I don’t recommend you watch the Netflix series Ozark (2017–2022), so I don’t apologize for spoiling the ending. I do apologize, a little, for getting hooked on this bloody, raunchy, foul-mouthed but fascinating drama.
Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) Byrde and their children live in Chicago, where Marty launders money for a Mexican drug dealer. When the drug lord dissolves his partner in a barrel of acid and threatens to kill Marty, the Byrdes hastily move their family to the Ozarks. A financial advisor and money genius, Marty convinces the Navarro cartel he can launder millions without detection in the Missouri outback. It works. Marty launders through a lakeside bar-and-resort and purchases a funeral home, where he stashes money and incinerates bodies. He funnels cartel funds through a casino he and Wendy launch, aided by the tough, talented petty thief, Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), who lives with an assortment of cousins and uncles in a white-trash suburb of decaying mobile homes.
Every episode throws up fresh obstacles—a family of Ozark heroin dealers who don’t like Mexicans horning in on their ancestral territory, a sociopathic FBI investigator, the Kansas City mafia. The Byrdes bring their two kids into the family business, and their son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) proves his patrimony by setting up his own laundering operation. The Byrdes maintain the appearance of a normal family. They share family dinners and impose curfews. Irony-free Wendy gets upset at Jonah’s money-laundering, aghast that her son would commit felonies under her roof.
All along, they claim they want to go legitimate, but it soon becomes clear Wendy won’t be content with legitimacy. She was a political operative in Chicago who helped Obama win his second Senate race, and she works her old magic among the political heavyweights of the Ozarks. She doesn’t just want to survive and get clean. She wants to become kingmaker of the Midwest, using bribes and threats to control candidates from Michigan to Arkansas.
The body count steadily rises. The plot gets more absurdly complicated. The Byrdes’ house of lies teeters and cracks, but somehow they’re able to luck, kill, lie, pay, or threaten their way out of every jam. Like the Macbeths, they wade into the river of blood so far that it’s easier to keep going than to turn back. Their crimes leave Marty and Wendy morally calloused. They begin to work separately, each trying to undermine the other’s plans, until the next crisis throws them back together. Marty has qualms of conscience, but Wendy is a world-class scapegoater. She never met a criticism or accusation she couldn’t immediately deflect back to the accuser, or dissolve with a reminder that the accuser too has skeletons in the closet. Wendy convinces herself she’s doing everything for the family. I lost count of how many times she said, “We’re so close.” She’s diabolical, a textbook “person of the lie.”
The Byrdes are repeatedly offered different paths. An FBI agent who admires Marty’s accounting skills wants him to help the Feds catch bad guys. At times, the alternative path is a religious one, as “clean” takes on overtly theological connotations. Early on, the Byrdes encounter a preacher who calls them to repent, until Marty blasts the top of his head off. The cartel’s in-house priest (!) tells Wendy she can be purified only by confession and penance, and assures Marty that God’s love is indiscriminate enough to reach even a Marty Byrde. Baptisms figure into several episodes—the ultimate “getting clean.” Wendy’s father Nathan (Richard Thomas) shows up with members of his church to search for his missing bipolar son, Ben, not knowing that Wendy has already delivered her unpredictable brother to a cartel hitman. Nathan is a breath of fresh air until we learn he’s a hypocrite—a drunk and a womanizer.
These hints of redemption kept me binging, hopeful right to the last episode. I didn’t want the Byrdes to get away with it, and I wanted a few of their victims to find justice. (I had the same feeling about the taunting, terrifying Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.) Alas. How gullible could I be? The Ozarks ain’t Scotland, and there’s no Macduff waiting in the wings. Turns out you can keep wading through that river of blood all the way to the other side, and it just doesn’t matter if the damned spot can’t be scrubbed off. Lots of bad people get their deserts, but the world of Ozark is one where sinners cannot be laundered and aren’t judged. Ruth has her juvenile record expunged and tries to break ties with the Byrdes and go straight, only to get sucked back in. Frustrated with his parents’ hypocrisy, Jonah checks out of the family, but he can’t escape either. In the show’s final scene, a PI shows up in the Byrdes’ backyard with evidence to connect them to Ben’s murder. Jonah comes outside with a gun; the screen goes black, and the series ends with a blank screen and the sound of a shot. As the credits roll, we’re left with the deflating realization that the Byrde money-and-murder machine will chug along for another generation.
Just before Jonah shoots, the PI tells the Byrdes they can’t commit crimes with impunity. “You can’t be the Kennedys, or whoever else you want to become. That’s not the way the world works,” he says. To which Wendy replies, with her characteristic mixture of bemusement and cruelty, “Isn’t it?” Ozark knows how dreadful the Byrdes’ world is, but, whatever certain characters may say, the series can’t bring itself to believe in any other.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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Image by Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.