Jason Bateman steals the show in Netflix’s latest foray into the murky world of Mexican drug cartels – joining Narcos and more recently El Chapo – in Ozark. Bateman plays Marty Byrde: husband, father, and crooked financial advisor, who has been running a money laundering scheme for a decade. The series bears the marks of the post-Breaking Bad landscape, particularly in its exploration of what the American everyman is capable of when it comes to his family and easy money. The money in question comes from a cartel run by the ruthless Del (Esai Morales), who, finding himself $8 million short, kills off Marty’s periphery business associates until left with only Marty himself. Marty manages to talk his way out of getting shot, and as the show goes on, it seems Marty can talk his way out of just about anything. Writer Bill Dubuque (The Accountant) doesn’t miss a beat, and Bateman’s own direction brings some beautiful visuals to the show’s sharp writing.
Given forty-eight hours to get the stray millions back, Marty pulls all sorts of strings to repay the cartel. Del, sensing something special in Marty and an opportunity to make more money, returns the $8 million and forces Marty to move to the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri (just think of it as a redneck’s St. Tropez), where he is to find new ways of swindling its tourists. Really, the show is about just that: money. Marty’s opening speech unfolds as a voiceover in which he talks to potential clients, but while we watch him drag boxes of cash through a lakeside forest. He talks about how the American middle class could be evaporating, but the American dream isn’t dead and “the American work ethic is what makes America great.” Ozark is doing everything it can to demonstrate contemporary America’s capitalist greed at its most insidious. Bateman concludes his speech by saying: “Money is, at its essence, the measure of a man’s choice,” yet here we are, watching him scramble for what is left of his own worth with the cartel breathing down his neck.
However, Ozark struggles with what can only be described as meandering plot. We flit too briefly to FBI agents who are supposedly tracking Marty and his business partner (who met a gruesome end early in the first episode at the barrel of Del’s gun).These scenes seem stilted, as if the show was completed only for Dubuque to decide that some law enforcement needed to be sprinkled in to make this show more, I don’t know… American perhaps? Then there’s the implausibility of it all: Marty convinces bank tellers and two federal agents to withdraw $8 million in cash, only to have that money stolen by a family of petty criminals, before simply talking them into giving it all back. Ozark makes for some implausible viewing.
The Byrde family, at least, are persuasively flawed. Watching Marty confront the extra-marital affair of his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) is something of a creepy triumph. He sits at his desk watching hidden camera footage of her having sex with a silver-haired lawyer, before another viewing while she watches the evening news and he sits behind her on his laptop. The subsequently strained scenes between the broken couple make for interesting viewing. When Del has Wendy’s lover brutally thrown from a balcony to land at Marty’s feet, Marty is perversely satisfied, later remarking to her: “the sound of your lover smacking the pavement is the only thing that gets me to sleep at night.” It’s dark, dry lines such as this that keep you wanting to watch Ozark despite its early flaws.
Even with the inclusion of the trifecta of TV trends – unlawful characters, Mexican cartel leaders and the remote American state (think Fargo) – Jason Bateman’s Ozark is far from becoming a classic.