Four episodes of Ozark pass before it untethers itself from prestige-TV clichés, humorless pontificating about capitalism, and cursory investigations of greed. These episodes move at a pace that’s somehow both hasty and plodding, breezing over the cataclysmic events that precede the show’s slow-burning main plot. They establish a cinematic palette of drab blues and grays, a look that suggests profundity but alienates with a joylessness that doesn’t relent until the season’s more balanced and engrossing second half. Eventually, Ozark doubles as a tightly wound thriller and a compelling family drama, but the narrative stumbles through an overlong preamble to get there.
The show’s first season begins with Marty Byrd (Jason Bateman), a staid financial advisor, hiding cash in a destitute garage while banal narration drones through slang terms for money—cash, clams, bones—and platitudes about hard work, frugality, and the American dream. Shortly after, the first episode’s title card appears, not as words, but as a pictogram—evidence that Ozark is meant to shock with philosophical originality and awe with grandiosity, except the sense of mystery suggested by the title-card puzzle is inconsistent with the show’s trite opening sequence.
Marty’s partner is caught skimming from their side business laundering drug-cartel money and is subsequently murdered. In exchange for his life, cartel bosses force Marty to move to Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks and continue filtering large sums of their cash through the resort destination’s local businesses. As with the show’s opening, these bits are presented hastily, populated with familiar generic crime-fiction elements even as the particulars of Marty’s money laundering become increasingly byzantine.
Marty’s cartel overseer, Del (Esai Morales), is a mere stereotype, delivering violence with the placid, unexcitable demeanor shared by so many fictional organized crime figures. The Ozarks, meanwhile, are inhabited by a gallery of locals introduced as being too dumb or too insular to accept Marty’s investments, each one a different embodiment of Podunk stereotypes: a truant kid, an abusive father, a petty thief, and so on.
These characterizations, however, surprise us in later episodes. The truant is in fact despondent, unmotivated by surroundings he wants desperately to leave. The abusive father is revealed to be a repressed homosexual, acting out of self-loathing rage. The petty thief is actually being manipulated by her incarcerated father. These new complexities, and the emergence of the Snells, an antagonistic family of drug-dealing poppy farmers, give the season’s second half a newfound verve. The writers develop the characters in Marty’s orbit plausibly and steadily, allowing them enough screen time to elicit an emotional reaction from the viewer, even as Marty himself remains static.
Bateman projects a desperation befitting Marty’s predicament, but there isn’t much to the character beyond his survival instincts. Marty is mainly a trope, fashioned in the image of Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper: men who overlook their failings and refuse responsibility while focusing squarely on the flaws of others and letting their toxicity infect everyone around them. Marty considers himself beset on all sides by ingratitude, thinking that his family doesn’t sufficiently appreciate his hard work, and that his criminal associates don’t give him the respect that he feels he’s owed. At one point, he masturbates in his car, fantasizing about hookers who’re awed not by his virility and libido, but by his money and work ethic. After discovering his wife Wendy’s (Laura Linney) infidelity, he repeatedly chastises her, even as his criminal past endangers the lives of the entire family.
Bateman is stripped here of the straight-man charm that defines his most notable roles, giving his sardonic sensibility a newfound sense of cruelty. His characteristic wit lends plausibility to the instances when Marty must beg for his life, while Linney portrays Wendy with a relatable mixture of shame, earnestness, and maternal ferocity. Wendy is Ozark‘s empathetic underdog, striving to save her family while Marty wallows in his business dealings.
While the pilot, directed by Bateman, matches the rest of the show’s bleak color palette, it unfolds mechanically and predictably. As Ozark progresses, other directors add refreshing dashes of style to the bleak series, with tonally uplifting music cues—the Rolling Stones, Run the Jewels, and Natural Child among them—and distinct transitions that manage audience attention in a less perfunctory fashion than the season’s first few episodes do. Scenes begin to blend visually, with the camera zooming in on objects only to pull back on similar objects in a new setting; other transitions are executed as long overhead shots of the stark Missouri landscape. The effect is hypnotic, and binds each of the related stories into a coherent whole.
A flashback in episode seven looks 10 years into the past, to the start of Marty’s relationship with Del, and the nexus of his marital erosion. A poignant sequence reveals the latter, a car accident that induced Wendy to miscarry, and clarifies her eventual infidelity as more a product of trauma and depression than boredom or sexual attraction. Revelations of the couple’s past trauma, and their shared complicity in the laundering scheme, alter the perception of the early episodes by clarifying Marty and Wendy’s motivations without relying on cursory explorations of American greed. With that new layer of relatability, along with a gripping climax, the final episodes reflect the evolution of a series that transcends the sum of its initially uneven parts.