I’ve seen a lot of things that compare Ozark to AMC’s Breaking Bad. I understand the comparison, because both feature a central protagonist who is ostensibly a good guy who gets caught up in dirty dealings that eventually threaten not just him but also his family and everything he loves and values.
That’s a perfect one-to-one correspondence, and it’s a true assessment of both series.
Even though I loved—still love—Breaking Bad, that’s not the series I was thinking about as I began watching Ozark. I had Sons of Anarchy on my mind, and I think I know why.
My wife watched the series on Netflix and thought it was all right, so I had already planned to watch it. Then, one day, this married couple whom I often waited on as a clerk at the post office came up to the counter, and I noticed the SAMCRO T-shirt she was wearing. This led, naturally, to a conversation about Sons of Anarchy. As way leads to way, I recommended Breaking Bad to them, as another crime drama, and they recommended Ozark.
Several additional months passed before I began watching the series, though, because I had a full plate, entertainment-wise, and didn’t see a way to fit it into my schedule. (Yes, I follow a fairly rigid schedule in what I watch and read each week; it’s a sickness, I know.)
Having just finished watching the finale episode of the first season (there’s a second one coming, I’m happy to say), I find comparisons to both shows still valid. But, without hurting myself by stretching too much, I could also compare it to Weeds, The Wire, The Shield, The Sopranos, Fargo, The Riches, Justified and Dexter, as well as countless other crime dramas I’m probably forgetting at the moment that dare to explore the milieu of crime juxtaposed with the mundane, workaday world.
Each of the shows I just rattled off have some quality, or many qualities, that I would recommend them for. But, I’ve never spent any time actively comparing one to the other. I’m not doing so now. My love of this sort of “family” crime drama (for lack of a better term) establishes my bona fides for reviewing Ozark.
When comparing any new series to a powerhouse such as Breaking Bad, you run the risk of making the new series look weaker or somehow less-than. And, that’s not exactly fair since you’re comparing a single season to an entire story. There was one thing about this first season that made me feel exactly the way I felt while watching Walter White spiraling slowly downward: It was that delicious knot of growing tension at the bottom of my sternum, somewhere between my heart and my gut. That’s a feeling I get only when I begin to care about what happens to a character. More than care: Worry.
So, no further comparisons. Let’s talk about Ozark, shall we?
The main setting for this series is Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, the “Redneck Riviera,” as one character calls it. The Byrde family—Martin, Wendy, Charlotte and Jonah—is uprooted from their Chicago home and transplanted to Missouri while Marty figures out a way to launder millions of dollars for the second-largest cartel in Mexico in order to save himself and his family. Marty’s old partner was skimming money from the cartel, which was a bad idea that led to his untimely demise. The cartel, for reasons that escape me at the moment, also did Marty a favor by murdering his wife Wendy’s lover in Chicago, just before they moved to Missouri.
Right away, we’re setting a ticking clock. Marty has a deadline for laundering a certain amount of money. Or else . . .
Marty Byrde is a brilliant money man, of course. He seems very cold and calculating through much of the season. Frankly, not easy to sympathize with, even though he won me over before the last episode. He presents himself as an angel investor in his new habitat, investing in local businesses in order to create venues to launder cartel money.
If that’s all this series was about, it wouldn’t be that interesting. There are complications. Of course there are complications. These include, but are not limited to, trouble with some of the Byrdes’ new neighbors, running afoul of both the local law and the local criminal organization, trouble with the Byrde kids, and, of course, trouble with the second-largest cartel in Mexico.
Oh, and the FBI, mainly represented by gay undercover agent Roy Petty. The adjective “gay” is relevant only because Petty manages to leverage a closeted redneck character, Russ Langmore, in his pursuit of justice against—against the cartel? Marty? I think the cartel, but the motivation gets kind of fuzzy. Jason Butler Hamer does an admirable job as Agent Petty. He’s clearly a troubled man, with a violent streak; an atypical law enforcement loose-cannon type. Marc Menchaca, as Russ Langmore, also does a great job as the gay redneck.
I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t turn in an excellent performance in this season.
The lovely Jordana Spiro is Rachel, the owner of the Blue Cat, the first business Marty chooses to invest in. Her story thread seems to be heading somewhere, until in the final episode it seems to play itself out, as she is leaving with a suitcase full of cartel cash. I’m sure we’ll see more of her in Season 2.
Harris Yulin is also a pleasure as Buddy Dieker, a terminally ill man who sold his house to the Byrdes on the cheap with the agreement he can live out the remainder of his days in the basement. He seems to have a dark past that we get only glimpses of, and he becomes an active creator of plot points later in the season. I find his foul temper, foul mouth and casual racism refreshing.
Julia Garner plays Ruth Langmore, a complicated and crafty young lady whose daddy is in prison. Ruth’s father, Cade Langmore, seems to be the leader of the Langmore clan’s minor criminal enterprise, even from prison. His brothers, Russ and Boyd, seem to be afraid of him, so they treat Ruth with kid gloves. Usually. As far as I can tell, Ruth lives in the same trailer home as her two uncles and her cousins Wyatt and Three. She becomes an active part of the plot, when she plotted to kill Marty on her father’s orders, and, later, when she saved him from being killed. Ruth comes across as a young woman willing to play all the angles, and I’m not sure where her story is headed next as the season ends. Her daddy said he would talk to her face-to-face. That could mean that he’s getting out of prison somehow.
Peter Mullan and Lisa Emery are Jacob and Darlene Snell, local poppy farmers and heroin manufacturers with a grudge against the power company that flooded all of their land to form the lake. I’m not sure if Jacob and Darlene are husband and wife, brother and sister, or maybe a little of both. I was leaning towards husband and wife, as Wikipedia supports, but both seem to take the perceived offense against the Snells very personally, as if both were always Snells. So, I’m still not sure. I am sure of one thing, though: Darlene is certifiably nuts. Watch the series, and you’ll agree with me.
Esai Morales is perfect as Camino Del Rio, the Mexican cartel crime lord. He even seems threatening when playing a round of golf.
And the Byrdes, of course.
Jason Bateman is pitch perfect as Marty Byrde. The fact that he is also an executive producer and frequent director on the show is a good indicator that he’s all-in on this series. The commitment has paid off, I think. Even at the end of the first season, I’m not sure that I like Byrde, but I do care about what happens to him.
Laura Linney, as wife and mother Wendy Byrde, also turns in a nuanced performance. Like her husband, Wendy isn’t an entirely sympathetic character. But, she proves that she is no passive victim in this as well. By the end of the season, the Byrdes’ seemingly fractured marriage seems to be on the mend.
The Byrde children, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) have mini-arcs in the season as well. But, they don’t really seem to pay off. At least, not yet. Charlotte is going through her own coming-of-age drama, friends with Wyatt Langmore (Charlie Tahan), losing her virginity to a summer tourist visitor to the lake, acting out against her parents, etc. Standard television fare. Jonah’s arc seems to take him down a darker path, taking advantage of a handicapped local to purchase high-powered firearms, using dead animals to attract turkey buzzards, generally creepy serial-killer stuff. The firearms cache does play into the plot of the series, in at least a minor way, but Jonah’s overall arc never seems to go anywhere.
There are many additional characters introduced in the season. One honorable mention must go to Mason and Grace Young (Michael Mosley and Bethany Anne Lind). Mason is the young pastor who has been duped by the Snells into distributing their heroin on the lake. Pastor Mason is responsible for delivering what was, for me, the most sphincter-tightening moment in the series, in the final episode of the season. I can’t tell you what that was without giving away important plot points. It was just an intense moment in a series that hasn’t been lacking in intense moments.
I was both surprised and delighted by the way this season ended. I will definitely be watching the second season when it is dropped. I think I will make it a higher priority on my schedule, in fact.
If you were to take a needle-nosed pliers and begin to remove my toenails one at a time (a show reference you’ll get later), I might be compelled to write that the snarl of side- and subplots throughout the season could be considered a bit of a weakness. And the sudden, violent conclusions of some of the story threads seemed too abrupt, and while that element of surprise is one of the things I’ve enjoyed about the series, I genuinely wanted to see a couple of them play out much differently.
Bateman and the creative forces behind the show have kept me interested in Ozark and what comes next. So, I would say they have accomplished what they set out to do.
Watch this one and let me know what you think.