Many of you will remember the Netflix series Ozark from last summer. It was a big, binge-worthy hit and a lot of people loved it, especially for the propulsive, twisting pace of the narrative.
Accountant Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) uprooted his family from Chicago to Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, where he needed to launder money for a Mexican drug cartel to keep him and his family alive. The drama is the tale of a spoiled, bored, bourgeois urban family thrust into the flyover America of small towns and farming communities steeped in the traditions of the mountains. Some of those traditions are connected to petty crime and serious crime.
Marty was cunning and desperate. His wife Wendy (Laura Linney) knew what was unfolding and eventually figured out the danger and the need to complete the scam. Meanwhile, a dogged FBI agent was on Marty’s tail. It was pressure-cooker thriller all the way, especially as Marty became involved with a local crime family, the Snell clan, and the Snells got entangled with the drug cartel.
Season two of Ozark (streaming on Netflix from Aug. 31) gets even darker and more tension-filled from the get-go. It picks up where season one ended, with a Snell family member doing something very foolish to the cartel. There is a lot of violence, a lot of literal darkness and a lot of whispering as the Byrde family figures that somebody is always listening to them.
As fiction, Ozark fits into the pulp category. It’s a steamroller, rarely pausing for rumination or exposition. It just keeps going from one life-or-death situation to another. If the viewer feels that something is going to go wrong, it will certainly go wrong and mayhem will either ensue or is barely avoided.
That’s the attraction of the show. The pace and cynicism of it is addictive and it’s the epitome of binge-worthy Netflix content. Yes, it is obviously timed to arrive as a long-weekend binge, and as tension-filled, violent escapism it sure works. If you didn’t see the first season, watch it first, then season two, and you’ve got an epic to fill a three-day weekend.
At the same time, Ozark is also a genuine curiosity. If you binge it, consider this – critical reaction to the first season was deeply divided. For all its breezy noir-quality and quick articulation of its themes, some reviews tagged it as empty, a sort of Breaking Bad-lite about a put-upon guy descending into a hellish life of crime and seeming to thrive in it. There was some resistance to considering it prestige TV, and up there in the canon of the great dramatic TV of the past decade. While Jason Bateman was praised for his acting and for his direction of some episodes (he got an Emmy nomination), there was a lingering feeling that the series was lacking true depth.
The same critique can be levelled at this second season. And, just as in the first, the depth is found on the fringe. Julia Garner as Ruth, the astute, feisty daughter of a local criminal, mainly anchors that depth in a sublime performance. (Garner also played the sexually precocious teenager Kimmy on one of the strongest seasons of The Americans). Ruth is the one who truly understands what Marty Byrde is doing and she is also the most fully-realized character in a drama that has many characters existing only to serve the mechanics of the plot. Watching her, you realize how much of Ozark is simply insubstantial.
Still it’s not possible to begrudge anyone the pleasure of Ozark. As a thriller it is irresistible. Let’s just say, in terms of what unfolds, the Byrde family has one grand scheme to launder all that money, and the plan involves a casino. That means getting into the dirty politics of the area and all the sleaze will remind viewers of national, not just local, politics in the United States. It’s not deep, but Ozark is about a family trying not to buckle under the strain of dark, threatening forces, some of which they unleashed on themselves. And that’s always a gripping narrative.