When Skyler White challenged her husband’s secret fun life of crime on Breaking Bad, the backlash to her drove Anna Gunn to write an op-ed in The New York Times. Gunn revealed that a number of disturbing “hate boards” had often conflated her with her character, inspiring some to threaten her personally with violence. Those fans’ hatred of Skyler, expressed online, revealed a dark attachment to Walt and a kind of ludicrous power fantasy of a smart white dude beating the cartels at their own game — how dare the morally grounded Skyler disrupt his plans of murder and drug dealing! But that response had been set up by Breaking Bad’s creators, whose premise pitted the family man against his wife, and that series — groundbreaking as it was — stung with that familiar feeling of latent misogyny. As Skyler turned against Walt, I often wondered: What if the writers had chosen to let the Whites descend (or ascend) into a life of crime together?
Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams’ new Netflix crime series, Ozark, takes the entire family into a criminal enterprise. Marty (Jason Bateman), Wendy (Laura Linney), Charlotte (Sophia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) are the Byrdes, a seemingly charming family living in a Chicago suburb, who quickly get thrust into decision-making mode: Move the family down to the Ozarks and launder money for a cartel kingpin, or die. Unlike Walter White, Marty and Wendy are already comfortably deep in the business when we meet them, but theirs is still a white-collar existence in which guns and murders involve other people. In the Ozarks, they’re suddenly their own muscle. Meanwhile, absolutely nobody trusts these new faces in a town where word travels fast and folks already have their own hustles.
The series suggests Breaking Bad pushed through a Winter’s Bone wringer. What’s that? You haven’t seen the 2010, Debra Granik–directed, Ozarks-set drama that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career, about a young woman trying to keep her family together after her father is murdered by a local meth gang? If you haven’t, you’re missing a chilling distillation of poverty and white supremacy into one compact, award-winning thriller. In the meantime, Ozark portrays the impoverished and working-class whites of the area with empathy and humanity, even as its creators discourage viewers from fetishizeing the characters as a down-home American ideal. Some are criminals, every bit as ruthless as Marty and his bosses, and don’t take kindly to Marty trying to buy up all the cash-only businesses in town to “clean” his boss’s money.
Bateman’s character proves eerily similar to his well-meaning numbskull dad in Arrested Development, but there’s a darker edge to him here. The pilot episode, which Bateman also directed, is a taut nail-biter with pitch-black humor (an element slightly downplayed over the rest of the series). In it, Marty angrily stomps to the front door of Wendy’s lover’s high-rise condo building to confront her for cheating, but stops short when the lover’s body splats on the street in front of him. Marty’s eyes blink as though he’s trying to wake himself up. He stares at the body, looks upward to where it came from, attempts to piece together what the hell just happened. And in the next moment, Ozark cuts to a close-up of a windshield edging close to a hanging tennis ball — you know, the one that tells you when to stop the car in the garage. The tennis ball gets just a little tap; Marty may have watched a dude die on his way home, but he’s still a careful fellow.
That kind of winky visual metaphor courses through the series, offsetting the tough talk, the violence and the harshly colored look. (The show is so blue-gray, it’s like we’re watching these people swimming around a grimy fishbowl, constantly butting up against the sides.) Even though Wendy isn’t the one laundering the money, she’s still in the mix, dealing with the sudden death of her lover, whom she often calls from their Ozarks home, just to hear his outgoing message and chat with his voice mail. Linney subtly shades her character’s weaknesses and strengths, revealing Wendy’s vulnerability while still making damn sure you’d absolutely fear her in confrontation. In one scene, Wendy is driven 90 minutes to a store to buy “organic pistachio ice cream,” only to find it’s not there. She lets loose on the doofus stock boy with a fury on the edge of tears. In another, she helicopters a dead raccoon over her head and tosses it at local teen Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) who once played a joke on her daughter. The madder she gets, the more fun she is to watch.
Holding down the locals’ story lines are two tremendous young actors: Tahan, as Wyatt, and Julia Garner, as Ruth — cousins from the same petty-crime family. The slight Garner gets the role of a lifetime as a trash-talking toughie who at first steals Marty’s money then joins his operation, managing a strip club for him. Ruth has to choose between Marty’s almost fatherly guidance and her imprisoned father’s suggestion that she kill her new boss and take over the business.
Dubuque and Williams most famously made Ben Affleck’s confusing and borderline-offensive autism-as-superpower thriller, The Accountant, which for some reason is getting a sequel. That lackluster film had way too many plot lines for a two-hour flick, but the ambition plays better on television. This sprawling series can accommodate a chaotic style that teases out information over the course of episodes. But this series also reveals the duo’s ability to fully flesh out its female characters. They’re not foiling the fun — they are the fun.