Warning: contains plot details from episode 1
Let’s say, hypothetically, that you decide to launder money for the second largest Mexican drug cartel. Just hypothetically. Say you really like the sound of the money and decide that it’s worth taking your chances with their terrifying reputation to fund your children’s futures and put an end to relentless job searches and debt. What do you do when it all turns sour? Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) has the answer and clearly it’s what we’ve all been thinking. Move to the Ozark mountains.
Ozark is not a story of a man on the run. It’s a story of a man buying time. When the imposing cartel boss Del (Esai Morales) lines up Marty’s colleagues from his accountancy firm and swiftly puts a bullet in each of their heads, Marty has mere seconds to concoct a plan that will make him more useful to the mob alive. He grabs a stray brochure for a waterfront resort on the Lake of the Ozarks and frantically spouts plans about setting up a booming laundering business off the back of the area’s tourism. He is given a second chance, albeit one where he will be under relentless surveillance and immense pressure to deliver on his promises. Marty, his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) and children Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) up sticks from their Chicago home to a house that is conveniently under their tight budget. That may have something to do with Buddy (Harris Yulin), an ill elderly man who comes with the house, planning to live out his final months in comfort… nude walks to the lake and all.
What begins as “straw grasping bullsh*t”, as Del puts it, becomes the Byrdes’ reality as they try to settle into a town that is anything but an easy hideout. The show’s often beautiful but unsettling soundtrack works well to reflect the remote and alien beauty of a place where you know who is boss… and it ain’t the sheriff. It all gets a little bit Nicholas Sparks at times, with the isolated community’s dodgy family, the Snells, a-raspin’ and a-snarlin’ about all of the bad things they do whilst the fairly dodgy Langmore family make frequent reference to a family member they have behind bars that ain’t for messin’. That said, a couple of gems shine from the other side of the tracks, including Ruth who is played with conviction and nuance by Julia Garner. The troubled daughter of a convict, we see Ruth battle between her loyalty to her kin and her own instincts whilst she storms around telling the men of the family what’s what. Russ Langmore (Marc Menchaca), too, is a compelling character with a little more than just vengeance and pride on his mind as he is forced to ask himself some questions when the Byrdes’ arrive in town.
Bill Dubuque’s TV scriptwriting debut is generally depressive in tone with upbeat moments few and far between. Not that a show with such high stakes requires a musical number as a pick-me-up, but the relentless stress, depression and often terror can occasionally be wearing. You will, however, want to persevere to find out what is going to happen to the Byrdes and this is largely down to the believable and raw performance of Jason Bateman as a father and husband who is broken and desperate yet determined. Laura Linney, too, puts in a moving and, at times, humorous performance as Wendy, a mother who does not want to beat about the bush with her kids and who will lose the plot if she hears one more country song on the radio.
There are moments during Ozark’s early episodes where you may wish you had purchased ‘Money Laundering for Dummies’ to keep up with Marty’s illegal exploits, with an explanation of what is going on coming a little too late for some of the early money washing action. You will, however, understand more of what is going on if you were a fan of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, a show that you cannot help but think about whilst drug deals and the laundering of millions of dollars take place in this one quiet spot in Missouri. Rightly or wrongly, Ozark will undoubtedly be compared to Breaking Bad, not only because it also follows the actions of a family man trying to protect his wife and two children from the drug lords but also because of the striking similarity of some of its visuals. I’m sure you remember the floating eyeball.
Ozark is a must-watch for crime drama fans, although the strength of the central performances will likely attract and hold the attention of Netflix subscribers who have yet to step into gang land territory. Whilst Ozark does at times take the platform format for granted (if you want to ensure people keep watching for 10 hours you might want to throw in a few more cliffhangers), it offers an intriguing narrative that expertly intertwines the lives of numerous characters. It’s a step into a world where trouble is inescapable, the innocent are inevitably dragged down and no one is to be trusted. Oh, and don’t call the hillbillies ‘rednecks’.