The series premiere of Ozark, directed by star Jason Bateman, introduces the world Marty Byrde inhabits by setting the stakes incredibly high. Not only does the first episode bring the Byrde family into the realm of Prestige TV, but it introduces multiple supporting characters only to kill them. Look, it’s Marty’s business partner, Bruce Liddell (shot in the head). Look, it’s Wendy’s boyfriend, Gary Silverberg (thrown off a Chicago balcony). The father-son trucking-company owners that Marty works with? Dead. This is a show that will leave a wake of bodies, and anyone who comes into contact with the Byrdes risks death.
Ozark also opens with a bit of a fake out. No, Bateman’s Marty Byrde will not narrate the show, but a speech he’s giving potential clients works as a prologue. There are two key lines: “I think most people just have a fundamentally flawed view of money.” Marty doesn’t value money in the same way as an average American and arguably not even as much as his wife. It’s a means to an end, a tool of his profession that can give his family safety. The other key line: “Money is, at its essence, that measure of a man’s choices.” The arc of Ozark will consist of so many money-related choices, and, more times than not, Marty has made the right one.
“Sugarwood,” which refers to the nickname that Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) has for her boyfriend’s member, opens with a revelation. Marty gets an email from the private dick he hired with a video of Wendy having sex with another man. That he can keep talking business while staring at his wife’s infidelity is notable — there is no work-life separation for Marty Byrde, and there will never be. Finance and business are a part of every choice he makes, even the ones he’s considering about his unfaithful wife.
Bruce (Josh Randall), Marty’s boisterous partner, comes in to sweeten the deal before looking at a potential new office space on the river. The conversation with Bruce happens to be formative: Marty learns about the Ozarks, and his life will be forever changed. It’s also where viewers learn that Marty and Wendy have been married for 22 years.
A family dinner — one of the most common settings for Ozark developments in the Byrde clan — introduces Charlotte (Sofia Herlitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), the Byrde children. During dinner, Charlotte accuses Marty of always taking Jonah’s side and gives a sense of gender division within the Byrde household. After dinner, Wendy makes chitchat while Marty watches the footage again. He doesn’t call her out. Does he just not have the emotional vocabulary right now? Is it possible there’s a part of Marty that relishes the control he knows he’s now been given? He’s clearly trying to decide what to do next, and it’s hard to say how much of that is emotional and how much is strategic. For Marty, it’s always a little bit of both.
He considers that Wendy’s infidelity has given him license to do the same. He drives to a part of town where he can hire a sex worker and appears to do so, although the fact that this is a fantasy becomes clear pretty early (at least by the time the prostitute is using his full name). The important thing to note is that Marty’s fantasy isn’t just to have sex with someone else but to have sex with someone who respects him more than Wendy. And Marty is the kind of guy who will drive to the wrong side of town but never open the door.
But then Ozark drops us into the action with a call from Bruce. He’s at Hanson Pipe & Trucking with Del (Esai Morales), the big bad of season one, who wants to know what happened to the $5 million that is missing from the books. Surprise, Marty’s a money launderer for a Mexican drug cartel! It turns out Bruce has been skimming, which is ill-advised considering the type of organization he does business with. Del goes into an anecdote about Aunt Carlotta, a longtime employee of Del’s father who worked for the family store as a cashier for 15 years, and the time she was caught stealing $5 to help her sick child — what should have been done with her? Both the Hansons and Bruce say she should be given a second chance, an answer that leaves them dead. Just as we thought this was a domestic drama about Wendy and Marty’s crumbling marriage, people started getting shot in the head. Only Marty, revealed in a later conversation, knows the correct answer: Carlotta should be fired because it’s probably not the first time she stole. It’s just the first time she’s been caught.
As Marty’s horrible day is about to end with his murder, he sees the brochure given to him by Bruce. The Ozarks! It’s a laundering paradise with a ton of coastline and hundreds of cash-heavy tourists every year. It’s out of the spotlight and sick with clean money to launder the dirty stuff. Marty makes promises: Five years, $500 million. Nothing but washed money.
But to wash that much money, Marty needs to move quickly. As Marty works to get his hands on as much cash as possible, Wendy goes to her boyfriend, Gary (Bruce Altman), which is a terrible misstep. While Marty talks to his detective, he discovers that Wendy emptied their bank accounts, tipping off Del to Wendy and Gary. Poor Gary is thrown from high rise apartment and splatters on the ground. Marty manages to talk Del out of killing Wendy, and it’s here that he reveals the correct answer to the Carlotta anecdote — Marty is clear-eyed about the world and knows what needs to be done.
As the final pieces for the premiere are put in place, a conversation between Del and Marty reveals the series’s thesis. During the interrogation, Del claimed Bruce and the Hanson kid stole $5 million when it was actually $8 million. It turns out Del was fishing. Marty believes innocent people were killed on a hunch, but Del was working on a tell: Bruce, a motormouth, was being too quiet. It sets the table for a show about reading people, anticipating and noticing changes in their patterns. It’s a valuable lesson Marty takes with him for the rest of the series.
While the Byrdes are leaving town, Ozark introduces FBI agent Petty (Jason Butler Harner), who had bugged Bruce’s new office. It turns out that Bruce was about to rat on everyone, including Marty, to the FBI. By the way, where is Marty?
He’s driving into the Ozarks, where he stops to take a leak. Actually, he needs a break to cry but then he sees the view of the massive lake and takes it all in. As his family joins him, there’s a sense that this is an open space for a new start. However, the camera pulls far back, and by the time the credits drop, the Byrdes are too small to even see in the woods. They are tiny figures in a big new world.
• Wendy chuckles when she tells Gary about the Ozarks, saying, “I think it’s where camouflage is a primary color.” Fans will learn that Wendy is very familiar with this part of the country. Was she being insulting to hide her background from Gary or is it possible the writers came up with that backstory later?
• Chicagoans will tell you that Marty driving from his meeting with the P.I. to see Wendy at Aqua Tower makes almost no sense. He was actually about a five-minute walk from where Gary plummets from the sky. Maybe he was driving around to determine his next move. Maybe it’s another case of city geography getting a little hinky on a major show or film.
• Radiohead’s use of “Decks Dark” to close the episode is very effective. Ozark will use music so well over the next four years, especially over its closing credits, and it was doing so from the very beginning.
• Why name the series premiere after Wendy’s slang to describe Gary’s penis? It hints at the show’s dark sense of humor and gets at how much these characters hide things in plain sight. Everything means something else — even Sugarwood.