When a white-collar, middle-class family gets involved with the dangerous drug cartel, the Breaking Bad and Weeds comparisons don’t just show up—they’re practically mailed a hand-lettered invitation. And it’s true that the premise of Netflix’s Ozark sets us up for yet another steeply angled slide; by now, we expect we’ll witness the awakening of a desperate man’s latent evil. But there are several critical elements at play to keep the drug-dealing anti-hero trope from feeling like a song we’ve heard one too many times. All these elements center on the prevailing ethics of Ozark’s main character, Martin Byrde (Jason Bateman).
Here we see Bateman in a dramatic turn vaguely reminiscent of his most well-known role, as Arrested Development’s Michael Bluth. Martin is a man who wants to be honest, but is willing to lie when he believes his lie to be in the service of the greater good. (In this case, the greater good is his family’s survival). Marty, a financial planner, starts out in the right place at the right time when he stumbles into the opportunity to launder money for—as he endearingly insists on reminding everyone—the second most powerful group of Mexican drug runners. His devotion to “the numbers” and pragmatic, stoic resourcefulness are what make him stand out as a “special” candidate to the cartel’s charismatic (and convincingly terrifying) Chicago liaison, Del (Esai Morales).
Weeds cartwheels toward indecency with a sweet indifference—it’s only marijuana, after all. Breaking Bad dismisses hope as it descends deeper and deeper into darkness. (Makes sense, since Walt’s dealing crystal meth.) But in Ozark, the drugs themselves don’t ever show up and start taking prisoners. (The central drug at play here is cocaine, in case you’re wondering.) Marty handles the evil around him by sorting out the bad guy’s money. Money might lead to evil—and procuring it might be addictive—but we’re all already dealing with money, anyway. Most of us know what money costs. The fruit of this evil is never Marty’s to begin with; and he successfully keeps getting rid of it.
Marty staves off the temptation to skim from his shadow employer for years, while greed overwhelms a lesser man—his business partner, Bruce. Once the money-laundering arrangement with Del becomes corrupted by Bruce, Del lets Marty live, but only on the condition that he immediately pack up his family and relocate to the isolated Ozark mountains, where he’ll set up a new laundering operation. We sense that this arrangement is just an extended form of torment for the Byrdes, and that a more exacting and awful form of revenge may lurk for Marty if he and his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), aren’t able to find a way to succeed at this seemingly impossible assignment.
Ozark’s most prized trait, then, is resourcefulness. The innovative survive, while those lacking creativity perish. Marty is powered by desperation and, well, math, and that doesn’t ever make him very dangerous to other people. But it does give him a surprising mojo. We aren’t watching a Walter White-esque transformation from begrudging victim into damned antagonist. We’re watching a cuckolded accountant find his spine.
The anti-hero canon thus far has been defined by the impulse to set up main characters on a sliding scale of morality. But Ozark is a different world, one where we can engage with evil while keeping our souls intact. It’s not a throw-over toward Gomorrah when we make our first questionable choice. It’s far more complicated. When we strip away polite society and cultural decency, we’re left with the fundamental questions about what it means to be bad. We see Marty address those questions, and he never seems to stumble when he needs to know the answers: Whether it’s a herd of goony Appalachians attempting to blackmail him, or ominous threats from a rival drug ring, Marty remains clear-eyed and self-assured about what he will and won’t do. He’ll frighten, but he won’t kill. He’ll deceive, but he won’t incriminate. He’ll lay out the facts for others, and let them choose what to do for themselves. And though their subsequent actions sometimes do surprise him, they never incite him to a volatile reaction.
By contrast, Weeds’ Nancy Botwin pushes back against ethical dilemmas—whether she can let her older son deal alongside her, or whether she should betray her criminal associates (and romantic entanglements) to escape law enforcement. But that push-back is mostly just a feeble moral performance as Nancy careens further into the chaos of her profession; despite having plenty of points in the series in which she could walk away, she never does. Because Nancy knows she’s better at this than she’s ever been at anything else. Nancy’s wild descent is supposed to be darkly comic, but as she uncovers the grit, nerve and naked ambition that lie beneath her suburban widow persona, the effect is grim. Nancy’s soul is black when it is bared.
At the conclusion of Breaking Bad, too, Walter White is able to admit that the dark tour of humanity he’s been on ever since the pilot episode’s DEA ride-along has been voluntary. It wasn’t necessity, or even greed, that unearthed someone irredeemable. It was the decision to explore and exploit an evil that lurked inside; an evil which, he suspected, could turn a handsome profit. The cost of losing the person Walter White had been in public was negligible. At some point, losing that person became inevitable anyway.
For his part, Marty weighs the personal risks involved with laundering for Del in a flashback episode toward the end of Ozark’s first season. He turns to a younger Wendy with the sly confidence of a man on the brink of a breakthrough. He assures her, “I could be really good at this.” He’s emboldened by the prospect of using his natural talents for a tangible payoff. But he’s not worried for a second that this could be a fatal compromise. He’s not interested in upending his value system. He’s honest with everybody, even his kids, whenever he can be, and this commitment to telling the simple truth becomes a secret weapon. The concept of beating back the evil that surrounds us, rather than surrendering to the evil within, is a significant variation on the anti-hero formula.
The Byrdes’ marriage is a perfect example. Marty takes a calculated (if sometimes exasperating) risk to hinge his future on the loyalty of a woman who already wanted out. She cheats, he discovers it, but he decides not to say anything, procrastinating with a very long cost-benefit analysis of his possible moves. In the interim, Marty has plenty of opportunities to cheat—but instead repeatedly watches a sex tape of Wendy, secretly recorded by the private investigator who uncovered her affair. This stubborn refusal to get revenge on Wendy reveals who Marty is, at his core: a person who’s been robbed of his pride, but not of his standards. He can’t find it in him to be disloyal. Marty’s also smart enough to see that he and Wendy have become tangled in a co-dependent relationship in which he is unable to translate his deep love for his wife into intimacy. He’s pissed, but he’s still able to be fair.
We see Wendy as Marty’s foil, but also, ultimately, as his rescuer. As Marty dives to the bottom of himself, discarding some of his identity in his bid to survive, he’s delighted—and relieved—to find that Wendy is bubbling back up to the surface right back next to him. He’s still the man she married, despite the menacing cartel spy lying in wait in their Missouri driveway. Marty’s commitment is rewarded, and the two reconcile. This is not a triumph of love, but of ethics. We see no such victory in other series of this stripe. By interrupting the momentum of Marty’s descent into the underworld with flickers of decency, loyalty and virtue, hope stays in play.
Marty even functions as a sort of savior for a willfully more rotten younger character. When Ruth (Julia Garner), a vindictive 17-year-old that the local sheriff describes as having “criminal mastermind potential,” is invited into Marty’s fold out of necessity, her murderous intentions toward Marty soften as she watches him deftly combat warring drug lords, a lecherous strip club owner, and her own money-hungry relatives, without ever getting his own hands bloody. (His pressed polo shirts are a different story.) This contrasts with her upbringing, a life of abuse in impoverished circumstances. While stereotypes do flatten the way that Ruth and her trailer-park family are portrayed, the morality lesson (and a great performance by Garner) amplify the abiding message of Ozark: A vulture is a vulture, but there’s still an ethical way to scavenge. Ruth learns from Marty what she wants to pull forward into the next phase of her life, as well as what (and who) she needs to eliminate. The mountains might have made her strong, but Marty shows her how to survive. It’s his cleverness, not a killer instinct, that she wants.
Canon has thus far dictated that when situations lead to evil behavior, the first evil committed must be repaid by more. But Ozark is pinned up by a buoyant implication: that maybe the right person can go a little bit bad, without rotting all the way. Perhaps it is this perpetual game of keep-away that keeps Marty’s hands clean (and his head, for now, intact). The story, at least so far, is one of a man who combats what he’s up against in a way that he believes is right. Ozark takes the anti-hero territory we’ve seen before and elevates it by making its lead not a just a contrarian rule-breaker, but a truly good bad guy—one to root for.
Kate Watson writes about culture, faith and television. You can find her on Twitter @whatkathrynsaid.