I think Breaking Bad is one of the greatest TV shows ever made. As dark as the show became and as Walter White descended further into evil, the show nevertheless had a strong hold on the viewer. It did quite an amazing feat in that you understood that Walter was clearly in the moral wrong, but you never stopped rooting for him to somehow turn it around.
I bring this up, because I think perhaps Breaking Bad set the bar too high.
Ozark is a Netflix series that recently released its third season. What intrigued me most about the show most was the unusually high number of people who compared this show to Breaking Bad. With the lockdown in place, my wife and I decided to give it a try.
What I found was that Ozark was not the next Breaking Bad. It was the new Sopranos. And for me, that is not necessarily a compliment.
Ozark focuses on the Byrde family. The father, Marty (Jason Bateman), is a money manager who launders money for the 2nd largest drug cartel in Mexico. When he and his business partner run afoul of that cartel, Marty makes a desperate bid to save his life and life of his family: let them go to the lake of the Ozark and set up multi-million dollar laundering network. His cartel handler Del (Esai Morales) knows Marty's skills and is intrigued enough to let him start this venture on a probationary basis. But if he does not meet the cartel's expectation, his entire family dies.
On top of this, Marty has learned that his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) has been having an affair. Saving her life is more of a calculation to keep their family intact. Wendy, knowing already of Marty's life, becomes his default business partner. They have to then uproot their children from their current life. Teenager Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) is understandably upset and middle-schooler Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) takes his confusion out in strange ways. Once in the Ozark, things immediately derail from the plan. For reasons I won't get into here, Marty's life becomes intwined with the non-juvenile teen criminal Ruth (Julia Garner) and her family. Ruth is cunning, though lacking in book-smarts. She alternately is an aid and an obstacle to the Byrd's goals.
The acting on this show is fantastic. This is some of the best work Bateman has done, all the while he keeps everything very restrained. Linney also does a great job, overwhelmed by the state of her family's survival while continuing a loveless marriage. Garner is a real standout as Ruth, allowing her to play the contradictions of youth and innocence with sin and cynicism. The writing is also very sharp, allowing a great deal of subtext laying on the table for the audience to pick up, causing us to be more actively involved in the story. And the directing has been consistently strong, using powerful visuals to draw us in while maintaining the show's bleak tone.
However, this is where the show's similarity to The Sopranos becomes its biggest detriment. I watched the first two full seasons of The Sopranos and then began the third. But a switch went off in my head and I dropped the show cold. The epiphany I came to was this: "All of these characters are terrible and spending time wallowing in their evil is incredibly unpleasant."
That is how I feel about Ozark.
Where Breaking Bad spoiled me is that there was this wonderful moral tension in the show where you didn't want Walt to get caught, but you also didn't want him to get away with it. For a good portion of the show, it always felt like Walt's redemption could be just around the corner. A few choices and he could drink the wholesome, but bitter cup of justice. But you never get that sense from the Byrd family.
Marty fancies himself as, if not a good man, at least not an evil man. He is a pure pragmatist who does what he can to achieve his goal. But there is no sense that he wrestles with the moral implication of what he is doing. Wendy also is morally bankrupt. At least Walter White could feel his soul slipping from his hands. Marty and Wendy are already soulless. Yes, they try to avoid hurting people unnecessarily. But even that is not an impediment to their self-preservation.
This plays out most clearly in the story of Mason the preacher. I will not spoil what happens, but this very sincere and earnest Christian is caught up in Marty's schemes with tragic consequences. I don't mind that bad thing happen to good people in fictional stories. This only serves to enforce their realism. But the whole series feels very Godless and Christless. Life in Ozark is but a walking shadow, with no sense of deeper meaning or transcendence. With the exception of Ruth, most of the characters simply descend deeper and deeper into the abyss. In fact, in the third season, Wendy does something that is Walter-White-level evil. She emotionally distraught by this choice, but it feels so hollow, like a self-indulgent expulsion of emotion without any moral insight.
After three seasons, I think I am done with Ozark. The souls of the characters continue to circle the path to destruction without reaching out for any kind of redemption. Unless something radically changes, I don't think I can stare into that abyss any more.