Many of the elements in the new Netflix crime-drama Ozark have the air of something borrowed. Take the opening of the fourth episode, in which the Rolling Stones track “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” plays beneath voice-over narration of protagonist Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) bluntly explaining “Money Laundering 101.” You may hear an alarm go off while watching this sequence. It’s the one that sounds every time a filmmaker blatantly borrows from Martin Scorsese.
Given its premise and the compounding problems Marty faces as he delves deeper into corruption, Ozark more frequently calls to mind other TV dramas like Breaking Bad or Bloodline. Once again we have a man who looks decent on the surface but, like Walter White and John Rayburn before him, gets involved in dirty deeds that dig him into deeper, more dangerous holes. Just when you think Ozark has already allowed plenty of shit to hit its rapidly rotating fans, it not only comes up with more shit, it plugs in a whole new batch of fans. Midway through its ten episodes, that can start to feel a tad exhausting, with the increasingly interconnected plot points sometimes generating tension and sometimes leaning more toward the contrived than the believable.
That said, the series — created by Bill Dubuque, who wrote the films The Accountant and The Judge — is often still compelling to watch, especially for those who consider “average guy goes gangster” one of their favorite TV subgenres. That’s thanks in large part to the layered performances from its cast, especially its two leads, Bateman, who also directed four of the episodes, and Laura Linney, who plays Wendy, Marty’s not entirely innocent wife. (Is it ever not a fascinating pleasure to watch what Laura Linney does on a screen?)
Before moving its action to Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks — a setting that, according to this series, is as rife with clandestinely illicit behavior as The Wire’s version of Baltimore — Ozark begins in Chicago, where Marty works as a financial advisor whose side hustle is laundering cash for a Mexican drug cartel. When Del (Esai Morales), one of the cartel’s higher-ups, comes to town to collect money he’s owed thanks to bad decisions made by Marty’s partner, Marty talks his way out of getting murdered by promising Del that he can make even more money by moving the cash-cleaning operation to the Ozarks, a vacation retreat where, apparently, the Feds are less likely to look for shadily acquired revenue. Del agrees, which means that Marty has to dissolve his firm, sell his house, and move himself, his wife, and their two kids (Sofia Hublitz and Skylar Gaertner) to Missouri within a couple of days, shortly after the unexplained disappearance of his partner. No, nothing about that looks suspicious.
As if that weren’t enough, Marty also confirms around the same time that Wendy has been cheating on him, which puts husband and wife on extremely shaky ground at a moment when they have to make major snap decisions for the sake of their financial security and their own safety.
The scenes in which Bateman and Linney attempt to navigate this thorny situation are among the best in the series, including an explosive whopper of a fight in episode two. Marty’s dominant traits are his stubborn belief that his plan will work and his ability to smooth talk his way out of any hairy situation; his occupation may be financial planner/money launderer, but he argues with the persuasive tenacity of a seasoned attorney. All of those qualities play to Batman’s established strengths as an actor. But there are moments, too, when we see him drop his controlled façade. On the way to the Ozarks, Marty pulls over the van so he can allegedly run into the woods to pee, but really, it’s so he can have an emotional breakdown out of his family’s sight. Small scenes like that humanize Marty, which is crucial since his decision-making continues to put everyone he loves at risk.
Linney reveals Wendy to be sheathed in as much steel and armor as her husband. “People cheat. It’s not unique,” she tells him during that aforementioned episode-two argument, her words frosted-over and resistant to apology. But her distracted glances also convey her worry and regret. And when she smiles while recalling her years, pre-motherhood, when she worked as a political consultant, we get a sense of the warmth and vibrancy that once existed in this woman before life and the desperation of her current circumstances leached it out of her.
It would be more than enough if all Marty and Wendy had to do was figure out how to start washing cash while keeping their kids in the dark and avoiding the wrath of Del the drug lord. But Ozark being Ozark, they have about a thousand other obstacles to contend with, including an FBI agent (Jason Butler Harner) who’s trailing Marty; issues with the businesses Marty is trying to run his cash through, including a resort and a strip club; and increasing run-ins with two sketchy local families who could be just as threatening to the Byrdes as that cartel. Like I said, it’s a lot, and at times, it feels like too much. At the same time, I watched six out of the ten episodes prior to writing this review and plan to binge the rest because I am fully invested in finding out whether Marty can somehow untangle himself from that tightening knot.
Tonally, Ozark has more in common with Bloodline than Breaking Bad, which makes sense since its showrunner, Chris Mundy, who previously oversaw AMC’s Low Winter Sun, used to be a writer for Netflix’s slow-burning, Florida Keys–set drama. Like Bloodline, this show takes itself very seriously, with a visual palette — one often dominated by dusky hues and dimly lit interiors — and a grittiness to match. Even with Bateman, best known for his work in comedy, in the main role, there’s very little levity on the agenda. As the repeated imagery of vultures circling over the Byrdes’ Ozark house reminds us, this is not a time for jokes. There are multiple predators hovering over this family and, at any moment, one of them could smell blood and decide to swoop.