’s admonishment Del sends Bruce’s fiancée to the washroom on the pretext of discussing things in private. But as she closes the wooden washroom door Del pulls out a gun and shoots her dead - clearly that this is no ordinary intimidation audit. Horrified and remorseful, Bruce admits to taking Del’s money and pleads for his life. But Del is unforgiving and Bruce, the trucking company owner and his son, are dispatched in similar fashion to his lady in a bloody and shocking scene that sets the tone for the rest of the series. Only Marty is left, and the next bullet is for him.
Marty has mere seconds to concoct a plan that will make him more useful to the cartel alive. Reaching inside his pocket he pulls out a promotional flyer for a waterfront resort on the Lake of the Ozarks that had been given to him by Bruce earlier that day (Marty has never been there himself), and frantically spouts plans for setting up a booming laundering business off the back of the area’s tourism, claiming he can make $500 million in five years. Marty boldly claims he will prove this by laundering $8 million in three months.
Returning home, Marty informs Wendy of their situation, instructs her to put their house on the market and begins to liquidate his firm. But Wendy has other ideas. The very next day she visits her lover, Gary, who convinces her to empty out her joint bank accounts with Marty and leave him. Alerted to this fact by the private detective that Marty had hired to prove the affair, Marty is on route to the lovers’ high-rise apartment. But Del is also aware of what is happening and visits the apartment first. It does not end well for Gary.
With no other option, Wendy joins Marty as the family flee the big city to the relative backwoods of Osage Beach, Missouri on the Lake of the Ozarks. Despite Wendy’s grief Marty is unforgiving: “I don't forget Gary. I don't forget how you emptied our bank accounts when you knew I needed that money. And I doubt very much that you did that by yourself, that you did that in a vacuum. In fact, the satisfying sound of your lover smacking the pavement is the only thing that gets me to sleep every night.”
Jason Bateman, who also serves as executive producer and occasional director on Ozark, gives an understated yet compelling performance as the apparently passive, intellectual, and resourceful Marty Byrde, a money-laundering mastermind who is forced to take drastic action to work off his debt to a Mexican drug cartel through an increasingly entangled and dangerous laundering scheme, and save his family in the direst of circumstances in what is probably Netflix’s most dark, dreadful, and deadly American crime drama. With each new season the Byrde’s manage to dig themselves deeper into the bloody hole, and the effect on Marty and the transformation his character undergoes over the seasons is palpable, as he blackmails and murders his way to the top of the cartel's priorities. Like Breaking Bad, Ozark keeps writing its characters into ostensibly impossible corners, only to find plausible ways out.
Equally impressive is Laura Linney as Wendy. From the outset she is ruthless, conniving, ambitious and knows how to get things done. So much so that she helps support Marty and comes up with creative ideas to launder money and ends up being a principal partner in Marty's schemes. But there is always the sense that Wendy is in a constant powerplay with her husband. She is clearly more willing to participate in a large criminal enterprise. Linney says of her role "The fact that they’ve allowed not only my character, but every other character on this series, to constantly shed and grow and change and reveal, is really unusual." Speaking to Variety about playing Wendy, who has garnered comparisons to Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Linney said she absolutely loved portraying such a complex character, but she probably wouldn’t want to meet her in real life.
As if the Byrde’s life is not complicated enough, they also have to contend with persistent FBI agents who know of the family’s involvement with major crime and want them to turn ‘State’s Evidence’, which they constantly refuse to do, knowing that the arms of the cartel are far more reaching than those of the combined law enforcement agencies. To ensure that Marty lives up to his end of the deal, the cartel send no-nonsense attorney Helen Pierce (British actress Janet McTeer - star of the popular ITV series The Governor) to keep a watchful eye on her bosses’ investment. A strong, fiercely intelligent woman unafraid to do what needs to be done for her boss, however ruthless, Pierce ingratiates herself to the Byrde’s and soon discovers how dysfunctional Marty and Wendy's marriage is.
Yes, life is very complicated for Marty, and if he thought that the Ozarks was prime for rich pickings and ready to be exploited, he didn’t contemplate the determination and ruthlessness of the local criminal element.
Jacob Snell (Scottish actor Peter Mullan) and his psychotic and scheming wife Darlene (Lisa Emery) have a nice line in heroin production and distribution before the Byrde’s move in. The Snell’s have long established themselves as the crime lords of the area as an exchange between Jacob and the local sheriff clearly indicate;
Sheriff: I passed Martin Byrde on the road coming in. So, what sort of business you have with him?
Jacob: He owes us a debt.
Sheriff: How big?
Jacob: Bigger than yours.
Ozark also has its moments of dark comedy as illustrated in the exchange between Marty and Jacob following a brutal murder committed by Darlene:
Jacob: Things happen. You apologize and you move on.
Marty: She blew a man's head off!
Jacob: For which she is contrite.
Marty: Am I supposed to believe that?
Jacob: The woman brought you fresh honey!
One of the standout performances of the series is that of Julia Garner who plays Ruth Langmore, a strong, smart young woman with ambitions above her lower station in life. Living in a trailer on the outskirts of town, Ruth was born poor, her father, a serial convict, has been in jail for a number of years and she has taken on the role of matriarch to her criminally inclined brothers. Tough, fearless and streetwise, Ruth is taken under Marty’s wing and grows from a stubborn and reckless teenage criminal to a hardened and savvy sidekick who has a love-hate relationship with Marty as she battles between her loyalty to her kin and her ambition to better herself. Her performance has deservedly won her two consecutive Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series despite being up against Laura Dern and Meryl Streep.
Despite setting the story in the Ozark mountains of Missouri, the series is actually filmed in Atlanta, Georgia, which for a number of years now has seen an increasing number of productions being made, which has earned it the title of ‘Hollywood of the South.’ The series is Jason Bateman’s fifth in the Peach State.
Co-creator Bill Dubuque took inspiration for the series after spending numerous summers in the Ozarks as a teenager where he worked at just about everything from handyman to working on the dock and manning a barbecue grill. When creating the show, he found it to be the perfect setting for a money laundering drama. "The lake is both a real thing and a metaphor for capitalism," says Dubuque. "After all, it was built by Union Electric to make money." The writers met with both an FBI agent and a hedge fund manager to ask questions and learn the logistics of money laundering. Showrunner Chris Mundy acknowledged that while the details of the operation were undoubtedly important, what they really wanted to hone in on were the motivations behind an intense desire to make more and more money. He said, "We did want to get caught up in the emotional desire for it: what motivates people for it — is it family? Greed? Is it escape? Is it a blessing or a curse? We just keep digging into the humanity of the whole situation."
An uncompromising series, Ozark keeps viewers guessing, for very few characters are established well enough that they will not meet a sudden and violent demise, and the body count rises with each season. A fourth and final series of Ozark has been delayed due to Coronavirus, but when it finally airs it will no doubt have as many twists and turns and engaging performances from its hugely talented cast as previous seasons. For now, the Byrde’s are flying high – but where they eventually land is yet to be seen.
Published on April 2nd, 2021. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.