If I have my facts correct Ozark is actually one of the seminal ‘Netflix’ series by which I mean one of the first ongoing series actually produced by Netflix, although in saying that its not exactly held as a flagship or anything so its just an interesting factoid as this stage.
Enough rambling – I’m just going to do a brief spoiler filled summary, to be honest I can’t remember every details and twist and turn but the show is interesting enough to warrant some over-analysis so here goes:
Ozark is interesting is that its obviously heavily inspired from Breaking Bad, in a good way, it kinda watches a bit like a ‘what if’ or kinda takes some key elements and tropes from the Breaking Bad story and spins them its own way. Generally the tone the concept are very similar.
So Ozark starts by introducing Marty Bryde, a sort of depressed middle-aged financial guy who seems to have it ‘all’ but also have ‘nothing’ – by which I mean he has a good job, friends a family however seems joyless and trapped and as we soon learn his wife is cheating on him his colleagues seem to be full of joy and ambitious and Marty just frowns.
Anyways – very quickly we learn that Marty’s firm is not only laundering money for a cartel but his colleagues and friends have been skimming. Abruptly Marty sees his lifelong friends murdered in front of him, and only through some desperate quick thinking Marty convinces the Cartel guy to spare his life as he has a great idea to launder money in said ‘Ozarks.’ Marty is challenged to launder an inordinate amount of millions in a ridiculously short space of time to spare his and his family’s life.
Just a quick symbolic aside just before Marty is almost killed he flashes back to a scene where he plays with his younger children and wife an idyllic scene. I mention this moment as this perspective doesn’t really appear again in the show which I will mention in discussing the end.
So the rest of Season 1 is a darkly almost slapstick crime drama where Marty tries to build his laundering scheme and finds himself embroiled in the local crime scene, both street-level AND massive heroin dealers already operating. I say slapstick as there is a lot of humour but my gosh some of the events of this show are dark AF. Marty also of course tries to balance keeping his family around and safe, informed to some extent – another thematic thread is his son Jonah appears to have some sort of psychopathic tendencies developing.
The Season comes to a surprise climax where Marty against all odds manages to broker a deal between the Mexican Cartel and the local dealers, only for the locals to kill several cartel members over perceived rudeness.
Seasons 2-3 carry on the story and the theme shifts a little. As Wendy Bryde gets more involved with the business a political angle comes to forefront and Wendy begins to show a ruthless streak and more aptitude than Marty at illegal activity. By now the FBI are involved and almost everyone is plotting against everyone else. One climatic point is that Wendy’s brother Ben is introduced, he’s almost universally liked however has Bipolar disorder, and struggles to manage his impulses. As he learns more about the illegal activities Wendy makes the decision that he needs to die to protect everyone’s interests.
As Season 4 begins the Bryde’s are tasked with getting the head of their cartel ‘out’ and against all odds the first half of the season deals with the Bryde’s successfully negotiating a deal to make this happen, however this is highjacked by an ambitious and annoyed FBI agent who arrests the Cartel Leader despite the plan.
By the time the 2nd half of Season 4 comes about the Bryde’s have become or are becoming considerably wealth and politically powerful as their cartel connections make them rich, like their political playing builds their power. The tension of the last part of the season is really about lining up all their pieces to finally get the “Bryde Foundation” running, the drug dealers docile, the FBI non-litigious, but the major tension ends up being Wendy’s father arriving and deciding to leave with the children. This affront creates a bizarre sequence within Wendy where she pulls an awful lot of moves to prevent this happening either cementing herself as a complete manipulator OR highlighting just how bad her father really is.
I have to admit I found this sequence fascinating in story-telling – we know that Wendy is pretty ruthless but a major theme of the last season is that her ambitious appear to be getting out of control. So when Grandad plans to take the kids (with their agreement mind) the initial though is fair enough, after all. This thought only accelerates as we see Wendy go to extremes to manipulate the children into staying. However as the story progresses we start to see the real character of her father, a mean drunk, misogynist, cheat, who physically beat Wendy severely in her childhood. The only reason he wants to take the grandchildren is to punish and humiliate Wendy.
The reason I say this part of the story was deft, is its pretty hard to justify how Wendy is the ‘good-guy’ here yet somehow through revelation of Grandad’s character we feel empathetic.
As the story progresses we see the Bryde’s get almost everything they want, the ‘legit’ foundation takes off, the cartel are relatively satisfied however still slaughter a few more characters before the end, a consequence the Bryde’s simply decide to weather.
Finally the show ends on a surprise twist. After spending the season unhappy with his parents and estranged, Jonah comes to their rescue blowing away one final obstacle, a PI who tries to threaten the Bryde’s with exposure. Just to back-track a little the significance of this is that Jonah had been shown to be developing tendencies but up until that point not engaged in any violence.
So to summarize that – the Bryde’s start off desperate and mostly broke, and emerge ridiculously rich and powerful, almost everyone around them has been killed or had their lives ruined, they are likely to get away with it all and it looks like their formerly innocent children are going to head in the same direction.
So what does it all mean?
Hmmm, so I have to confess the first thing that this was kinda what ran through my head when this series ended. Most endings have at least on some level a basic theme to their ending, for example Breaking Bad ended with Walt dying among the apparatus which had both given his life meaning but also ruined its and other’s. Son’s of Anarchy ending with inevitable Shakespearean tragedy.
Ozark’s ending actually has a lot going on other than just contrived plot threads being shoved into an ending. For example, the Bryde’s decision to simply bear their friends death, Wendy’s decision to oust a corrupt politician from their circle (this is depicted as a bizarre moral line at election fraud but I think is more about similarities of the politician to Wendy’s father). The fact that Jonah is the one that stands in to make the final murder.
My point is – what is the point :D. Flicking through online there are quite a few ideas, some are saying that the Bryde’s represent “real life” in that corrupt evil sometimes wins, others have suggested that underneath the carnage their are messages about sticking with family, being driven and single minded.
But I have a stranger take. Ozark is about good and evil across generations, and what Marty does or doesn’t do about it. Obviously good and bad choices are a massive part of the context, particularly every episode is about characters making choices and the implications of them. However if we examine the characters we see almost all characters enmeshed in generation harm. Wendy and Ruth become the most obvious examples – Ruth pretty much the entire series, but as mentioned Wendy becomes intensely an example of this with her father being more revealed.
To explain further, in the beginning we see Marty thinking of the love he has for his family and reactively dealing with the cartel to save himself. At first the plot has the sense of a man doing what he has to, to survive and protect his family, and as mentioned this shifts to ambition. Another telling scene is where the cartel boss tells Marty that he sees Marty “wants to win” this tells us that Marty doesn’t just want to protect himself and family (which partially explains how he fell into laundering in the first place).
So while the plot appears to be Wendy taking over and becoming the more ‘evil’ Bryde and Marty just kinda gets side-lined I see the story as more like a “two wolves” analogy where Marty lets his ambitious wolf take over (it just so happens his ambitious wolf is represented by IRL Wendy). He makes half-ass attempts to do ‘good’ but ultimately goes along with the ‘evil.’
It’s odd to me that most of the other characters get a lot of family development whereas Marty is somewhat of a blank slate, it does kinda make the message that the strength of intergenerational abuse is almost invincible, especially ending on the note of Jonah shooting the final obstacle. Both Wendy and Marty look immensely proud of their son as he does this, Jonah himself closes both eyes before pulling the trigger which speaks to themes of darkness, giving up on goodness and so forth.
In conclusion I think the theme of Ozark is a bit of a bait and switch, we’re introduced to a story about a relatable, but in a terrible spot character, who keeps having to do Wrong to get Right and where will this lead? But I think as the tale evolves this struggle is bit of a red herring. Over and over again we are presented with messages about family, and impact of parent’s evil deeds on their children. I don’t think the ending is nihilistic because the Bryde’s become successful, I think its nihilistic because the ‘Good’ in Marty is powerless against the tide of evil entrenched in the generations of families we meet. The cartel is endlessly violent with little regard for family bonds, the Langborn family is sadly hopeless in the face of poverty and petty crime, Wendy is damaged by her Father’s abusive treatment. Even a relatively minor character introduced in the last season – the head of a pharmaceutical company whose name escapes me – is in her position as CEO of the family company due to some sort of familial scandal. My points is that the story isn’t really about a singular decision of a flawed man and then what happens, its about family. The final message does feel pretty darn nihilistic though.
I say nihilistic as well because unlike similar tales one feels there isn’t that much opportunity for a better outcome or escape. Yes there were a few parts where Marty or the Bryde’s were offered deals from the FBI, one had the sense that these would not have been particularly safe and would still have left many many people’s lives in a total mess.
We also have the general ‘no good people’ style of story, where very few people in Ozark were classically ‘good’, the FBI are presented as mercantile, ambitious and callously unreliable, local law enforcement both naïve and corrupt. Characters with moral traits are often presented as doofy and foolish, or hypocrites. Our most sympathetic characters were flawed but with some redeeming code such as Ruth.
The ending in my opinion is very unusual in terms of storytelling – as usually doing ‘nothing’ for MCs is a deal-breaker, yet Marty’s decision to do nothing is the face of Wendy’s ambition, Ruth’s death, and finally as his son shoots a man in cold blood sends a more interpretably and interesting message than a more clear-cut storybook ending.
Have you seen the Ozark series – comment your thought’s I’ve be keen to hear them!