Many critics were quick to compare Ozark to Breaking Bad when it was released last year, judging the crime drama series based on how it has met (or has not) the Breaking Bad vibe the many people miss. While Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) of Ozark and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) of Breaking Bad have similarities, being family men running illegal operations for the good of their families, the rest of the plot of Ozark seemed to me as a closer resemblance to Big Love, an HBO series that never got quite the fan following Breaking Bad had.
The thing about Breaking Bad that drove most viewers and myself crazy was how Walter put himself at odds with his family, that even when his wife was finally convinced of his intentions to save them, she was still ready to confess her husband’s crime.
Ozark and Big Love, however, have the entire family of lead characters in on the big secret. With the talks on what should be done on the secret crime and how it affects the children, make these two shows much more watchable and relatable in some ways. Ozark and Big Love play off the criminal nature and aspect of American politics, and the need to sometimes consider less than ethical partners.
Season One starts off with Marty uprooting his family – wife, teenage daughter, younger son – and moves to Missouri, specifically to the Lake of the Ozarks, to set up a new laundering operation. While he has been working for the past eight years moving the numbers around, things have changed.
We find out early on that his college best friend and business partner has been skimming money from the second largest Mexican drug cartel. The cartel operation boss has become aware of this and plans to kill everyone including Marty.
Marty’s ability to live is based on his character’s main persona – a fast-talking guy who sort of gets you to see anything is possible. This is what saves his life but it also puts the pressure on. He must find a way to clean eight million dollars in three months’ time.
For the record, Ozark is not a story of a man on the run. It is a story of a man buying time and at every turn, Marty is able to pitch just enough to make sure his clock does not run out.
Just before he’s forced to relocate to the Ozarks, Marty learns from a private detective that his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), has been cheating on him. Any temptation to leave Wendy is overwhelmed by the fact that the Mexican drug cartel may very well assassinate his entire family.
When the family first arrives to Ozarks, Marty goes around to failing businesses, pitching that he is an “angle investor”. But not many are willing to accept his help, much to his surprise. He is able to successfully invest in a lakeside resort, the Blue Cat, and a strip club. His third attempt to invest – building a church – is when the viewer is made aware of the pre-existing drug trafficking and money laundering that has been going on for generations in the seemingly sleepy lakeside town.
A local preacher named Mason Young (Michael Mosley) and his pregnant wife end up getting caught in the middle of Marty’s mistake. The Snell couple (Peter Mullan and Lisa Emery), who has been living in the town for several generations, own a mass of land in the town where they grow and sell heroine. One way in which they have avoided getting caught while distributing their products is by using Sunday service without the pastor’s knowledge.
When Marty offered to build a church, the Snells’ illegal operation gets threatened. Marty, not wanting to put his family or that of the unknowing preacher’s family at risk, tries to come up with a deal. Due to the preacher’s ignorance of the situation, things don’t go as planned and the situation spins out of control.
The Feds are already watching Marty and his family. FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner) plays a central role in trying to capture cartel finance manager Marty. While he gets mostly limited information from people around the town, it is his lusty gay affair with the redneck town criminal Russ Langmore (Marc Menchaca) that proves most useful.
Russ has a cunning niece, Ruth (Julia Garner), who ends up partnering and helping Marty out with the end game of learning the ropes of money laundering. But over the first season, Ruth becomes quite close to the family and may have a change of heart on what she initially planned to do with Marty.
Season One ends with plans for the Mexican drug cartel, the Snells and Marty to partner up. The overall strategy is that the cartel will buy directly from the Snells, while the couple allows all parties to use their land to build a casino, which is every money launder’s dream business. However, the Snells, especially the family matriarch Darleen, does not tolerate the drastic changes happening in the business she used to lead. She shoots the cartel boss, leaving a cliffhanger for the next season.
In Season Two, we see some changes in the family dynamics. Marty’s new way of looking at things – “people make choices and those choices have consequences; we don’t have to live under the weight of those decisions”– become the central foundation of the plot.
Wendy, a skilled political operative, becomes more important as she pulls her weight during the couple’s under-the-table dealings. Wendy initiates the key meeting that could save the family, the first step towards building an ambitious casino if the Byrdes partner with the right elite people.
One of my personal favourite transformation is in the family’s youngest member, Jonah (Skylar Gaertner). In the first season, we see him start to accept the idea of what his family is doing. One of my favourite dialogues is the one he has with his teacher. He is being asked to blindly sign the typical health class slip that forces students to promise to never ever do drugs.
Jonah refuses and instead starts to cite factual aspects of how drugs money, which amounts to billions of dollars, has been keeping the financial system afloat at the height of the global economic crises. From this stunt, 13-year-old Jonah sets up his own bank account so he too can start to clean money. This just shows how much he has grown, albeit not typically for kids his age.
Ozark Season Two is darker than the first and moves much more quickly. Definitely more exciting and thrilling scenes will glue you to your laptop screens. And trust me, you wouldn’t want to leave your seats until you finish the series.
Need I say more to convince you? Just watch this epic American crime drama and see how the Byrdes succeed or fail in their “family business”. Stream both Season One and Two on Netflix.