At first glance, Netflix’s Ozark seems like a prime example of what might be called late quality television – a movement that arguably started with AMC’s Low Winter Sun, and that doubles down on the heightened father figures and anxieties of nuclear family stability that animated quality television at its height. For one thing, Ozark is clearly modelled, to some extent, on Breaking Bad, revolving around a family who are forced to immediately relocate from Chicago to the Lake of the Ozarks after patriarch Marty Byrd (Jason Bateman) and his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) find themselves forced to launder five million dollars for a Mexican drug cartel after a business venture goes wrong. For another thing, the series is suffused with a moody, gloomy palette that’s immediately apparent from even the most cursory glance at the trailers or promotional material – a palette that in an older kind of series might have betokened a blue-green filter, but that’s somehow too steely and metallic for that designation here, as well as too inextricable from the world it’s mediating – almost an emanation of that world – to be reduced to a mere filtration device. Finally, the series as a whole is peppered with what might be described as a tendency towards precarity aphorisms, as if prescient that aphoristic discourse is the only affirmation of nuclear family life that the decline of the American white middle class allows any more. As we move from one tableau of downward mobility to another, we’re greeted with one latter-day, pithy observation after another (“I want our old life back” “It doesn’t exist any more”), intercut with flashbacks – and an entire flashback episode – to better times for the family, most of which turn on Wendy’s admin work on Barack Obama’s Second State Legislature campaign.
Yet while Ozark may be modelled on Breaking Bad – especially in its later stages, when money laundering tips over into drug dealing – there are also some pretty big departures as well, big enough for this to almost play as an irreverent and quizzical riff on late quality television at the same time that it consummates and exhausts it. For one thing, Marty tells his wife and kids – Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) – about their reasons for moving to the Lake almost immediately, meaning that we’re not exposed to the suspenseful and sustained question of when the family will finally discover his “true” nature. For another thing, the FBI are onto Marty and Wendy from the outset, with a pair of federal agents – Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner) and his partner Trevor Evans (McKinley Belcher III) – following the Byrds to the Lake immediately, and setting up watch outside their house. At the same time, Marty is displaced somewhat from the centre of his story by the vast array of characters he meets once he arrives in rural Missouri, but especially by two families – the Snells, who control drug production and organised crime in the area, and the Langmores, a working-class crew of petty criminals led by nineteen-year old Ruth, in a show-stealing performances from Julia Garner. As if that displacement of patriarchal authority wasn’t emphatic enough, the series also orchestrates a series of slyly queer alliances, from the surprise revelation that Petty and Evans were once romantic as well as professional partners, to Petty’s realisation – before anyone else around him – that the gruffest and burliest member of the Langmore clan is queer, and that he can use this to his advantage.
In other words, Marty isn’t at the centre of his story in quite the same way as Walter White, Tony Soprano or Don Draper, and yet that fact in itself probably wouldn’t be enough to distinguish Ozark from more recent late quality television. Interestingly, and ironically, it’s Bateman’s performance that does that, albeit his performance of a very particular and minor form of masculinity that he has perfected over his career – namely, the masculinity of managerialism, and of adopting a managerial approach to professional and familial crisis. Over the course of Bateman’s career, the dramatic and comic aspects of that role have converged into a finely-wrought dramedic persona that imbues even his most serious parts with an air of absurdity, and his most comic parts with an earnest sense of exasperation and frustration. Never has that combination been put to better use than it is here, however, since from the outset it’s clear that the only asset Marty can fall back upon is his managerialism, and the note of paternal assurance that goes along with it, resulting in a series of opening tableaux in which he effectively uses his Dad Voice – all he has left of his claims to fatherhood – to get out of a series of increasingly high pressured confrontations.
On paper that might sound funny, and for the first couple of episodes it does almost teeter Ozark in the direction of a bleak comedy. To its credit, though, the series doesn’t quite stick with this level of absurdity, indulging it enough in these opening scenes to ensure that the narrative that follows can never quite inhabit the heightened seriousness and sententiousness of late quality television, as Bateman’s performance in the first episode – and direction of the first episode – effectively turns the series awry from what it could so easily have been. While Ozark may never quite gel into a comedy, then – even in its opening episodes – Bateman’s presence nevertheless prevents it becoming lugubrious either, as he exudes a sly irreverence – a certain distance from the tropes of late quality television – that cut through the drabness and dourness to produce something close to a late riff on Arrested Development, since the premise of the two series is not really all that different. His voice, in particular, plays as both a comic exhaustion and capitulation of the auteurist commands of Walter White, Tony Soprano and Don Draper, as his continual pitching of ideas and management schemes gradually comes to feel like a parodic pitch for late quality television itself, as well as a timely counterpoint to the intensely self-seriousness register of Bloodline, the Netflix release that most encapsulates this aesthetic, particularly in its second season.
In the process, Bateman’s presence imbues the series with a surprising dynamism, as the action moves between the land and the Lake in a seamless and elegant manner, with many of the key scenes converging on jetties, piers, bowsers and other infrastructure set at the juncture between water and woods. One particularly inspired plot twist focuses on a local pastor’s decision to move his “church” from the lake to the shore, and the unwitting consequences that ensure when it emerges that the Snells have been using his floating congregation to distribute their product. Once again, that interpenetration of land and water recalls Bloodline, and its depiction of the Florida Keys, but part of the quizzical irreverence of Ozark stems from its greater scepticism about the ability to wrest a regionalist texture – so precious to quality television – from its looming, gloomy palette. No doubt, the Lake exudes a mythic quality that allows it to burn off some of that blue-green saturation, with the action settling into an almost naturalistic palette about halfway through. No doubt, too, the palette doesn’t hamper the beauty and sublimity of the series’ location shots, which exploit the high definition possibilities of Netflix more spectacularly than any other series I’ve seen, especially in the delicate depictions of wind through foliage.
Nevertheless, the Lake is never fully “regionalised” or turned into the public regional sphere so important to quality television, partly because it is quite unique amongst American lakes of its size in having barely any public access to the foreshore. That fact comes through in the series in a very emphatic way, which presents the Lake itself as the only genuinely public space in the area – and even then under threat – and frames the regionalist texture that is laid over it as a fantasy concoted purely for the benefit of wealthy summer tourists, who drive most of the region’s economy. The apparently ecumenical regionalist texture of quality television is therefore embedded, here, in a sharp class distinction – between those who live at the Lake, and those who arrive for the season – with much of the confusion around the Byrds (and their own confusion) stemming from which class they belong to. On the one end, they’re alive to seasonal fluctuations, but on the one hand they’re not exactly seasonal themselves, or at least not there for the season in a conventional way. In fact, they have been instructed to have the money laundered by the end of the summer, which they insist is different from the end of the season – and the tensile, shifting space between those two timeframes drive the later part of the season. It’s a striking and bold decision, then, that the screenwriters choose to put the peak of the summer season halfway through the series, rather than at the end, since it ensures that the Lake isn’t primarily defined by summer viewers, or seen through the eyes of summer viewers, so much as by way of the trash and detritus they leave behind, in what often feels like an allegory for the damages that quality “regionalism” leave on actual regional communities. At the same time, the lack of a climactic summer is also part of what ensures that the blue-green palette never quite burns off, intensifying and returning to its opening moodiness by the final, eighty-minute episode.
That episode brilliantly embeds the disparate locations of the drama back into the wider connective tissue of the Lake, and the Lake itself back into the wider connective tissue of the Missouri watershed. For one thing, we see the approach to many of the key spaces in the film from the road for the first time, rather than approaching them by water. For another thing, Marty realises that a stream within the Snell property flows west, not east, meaning that it’s a branch of the Missouri, rather than a tributary, and so a viable and legal location for a riverboat casino if the family are prepared to flood the valley around it. While those shifts in perception make more sense in the context of the series, they’re all part of a movement back towards the cold, saturated palette of the opening episodes, as the focus on hydrology, the accumulate laundering of money, and the situation of the lake back in a broader topographical and criminal landscape that insists on its proximity to Chicago, all combine to remove whatever fantasies of regionalist exception were still residual in the series’ late quality address to begin with. As we return to the dimly lit opening, it becomes clearer than ever that Ozark’s power lies in its inability – or refusal – to ever satisfactorily wrest a regionalist idiom or palette from those steely, grey, homogenizing colour schemes.
No surprise, then, that the most sadistic, stock and contrived characters, and the characters who most resemble caricatures of quality television archetypes – the Snells – are the ones who remain the most defiantly insistent on this regionalist texture. In these final scenes, it becomes clear that their ultimate aim isn’t drug trafficking, or criminal hegemony, but simply – and eventually – to purchase enough land and gain enough political clout to oust the electrical company that flooded their family home to create the Lake of the Ozarks in the first place. Buying up acre after acre, they often feel like a synecdoche for quality television’s desperate efforts to retain its purchasing power over whatever comes beyond it, which is perhaps why they feel like the most old-fashioned part of the series and the closest it comes to a diluted version of Breaking Bad, while always remaining somewhat incongruous with the rest of the characters, even or especially at their moments of maximal contact with them. Yet that incongruity also imbues them with the power to rupture and shape the series in drastic and unexpected ways too, as quality television becomes a kind of return of the repressed – most notably in the final sequence, in which they destroy all Marty’s best-laid and immaculately improvised plans of a Mexican-Missouran criminal cartel by shooting the cartel representation right in the face after he refers to them as “rednecks.”
In other words, Marty’s final antagonists are descendents of the “quality” model of aggressive, expansionist and all-conquering nuclear fatherhood, along with the regionalist texture that goes with it. If the Lake of the Ozarks is primarily private property, then the Snells long to consolidate it into one private property – their own – and run it as an oligarchical extension of their own family property and pride. That all culminates with their final gesture of dominance, and the eeriest and most enduring image of the film, based on a threat they make, midway through, to the pastor, that they will cut his wife’s baby out of her belly if he refuses to go back and preach on the water. Sure enough, after refusing, in the final episode, he returns home to find his newborn son awaiting him on his kitchen table. In some ways, it’s a vista of almost idyllic domestic tranquility, but the disappearance of his wife – whose body we never see, and whose exact fate we never learn – turns the very rarefication of that atmosphere into a seismograph for unbearable and unthinkable violence. In that image – a paternal relationship entirely abstracted from any other surrogate or support – lies the series’ trenchant and unsettling critique of quality television, and it’s fascinating to consider how it will continue to engage with this in it second season.