Warning: Spoilers ahead for Netflix’s Ozark.
If you look at any review of Netflix’s newest series, the Jason Bateman-led Ozark, there are two words you will without a doubt find lurking somewhere in the article. Those two words are “Breaking” and “Bad.” I understand why people want to compare Ozark, which is about a mild-mannered financial advisor forced to launder Mexican drug cartel money in the eponymous Midwestern region, and Breaking Bad, AMC’s iconic drama about a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who starts selling meth. Yet, those people are wrong. Ozark is a midnight blue-hued traditional crime drama. Breaking Bad is a meditation on how a man loses his soul (and makes meth).
Ozark’s Marty Byrde (Bateman) isn’t Walter White (Bryan Cranston). He’s not even close to Walter White. At the start of Ozark, we find out the numbers guy has been laundering drug money for years with the help of his longtime friend Bruce (Josh Randall). But, Bruce and some other accomplices have been skimming money from a violent cartel, so that doesn’t work out well for them. Cartel higher-up Del (Esai Morales) gets his employees to admit to stealing from him and his associates. Del responds by murdering everyone involved, including Bruce’s girlfriend (Molly Leland). Marty almost ends up the final victim, but talks his way out of an execution by offering to help move the cartel’s operation to the Ozarks, where they can supposedly move money without the watchful eye of the DEA constantly looming over them. Marty Byrde is a scared, desperate man. Walter may have been desperate to save his own life at the start of Breaking Bad, but he was fully in control of his destiny. By the end of the series, Walter had murdered people, blown things up, and led an entire drug empire. He is the one who knocks.
Marty’s decision to break bad is pragmatic. Walter’s descent into the criminal underworld is gleeful because he wants to be “the danger.” While Walter revels in his status as alter-ego Heisenberg, Marty is literally just trying to say alive and keep his family safe. He moves to the Ozarks in an attempt to pull off the scheme he sold to Del. In a stroke of master manipulation, he gets a man to punch him in the face. By accepting the moment of pain, a lodge owner is tricked into trusting Marty, and she lets him “invest” in her business. Of course, the “investment” is actually an elaborate way of laundering the cartel’s cash. Marty didn’t set off this chain of events to fuel his need for power. He did it because he needs to start laundering a small fortune quickly, and every other business in town has turned him down. Even when a huge chunk of Marty’s drug fortune is stolen, he doesn’t react in classic Walter White fashion, which would probably include an explosion or a loaded gun. No, he talks the thieves — the Langmores, a poor local criminal family — into giving him most of the cash back because, again, he’s acting from a simple place of terrified rage.
Ozark doesn’t even have the added tension of Marty hiding his illicit activities from his family. At the very start of the series, it’s clear his wife Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) has been clued into her husband’s more illegal activities for years. While his children are originally in the dark about why their entire family fled from Chicago to the mountains and rivers of Missouri, they find out the truth almost immediately. At the end of episode 2, “Blue Cat,” Wendy casually announces to her children, "Your father's laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel. I shit you not." By episode 3 “My Dripping Sleep,” Marty is even talking to his kids about his criminal side job and explaining its silver living — he’s helping people get their money into banks so they can pay their taxes. Please try to imagine a smiling Walter White having the same conversation with Walter White Jr. (RJ Mitte) as the bearded dad unpacks boxes in the backyard.
One can question whether season 1 of Ozark is a prequel to Marty embracing his dark side, but it's pretty clear transformation doesn't really interest him. The biggest murders of the series aren’t carried out by Marty. Instead, it’s two women: the young burgeoning criminal Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) and Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery). Both slayings absolutely shock Marty, who was never planning on getting his hands this bloody. He just wanted to launder some money in the deep woods of Missouri. The people who inhabit Breaking Bad, on the other hand, couldn’t leave more destruction in their wake. And they don’t feel all that badly about.
Yes, Ozark technically has drugs. Yes, Ozark shows a man breaking bad his own way. Yes, Ozark’s star is best known for his beloved network comedy. But, Ozark will never be Breaking Bad.
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