The final episodes of the greatest drama on streaming television dropped recently.
Ozark, a dark and coldly pessimistic crime thriller about a money laundering man and his upper class family, is a prime example of what a television show can become with proper artistic direction, tight screenwriting, and an extremely talented cast, along with a constantly agonizing sense of dread and urgency propelling you from one episode to the next. With these ingredients expertly mixed, a show can become a cultural force that leaves millions of fans wanting more. Ozark has done that over the last few years by giving us a decidedly dark and addictive drama in the same vein of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. Antiheroes and villainous psychopaths abound in this series, as well as smart and sympathetic characters who get caught up in a terrifying world of international drug cartels and vicious FBI informants. The stellar performances given by Jason Bateman and Laura Linney as Marty and Wendy Byrde, a money laundering couple willing to go to extreme lengths to keep their family safe and their lives intact, grab you from the very (violent) beginning. And with a breakout performance by Julie Garner as the pint-sized, foulmouthed Ruth Langmore, a girl who knows she’s capable of making her own way in the world and has everything to gain and not much to lose (despite the “Langmore Curse” looming over her dysfunctional family), Ozark is pretty much a pitch perfect (and “binge worthy”?) tv show.
It’s not too often that tone, style, story, and performances all mesh together so flawlessly in a movie or tv show, much less across 4 full length seasons (Pretty much the only show I can meaningfully relate Ozark to is Breaking Bad, or possibly The Sopranos). Some crime-based dramas can pull off dark and brooding undertones and dramatically nihilistic views competently without alienating the audience, all while showing us flawed characters we can sympathize with. Ozark does all this and more. This is a show that seems to be built on the suffering of fallen humanity, grounded in realism, and set against the backdrop of a very gray and gothic middle America.
As a side note, I personally have never lived in the midwest, and I don’t consider myself “well traveled”, but I also do not have a great desire to see the beautiful lakes of the Ozarks after watching this series. Sincerest apologies to the Missouri Division of Tourism.
Regardless, Ozark skillfully portrays low income life in the Midwest and exactly what people with nothing to lose are willing to do to survive, and contrasts that with opulently wealthy and unbelievably brutal cartel gangsters battling for supremacy in a drug fueled world of crime. Again, similar to Breaking Bad, the show has its highly intelligent and cunningly calculating protagonist driving the plot (and always finding creative ways to keep his own world from imploding), as well as the equally compelling sidekick protégé who is introduced to and then trapped inside of the world of high stakes crime lords, drugs, and so, sooo much dirty cash.
Ruth, our favorite 102 pound hillbilly hustler, gets caught in the middle of the drama and is forced to make weighty decisions about her family, with extreme consequences. Julie Garner is so incredibly magnetic, so nuanced, and so wonderfully blunt, that every heavy moment we share with Ruth feels genuine and powerful. She speaks like a pissed off sailor and is pragmatic, but she also wants to do right by her family, and doesn’t have anyone or anything to depend upon in life besides herself. “Self made woman” doesn’t begin to describe her. Her character (and the characters of her close knit younger cousins) is a stark reminder of just how lost and desperate the younger generation can be, despite their best efforts, in a system that seems destined to fail them time and time again. Ruth fights at every turn, desperately trying to pull herself out of the generational poverty and crime that curses her family. And it seems like a losing battle every time. It’s not always fun to watch, but her determined spirit helps contrast the dull gray apathy of almost everyone else around her. She’s truly trapped in a cycle of misery, and her character knows it well.
We know that art isn’t reality, but it does reflect reality in very serious ways. Ozark holds up the mirror in distinctly dramatic fashion by showing us what we often refuse to look at if we ignore or discount those below us economically and socially. While there is, admittedly, a majority of white midwesterners represented (welcome to rural Missouri, y’all), it’s somewhat heartrending to see the cycle of poverty and generational stagnation play out in the lives of Ruth and her cousins. I connected with the Langmore clan because I’m close in age to their generation, and because, even though I grew up middle class, I recognize the deep trauma that comes along with surviving financially, emotionally, and even mentally unstable times. Poverty can wreck entire bloodlines, and sometimes has nothing to do with laziness or inability (but sometimes does). Abuse and environmental pressures often get the best of lower class families, and when cash gets tighter it’s easy for values to get looser. Crime and poverty go tragically hand in hand. Ozark doesn’t shy away from showing the depressing underbelly of American poverty and the failure of “The American Dream” in these communities.
So, the old adage rings true for our little Ruth; you grow up fast when you grow up poor.
And wow, does she grow in this series.
In contrast, the Byrd family is upper class, white, and conveniently morally apathetic, all thanks to the high crime cartel money laundering their father does full time (the healthcare benefits must be amazing!). Marty knows how to negotiate, manipulate, and politic his way out of many situations, and he’s able to do it with surprisingly little violence. That’s what makes him so relatable and, in some respects, so admirable; he doesn’t threaten and rough up his enemies, at least not regularly (contrast that with the murderous Tony Soprano, or the coldly degenerate pragmatism of Walter White). Ozark does not incessantly revert to shocking violence in order to get its themes across, even when someone has to die in order to keep us all coming back to see how our characters will get out of this one (classic, but not a stale technique… yet).
So, that’s a lot of boxes checked for a good television drama: great writing, amazing casting, unmatched acting, exciting storytelling, likable characters, and memorable cliffhangers. Netflix is no stranger to creating and maintaining hit after hit of long form movies and series. What makes Ozark unique, however, is that it’s not trying to make itself into a national phenomenon (à la The Walking Dead, which needed to be less walking and more dead years ago). So far there are no spin offs planned, and no continuation of a series that is growing stale. The final episodes of season 4 just dropped on April 29, and allegedly the show is ending for good. That’s good news, especially when many mainstream successful shows (and even shows with cult followings) too often get elongated for greedy financial gains, when the story should have ended well before the 14th season.
Don’t put a cash cow out to pasture, or something like that?
That’s what made Breaking Bad (yes I keep harping on this show GET OVER IT) not only a good series—with a definite beginning, middle, and end—but helped it become accepted as one of the greatest television shows in history. Netflix capitalized on Breaking Bad’s success by creating El Camino, a knock off film following the continuing adventures of fan favorite character Jesse Pinkman, giving the character some bittersweet closure. In my opinion, El Camino enhanced the already amazing final chapter of Breaking Bad, and never felt like a pointless cash grab. Another win for the media millionaires at Netflix.
I truly hope Ozark withstands the test of time and goes on to be known as a slow-burning masterpiece that can remain available to anyone with access to a Netflix account. It’s worth getting into, and provides action, suspense, drama, crime, and thrills to anyone brave enough to stomach the gothic midwestern tone of this TV gem. Ozark is not peppered with many laughs, but it doesn’t need to rely on poorly timed humor to stand on its own as an all around fantastic television program. If it sounds like something you’d enjoy, please try it, and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
If not, no worries- there’s always Is It Cake!
(I’m being serious. That’s a great show. It’s so entertaining, and always makes me want cake.)
DISCLAIMER: If you’ve read this far, I’m thankful for your interest in what I have to say about Ozark! Please be aware that this TV show contains harsh violence, language, and sexual content. I do not recommend watching this around anyone who may be sensitive to this type of serious content.