If you’ve seen the sparse, spare and yet intense trailer for Netflix’s latest original drama, Ozark, you will understand why it’s hard to discuss the show without risking spoilers. Thankfully, the ones I will touch on today aren’t so much ‘spoilers’ as ‘pertinent plot points that actually set up the narrative and thus the entire series’, so … consider that your minor spoiler warning.
As we saw in the tease, the series protagonist is unassuming Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), a middle aged, married father of two who makes a very comfortable living as a financial advisor working out of Chicago. Of course, as successful as he is, all is not well in Marty’s house.
He is distant and distracted, bored with his life. His wife Wendy (the always astonishing Laura Linney) is brittle, visibly unfulfilled as a person and harbouring an ugly secret of her own. And their adolescent kids have reached that stage when they can no longer relate to their parents or each other. Worse yet, no one seems to have the energy to do anything about it.At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking this show will be about how nasty a divorce can get.
But as we quickly learn, the Byrde family have much, much bigger problems. See for ten years now, Marty and friend/business partner Bruce Liddell (Josh Randall) have been laundering money for the second biggest drug cartel in Mexico, and they’re very good at what they do. So good, in fact, that it took everyone 5 years to figure out that the likable and supportive Bruce, who was subtly offering Marty an escape that might save his marriage earlier in the day … has been (first episode reveal) skimming.
I’ll let you watch those scenes without spoiling them because the intensity is just too good to describe in mere words on a page. The outcome is that Marty uproots and relocates his family to the Lakes of the Ozarks, and given the totally manageable and not at all impossible task of establishing a new base of laundering operations for the deadly cartel.
In theory, the Ozarks are primed for such business. Think Amity, in Jaws. The Ozarks is a seasonal place, making almost all of its money during the summer months when tourists arrive to bask in the sun and swim in the clear waters. But like most seasonal places, the money made each year is always ‘just enough’. Just enough to stay alive for another year, just enough to keep everyone mostly afloat. It’s the kind of place that can be killed entirely dead by one or two bad summers in a row. To the best of Marty’s knowledge — and he parallels Jon Snow for knowing nothing when it matters — the Ozarks area is free from the watchful eyes of Feds, and the distraction of rival crime organisations and in theory, it should be a kind of financial paradise for someone as smart and capable as Marty clearly is.
You know, nothing is ever that simple. As the series progresses we learn that the Feds are already canny of Marty’s existence and if he wasn’t a target before, his sudden and secretive move shifts him firmly into Federal crosshairs. He’s doggedly pursued by a seemingly token Captain Ahab, obsessive Fed type in Agent Petty (Jason Butler Harner), but there’s far more to Roy Petty than just being a trope. These depths give him a unique and fairly heartrending ‘in’ with the Ozark criminal underworld, as he goes deep undercover to try and bring down the cartels.
Alongside that, the local business owners are hostile and don’t want Marty’s help, and he quickly learns it’s because he might be the unluckiest man on the planet.
It’s hard to say too much here without spoiling, especially as some key characters appear in the story relatively late, but it’s pretty clear early on that Marty is in way over his head and he’ll only find out how bad it is, as we do.
Among the curious new characters he meets in the Ozarks are the Langmore clan, white trash rednecks who make most of their living off a combination of petty crime and welfare fraud. They’re about the only family I can discuss without giving away too much.
Their shaky matriarch and potential Mags Bennet in-the-making is the 19 year old Ruth (Julia Garner), an intimidatingly smart and accomplished crook, even at such a tender age. Ruth wields her power wisely, but not always effectively, keeping her cousins and uncles on a short but frayed leash ,and directing most of their shenanigans. However, her status has not been earned, not just yet. She shouts down disobedience by invoking the wroth of her father, Cade, who resides in Federal prison yet appears to exercise a terrifying level of control over his daughter. We never learn quite what Cade did to get there but a few snippets of conversation suggest it has to do with Ruth, and her application of bright red lipstick (paired with her childlike blonde curls) before every visit with the man takes my mind to dark and scary places.
Ruth’s cousins are a pair of teen boys, one dumb and one smart, both mostly good kids and both deserving of better lives, something Ruth endeavours to give them by any means she can. Her uncles are … they’re not just big dumb hicks, but if I tell you why it’ll take all the emotion out of one of the biggest gut punches of the season.
Ruth, for the record, is everything. She is just everything. This is a girl who can break a safe, rig a murder trap, threaten her adult uncles into obedience, and still make the late shift cleaning dishes at one of Marty’s newly acquired businesses on the lakeside.
Of course, there are bigger and scarier monsters lurking on the lake. You’ll have to watch to learn about them because going in blind is the best way to experience it all.
Ozark is firmly in the territory of ‘You don’t have to like these people to want to know their story’. Everyone is prickly and hard to like, but that’s what makes the show so interesting. You’re not going to fall in love, and watch them turn into devils. You’re going in highly suspicious of everyone, and the pleasure comes in watching just how bad they can get, or whether the pressure actually makes them better people.
Visually, Ozark is gorgeous and about the best tourism advert for the region that they could hope for. Jason Bateman himself directs four episodes, and he has unique and curious eye for framing. The show has a certain cold, distant feel at times, but it means when the emotional or violent moments happen, they hit hard and stay with you. It’s a study in pressure and how it changes people, and by keeping the frame wide and distant it adds to the feeling that everyone is operating under an incredible weight. And while the show retains a slow but very intense burn, a lot is crammed into each episode. More than once a scene would happen that would finish the episode of any other show. In Ozark, it’s twenty minutes in, and four more such scenes are still to come. That never feels cheap, though, nor does it reduce the impact of anything that follows. It just builds the tension on Marty and the family are under, until by each episode’s end, you find yourself releasing a breath you hadn’t realised you’d been holding, only to dive right into the next one.
Everyone turns in award-worthy performances. Bateman has always had untapped dramatic chops, and the show benefits by leaning heavily on his ability to flip, mid-sentence, from friendly and charming to something you know is a little crueler, but can’t get a handle on exactly why. Laura Linney doesn’t surprise anyone by absolutely crushing it –– I mean, she’s Laura fucking Linney — but it’s still a delight to watch her transition over the season. Minor spoilers, but she starts out the show a shaky, guilt ridden woman who frets her son is just weird enough that one day he’ll hurt people. By season’s end she’s giving the same kid the go ahead to fire an assault weapon.
Speaking of the Byrde children, Sofia Hublitz, who plays moody teen Charlotte, and Skylar Gaetner, oddball with a slight death obsession, Jonah, have no trouble keeping pace with their elder costars. In shows such as this, it’s easy for the kids to just end up annoying, but Ozark takes no such risks. The kids are made wise to the true nature of their new life in pretty much the second episode, and asked to shoulder a hell of a lot of responsibility. As a result, there are no silly misunderstandings or time wasted because one of the kids ignorantly wandered into the path of danger. Rather, we see their individual responses to their new lives, how their existing character traits flourish or fail under the new arrangements. Their stories are genuinely compelling and pay off not just for them, but in bringing other characters to their own new understandings.
And while I already discussed Ruth above, I have to mention Julia Garner again. I’ve not seen her work before, having not yet watched The Americans, but her turn here is enough to make me go and check it out. Tiny and fierce, that striking head of golden curls adds something haunting to her performance as a ruthless but deeply layered career criminal.
Repping for the cartels is the utterly terrifying Del, played to sinister perfection by Esai Morales. He embodies the ‘charming devil’ character, though like everything in the show, there’s a restraint to the portrayal that makes him all the more compelling. He has incredible faith in Marty, and he’s right to, but Del makes no bones about what he will do if Marty fails. What makes him all the more frightening is how genuinely personable and actually quite reasonable he is. He’s a businessman who just happens to work for a cartel, and he’s open to intelligent suggestions if they offer easier options than ‘go murder crazy’. Because of this, Ozark feels much more grounded than some other crime shows. Even the fact Del gives Marty the chance in the first place, which could seem outlandish under the circumstances, makes perfect sense as more of Del’s nature is revealed.
And okay, it doesn’t hurt that Esai Morale wonderfully timbered voice make every line, even the openly threatening ones, into pure ear candy.
There are many more performances to speak on, but again, it would spoil the unfolding narrative far too much
Ozark is a as more-ish as a tube of Pringles, so when you set down to watch it, brace yourself. You will be hitting ‘Next episode’ without giving it much thought until there is no button to hit. I’m already planning a rewatch.
Ozark is created and written by Bill Dubuque (The Accountant, The Judge), directed by Jason Bateman, Daniel Sackheim (Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, The Americans, The X-Files), Andrew Bernstein (Mad Men, The Americans, 12 Monkeys, Eraser, The Get Down), and Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Betrayal), and all ten episodes are available on Netflix right now.