Crime pays, or at least that’s what we’re told. It’s that portion of society that is both admonished and glorified, depending on the subject. Crime is the juicy highlight for many who don’t experience that darkside on a regular basis. Murders, embezzlement and racketeering are vilified in reality, but have been romanticised into compelling storytelling on TV. You have your usual suspects such as The Sopranos, Dexter and Breaking Bad; however, burgeoning Netflix series, Ozark, is trying to nudge its way into the conversation.
The second season of the on-demand series released a couple of months ago and it really ups the ante, calling the bluff of the family at the centre of the program. The show doubles-down on the blackmail motif and even forces its characters to finally get their hands dirty. It’s a move to ramp up the drama, and the producers of the show make sure to pit its audience into two camps: Those who want the Byrde family to get out of the business of crime and those who want them to wholeheartedly embrace the path they’ve embarked upon. Season two appears to play both sides of the argument.
Marriage is tough. Any relationship, no matter how serious or casual, has its good moments and its tribulations. However, it’s more than strange to be living with someone who has different goals than yourself. Cue star and producer of the series, Jason Bateman, as Marty Byrde. Marty is the money man for a Mexican drug cartel that is equal parts profitable and dangerous to his long-term health. Marty not only cons the Cartel to allow him to live, but to get his family to co-sign his ambitions.
His wife, Wendy (played by Laura Linney), serves as confident and co-conspirator as the couple cons their way into the infrastructure of the small Ozark community. The couple’s relationship is built off instinct and cunning more so than love for one another, as we came to learn in the first season. Yet, the partnership works with the heads of the family tag-teaming targets into compliance —or, if need, be submission.
Marty and Wendy explain to their kids that Mommy and Daddy are working for a dangerous drug cartel and need to clean their dirty money by investing their profits in businesses to cook the books to keep the operation alive. Their two children, Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) and angsty teenage daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), take the news as well as you can imagine. They’re more concerned with whether the relationship between their guardians is coming to an abrupt end, by force or by choice.
Overcoming issues as a family really brings everyone together, but in this case, it’s a life or death struggle to not only keep the four members of this pod content, but to also coexist under strenuous circumstances. With skeletons in the closet such as infidelity, embezzling dirty money and setting the worst example for children that anyone could possibly imagine, it’s hard to figure out if the Byrdes are the new norm or some fantasy of the best possible family in a terrible situation. Whatever the case, it’s likely for the best, because the worst would assuredly be a deep sleep in a shallow grave in the heart of a forest for everyone involved.
It’s all for a good cause, however. The idea that people who commit crimes do so with good intentions has always blurred the lines between good and evil. The Byrde family throughout season one was focused on surviving, trying to make it to the next day, stalling for time to figure out a way out of their predicament. C’mon, they’re good people. They didn’t ask for this life. Charlotte was a member of the swim team. Jonah was — well, still is — somewhat of a recluse, but they were your cookie-cutter family… except for Wendy having an affair, and Marty knowing about it from almost day one.
That said, you don’t get a pass for being complicit in most circumstances. Perhaps that is why the Byrdes are transitioning from prey to predators in the second season. To be accurate, just one Byrde has flown off on their own path, leaving the rest of the family to tail behind. No, it’s not Marty who made the leap from Cowardly Lion to Tony Soprano. Instead, season two saw the rise of Wendy Byrde, matriarch of what has now become a legitimate crime family. The irony of Wendy’s political ambitions being parlayed into the crime world should not be lost on you. From her dealing with local string-puller Charles Wilkes (Darren Goldstein) to her abrasive nature with the Snells, Wendy has fought her way to being a valuable asset for the cartel — yes, the same group that has threatened her family on occasion. Call it the price of business.
The addition of actress Janet McTeer as Helen Pierce —the representative of the big, bad cartel —was an intriguing choice. A lawyer, Pierce casts an ominous presence from the first time she enters the scene. Wielding her power and influence, Pierce oozes bravado and wealth of knowledge that make her a convincing threat to all who oppose her. Perhaps some who fall below her on the criminal ladder. Wendy Byrde that falls below Ms. Pierce in the criminal hierarchy, a woman who can get attention, but does not receive the type of serious engagement that Pierce commands when engaging in dialogue. Although the lawyer is more likely to serve the Byrdes with a threat than legal advice, it becomes evident she is not to be trifled with. However, it appears that there’s a common bond between the terse embodiment of the cartel and the ambitious Wendy Byrde.
Two working women with families, inner conflicts and a sense of power in their respective roles make a captivating story as the plot unfolds. As much as this show centers around Marty and his influence over the town they inhabit, the women of the show truly bring the series to life. From Wendy and Helen to the continued magnificent work of Ruth Langmore, this is not a world where the women are seen as henchmen, support systems or sidekicks. Each of the female leads has ambitions of her own that she tries to attain. Credit all around to the writers, directors, producers and the actresses themselves who have put together such an interesting plot line.
Once again, Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) is one of the best characters on a TV series to date. The ambitious teenager has grown from a pint-sized criminal into a strip club-managing confidant for the Byrdes. From dealing with a father out of incarceration to helping raise her cousins, young Ruth wears the hats of mother, boss, business partner, friend and apprentice all at once. In the span of two seasons, Ruth has murdered both of her uncles and essentially ordered to have her father killed to tie up loose ends. It’s honestly amazing that she’s able to do so without seeming unnatural. At the end of the season, Ruth is enjoying breakfast at the table with the Byrdes, appearing quite cozy with the family she idolizes.
In the ongoing debate of nature versus nurture, Ruth’s ambitions to escape “the Langmore Curse” is a relatable plotline for anyone who questions their ambitions and goals. With the composure of someone twice her age, Ruth was thrust into the matriarchal role of the Langmore clan. Well aware of the family ties to the area, Ruth urges her cousin to leave so he can live a proper life. Her motherly instincts recognize Wyatt needs to pursue a life away from the trappings of the accursed future put before them. If there was any childhood innocence left in young Ruth, who was interrogated by both the cartel and the FBI and blackmailed by her father, it was all but stripped away after enduring both professional and person betrayal. Ruth’s maturation is put in fast forward without her consent. Visibly shaken in the aftermath of the realization of what type of business she’s truly gotten involved in, Ruth eventually doubles down to align herself with the Byrdes, illustrating Ruth’s graduation from juvenile delinquent to respected criminal.
“Cause Ain’t no such things as halfway crooks”
Shook Ones — Mobb Deep
Since the beginning of the series, Marty Byrde could have been any one of us. A person doing anything within their means to survive, who makes mistakes and applies themselves to their work. Being part of the criminal world doesn’t really relate to working in a bank or construction — the word termination carries different meanings given the context of each line of work — but Marty was able to skate by without getting any blood on his hands and keep his distance from the dirty part of the business that would make him irredeemable. As irony would have it, Marty is forced to take the life of a devout, god-fearing pastor in order to save that of his loving partner-in-crime. As the camera pans on the shaking hands of Marty, soaked with the blood of another man, viewers finally see the Byrde family enter the realm of no return. You can make a deal for laundering, corruption, collusion and all the other white collar crime they’ve done. Murder, however… that’s nearly impossible to come back from.
The murder of Mason Young has a polarizing impact on the leaders of the family. A struggling Marty is within himself, having crossed a line he never thought he would need to. For Wendy, it was a wakeup call, a sign that she and the family need to be the ones with the power as opposed to kissing ass just to survive to the next day. From that moment, Wendy Byrde aspired to transform the family from the hunted into the hunters. Whether the family or the town and their associates will be on board with the change in mindset remains to be seen. It’s a cliffhanger that certainly will get the show renewed for an anticipated third season. The biggest crime would be seeing another fledging drama bite the dust before it’s allowed to flourish.