Ozark: Netflix's New Flagship Crime Drama-Thriller?

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In Season Two, Ozark begins to establish itself as a gripping crime drama-thriller in its own right. I recommended the first season as “solid second-tier TV,” highlighting several forerunners of and possible influences on Ozark, particularly Netflix’s other recent and successful crime drama-thrillers, Narcos and Bloodline. I noted the fondness of both Ozark and Narcos for explanatory montages, and the interest of both Ozark and Bloodline in studying the development of characters and family dynamics under extreme pressure—deploying narrative turns like the cuts of a vivisectionist’s scalpel in order to lay bare the ticking minds, moral justifications, and survival instincts of their characters. However, I failed to mention the other obvious precursor: Breaking Bad. Jason Bateman’s Marty Byrd, the brainy, determined, yet emotionally-distant father obsessed with his status as provider for and protector of his family, bears broad similarities to Walter White.

In addition to both shows’ interest in the male provider/protector figure (particularly in their first seasons), Breaking Bad exerts some influence on the show’s form and narrative (or at least offers a striking point of comparison). For example, the complex narrative twists and expansions of Ozark bear resemblance to the tangled, electric wiring of Breaking Bad, showing how a family in the drug business is forced—or chooses—to take increasingly drastic measures to stay in the game and stay alive. The new survival plans and moral justifications they hatch each episode keeps the show’s momentum humming, although the pace of Ozark is more like that of a boat relentlessly approaching a shoreline, while Breaking Bad is a screeching meth van making donuts in a parking lot.  

Likewise, Ozark likes to play with narration at the start of the episode, and it often does so in a way reminiscent of Breaking Bad. In one episode we watch Marty looking silent while Wendy talks and, based on the previous episode, we assume a certain reason for this (that someone close has ratted him out). But by the end of the episode it’s something else, and worse (someone has been killed). Another episode’s prologue works backward from a character’s overdose, in timeframes of 30 minutes,1 day, 2 days, etc., all before the episode’s title card. And like Breaking Bad, the message isn’t particularly subtle: it’s about the interconnected effects and consequences of drugs and the distribution chain—“choices,” in Marty’s words. That sort of flamboyant pre-title mini-episode gives the show flair amidst its dour tone and darkened cinematographic palette. (Ozark tries to outdo Coppola’s famous effort to turn off lights and have his characters work in the shadows in The Godfather; my wife and I are always asking each other, “Why doesn’t anyone work with a light on?”)

However, with Season Two, some of the show’s interests shift in different directions. One dominant shift is away from the father, Marty, and towards mothers and maternal figures, namely Marty’s wife, Wendy (Laura Linney); his white-trash assistant with white-hot intensity and born smarts, Ruth (Julia Garner), who takes care of her now-fatherless cousins; and Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery), one side of the powerful hillbilly couple that Marty has to negotiate with in order to build his casino in the Ozarks for the cartel (and who desires a baby to “mold as her own”). In Season Two, women take over and assert themselves over their male partners. We are introduced to a cartel lawyer, Helen (Janet McTeer). Tall, cold, restrained, imposing, with shorter hair worn slicked backward, she’s a foil in the season, a character who functions as a point of comparison to the other principle women: to Wendy’s warm, motherly veneer, to Darleen’s rigid, implacable fury, to Ruth’s unformed talent and raw emotions.

Although of smaller importance, the title cards continue to intrigue me. Each episode features an expanding white-on-black “O” (for Ozark) with a cross that quarters the circle, and in each quarter of the O appears a clue to what the episode has to offer. There’s something both curiosity piquing and unnerving about the little graphics. It’s a small touch, yet another example of how Ozark gets most of the details right, lending the show overall strength and solidity.

Ozark still frequently operates within the shadow of other shows, but with Season Two it does a better job of exerting more of its own unique touches. While the season never blew me away, all of its components are so in order that the show deserves more than faint praise. With Bloodline finished and the new Narcos: Mexico soon to come out, Ozark should be considered Netflix’s flagship drama-thriller of the moment.

Ozark (2018, Netflix)

Created by Bill Dubuque & Mark Williams; Season Two starring Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner, Julia Garner, Jason Butler Harner, Peter Mullan, Lisa Emery, Jordana Spiro, Charlie Tahan, and Janet McTeer.