The new Netflix drama Ozark gets into gritty territory pretty rapidly. Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is a Chicago-based financial adviser whose partner is found stealing from a drug lord whom the duo helps launder money. Retribution is swift (and nauseating, with plenty of acid thrown in) but also crucial in setting the stage for what grows into a nail-biting thriller.
To save his life and of his family, Byrde promises the Mexican, Del (a brutal but suave Esai Morales) that he would shift base to Lake of the Ozarks, a tourism haven in Missouri, and undertake to launder another $8 million of Del’s money. With this promise, the family uproots itself in what must be the most joyless residential shift in the history of television.
There are other reasons for the gloom. Byrde’s wife Wendy (Laura Linney) is having an affair and he is in possession of a sex tape of her with her lover that he watches and rewatches with bland intensity. The lover also gets caught up in the drug affair with tragic and, always in this show, sudden consequences.
In Ozark, the family, which also comprises their two children, Charlotte and Johan, sets into uneasy domesticity. The place is beautiful, a paradise nestled in the midst of undulating hills, but also one with subterranean passions and unchecked ambition tripping neat plans and swift getaways. Crime happens to everyone, either as the perpetrator or the victim, and with an insouciance that is hard to reconcile with reality.
This, then, is Breaking Bad meets Twin Peaks, including a police investigation by an undercover FBI agent who hopes to boost his career with a massive drug bust. Desperate to show results to Del, Byrde reaches out to every business in town, and between a pub and a strip club, manages to find some traction on the money.
But you can’t move from the urban sophistication of Chicago to the rural oasis of Ozark without stepping on a few toes. One of the show’s best tracks has Byrde unwittingly messing with the business prospects of a poppy farmer who thinks nothing of killing his enemies with an overdose of heroin.
Bateman is particularly good as the urbane finance guy who must make irrational choices that, paradoxically, are the only option that would ensure his continued existence. His character retains a chutzpah that is endearing, if unrealistic. He thinks nothing of, say, revealing his true intentions to the most hardened criminals but is nevertheless able to get his way somehow.
That said, the show is also unremittingly bleak. The only redeeming relationship that any two people share is between Byrde and his son, who, like his sister, is trying to cope with the hurricane that has disrupted his life, but is not doing a good job of it, having taken to disemboweling dead animals.
Is there a moral message to the show? It’s hard to say, when even the pastor must find that his Sunday sermons on the boat are a front for selling heroine. And yet, Byrde – and most others – follow a certain code that, even when it is hard to pin down, is easy to follow. Ozark’s central characters are non-believers, one and all, but the inexplicable way their destinies are entangled to usher a semblance of balance posits an invisible hand guiding the motions.