Ozark, although not quite in the same league as Breaking Bad, does pretty well in the edge of your seat/well that was something of a shock stakes.
Season one jumps straight in with a voice-over of Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) giving us his thoughts on what money actually is, whilst hiding a huge stack of it. And then it turns us around and shows us that this somewhat philosophical speech is actually a sales pitch that he is giving to potential clients, straightaway suggesting that this is a show that will play dirty, that will show us things that aren’t quite what they at first seem to be.
Episode one quickly establishes that Marty is unhappy in his life, that his wife is cheating on him, and that his business partner has lavish tastes compared with Marty’s frugality. And then just 16 minutes in it hits us with a little menace and then – BLAM! – suddenly four murders, as Marty realises that his wife isn’t the only one cheating, and that he is in way over his head. Because Marty has been laundering money for a drug cartel. And it’s only his desperation and the ability to think on his feet (or his knees) that saves his life and sees him moving to the Ozarks where his challenge is to launder $500 million in five years (which is possibly also the span of time that series hopes to run for).
Ozark is of necessity a plot-driven drama, full of genuinely unexpected twists and turns. But hand in hand with plot, in order to create a compelling piece of television, goes character. Perpetually stressed-out Marty; the Byrdes’ strange tenant, Buddy (Harris Yulin); dangerous and unpredictable cartel contact Del Rio (Esai Morales); criminal Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner); undercover FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner): these are all fairly complex characters. And what’s fascinating about them is that Ozark doesn’t make the mistake of setting up the good guys and the bad guys for us; it’s not as simple as that.
Marty and his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) are the protagonists, and we’re supposed to be rooting for them, but we know from almost the start that they’re no angels. And Roy Petty, representing the law of the land, heartlessly uses Russ Langmore (Marc Menchaca) to get to Marty: an act of manipulation that ultimately leads to Russ’ death. These people, and the rest of the characters, might not be wholly good, but somehow they are likeable, and we do invest in them. In fact, it’s hard to know just who to root for, as the plot flips back and forth, intentions criss-cross, and betrayals pile up.
By the end of season one we’ve actually lost some of the major players. Russ and his brother Boyd are horribly dead. Del Rio is shockingly dead. Roy seems to have lost his mind somewhat. But Wendy and the kids have made a last second decision not to take the new identities that they’ve been offered, and flee to new lives, but to turn around and go back to Marty, risking their lives to stay together as a family.
Season two looks as though it will just get darker in tone and more tortuous in its plot, as the stakes increase for the Byrde family. With its moody scenery, disturbing characters, and escalating levels of crime, Season Two has every opportunity to get it right once again.
Ozark Season 2 premieres on Netflix on August 31st. Let us know what you think of Season One!