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Denial Is a Disease in ‘Ozark’

Plus some other random thoughts about the new season of the Jason Bateman Netflix series

Characters in Ozark call each other terrible names all the time: asshole, prick, cunt. But the only insult that ever seems to offend is another C-word: criminal. Deep into the new season of the popular Netflix series, the destitute preacher and single father Mason Young (Michael Mosley) threatens Marty and Wendy Byrde (Jason Bateman, Laura Linney) at gunpoint, his frayed nerves suggesting he could shoot at any second. In that moment, he calls them criminals, which provokes a defensive response from Wendy — who despite fearing for her life wants to be sure to correct the record. “I said that we worked with them,” she objects. “I never said that we were criminals.”

Anyone who’s gotten this far into Ozark — the compulsively watchable drama about an accountant who takes his family to Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, in order to launder a cartel’s dirty money — will know how ludicrous Wendy’s protestations are. In Season Two, her and her husband’s behavior only gets worse: People are killed, either by the Byrdes’ hand or by their request, while other lives are ruined. But what’s fascinating is that, despite all the logistical hoops Marty and Wendy have to jump through in order to stay alive, the one reality they never want to face is the one staring right at them. They’re criminals — they’re bad people — and they have been for a very long time.

Lots of recent TV dramas have been about amoral characters, but generally speaking, those people knew that they were evil — or, at the very least, were so seduced by their own darkness that they didn’t mind it. By comparison, the Byrdes are in utter denial. Even more than they’re trying not to be killed, they’re trying to hold onto their positive self-image. Both positions are getting more tenuous all the time.

The appeal of Ozark — like Breaking Bad and other such series — is seeing just how dark things will get, just how deep a hole the main characters are going to dig for themselves. And the show has the perfect protagonist in Marty, a master with numbers who for years in Chicago worked with a dangerous Mexican cartel, justifying his illegal activities to himself and his wife by insisting that he wasn’t doing any killing himself. (“I’d be just pushing my mouse around my desk,” he told Wendy during a memorable flashback in Season One.) And so Ozark sucks us in by having Marty navigate out of one disaster after another, including the brutal demands of the cartel (embodied by Janet McTeer’s unsmiling attorney), the obstinacy of some local heroin dealers (played by Peter Mullan and Lisa Emery), an enterprising teen who wants to prove that she’s more than trailer trash (Julia Garner), and her backwoods, incarcerated father (Trevor Long).

But normally, the thrill of such shrewd maneuvering comes from the fact that its masterminds also enjoy it. Not here. Ozark can be an overly complicated and repetitive show — take a shot every time a character says, “You lied to me!” or “From now on, we have to be absolutely transparent” — but what keeps me invested is Marty and Wendy’s snobby attitude toward their own wickedness. Criminals? Them?!? Not only are the Byrdes killers and liars, they think they’re better than the monsters they’ve chosen to surround themselves with.

That last quality is one of the best aspects of Bateman’s and Linney’s performances. The actors give us a sense of the strain that their conniving has brought to them and their family, but there’s also a hint of superiority in their portrayals — an idea that Marty and Wendy are a bit insulted they even have to associate with the red-staters around them. It’s why I ultimately don’t mind that Ozark’s depiction of the locals is a bit redneck-y: For cool, cosmopolitan urban dwellers like the Byrdes, the denizens of the Lake of the Ozarks might as well be inbred hicks, which makes the locals’ sneering criminality is even more gauche.

Marty has made millions without having to lose his vision of himself as a polished, white-collar, upwardly mobile member of the upper class. It’s telling that he’s mostly around Ozarkians and Mexicans — people who, no matter how dangerous they are, he thinks are beneath him. (Even the cultured, wealthy political donor who comes into their lives is a conservative Christian — he’s another opportunity for the left-leaning Byrdes to look down their nose at somebody.) No wonder the Byrdes don’t want to see themselves as criminals: That’s a term used for lower-class people.

After Season One, which ended with Marty being nearly killed by the cartel and Wendy and their kids Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) making a run for it but then deciding to stay, it’s natural that viewers will want to see the consequences play out for this family. And terrible things happen in Season Two, but what’s most tragic for Marty and Wendy is the slow evaporation of their denial. Between the double-crossing and murders, Ozark strips away the notion that criminals are other people — that their evil defines them, while our own misdeeds are just mistakes or character blemishes. If the Byrdes are going to survive, they’ll have to realize that they’re just as rotten as everyone else — that their good breeding, progressive politics and big-city credentials don’t absolve them from criminality. The sooner they see themselves as evil, the better off they’ll be.

It’s a lesson others on Ozark could stand to learn, too. Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner), a shady FBI agent trying to bring down Marty, comments at one point to another character, “Why is it that criminals are always so indignant?” “I’m not a criminal,” that person says, outraged. Petty just looks at her: “Then why are you in this mess?” What’s engrossing and pathetic about the Byrdes is they still think they can get out of theirs — and that, by doing so, they won’t have to own up to being the bad guys.

Here are a few other takeaways from the second season of Ozark. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. The show gets the Cubs/Cardinals rivalry exactly right.

With a program like Ozark, the specificity of the regional details is really important so that we get a sense of the milieu. (Never mind that the show mostly films in Georgia.) But one aspect that’s totally dead-on about Lake of the Ozarks is that it’s at the center of the rivalry between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs. And the way characters talk about the teams is 100 percent accurate to the region.

When Marty and his family move to the Ozarks in Season One, the longtime Cubs booster discovers to his horror that he’s now surrounded by Cardinal fans — another indication that, in Marty’s mind, the Byrdes are living around hicks. In fact, a Cubs Reddit fan page noticed this not-so-subtle implication, commenting that “[t]he show repeatedly bashes the Cards … it’s made the show that more enjoyable.”

Netflix series Ozarks is full of Fuck the Cardinals. from CHICubs

Actually, the bashing goes both ways on Ozark. As Marty is getting to know Rachel (Jordana Spiro), the pretty owner of the Blue Cat, she ask him about his Cubs fandom: “Lifelong affliction or just since it got fashionable?” It’s part of their initial flirtatious banter that she informs him, “I was raised to hate the Cubs,” to which he replies, “And I was raised to hate the Cardinals.”

Growing up in Central Illinois as a Cardinal fan, I can vouch for not only the rivalry between the two teams but also the way the two fan bases view each other. For Cubs fans, anybody who likes the Cardinals is a backwoods, Bible-thumping idiot. For Cardinal fans, anybody who likes the Cubs is probably somebody putting on airs, acting like he’s superior to those around him. It’s a part of the country where your identity with one of those teams is probably more important than your political affiliation. As a character in Season Two puts it when Wrigleyville is mentioned, “Ugh, Cubs fans.”

Nothing else needs to be said.

#2. Let’s salute not one, but two, under-the-radar Jason Bateman gems.

Recently, Bateman did a video for GQ where he discussed several of his more iconic roles, touching on everything from Little House on the Prairie to Juno to Arrested Development.

It was an informative overview, but I would have loved for him to discuss two of my favorite Bateman projects — one in more detail, the other one at all. So I’m gonna talk about them now.

The first is The Gift, a 2015 thriller written and directed by Joel Edgerton, who plays Gordo, a former classmate of Bateman’s standoffish Simon, who’s married to Robyn (Rebecca Hall). Recently reunited, Gordo takes a weird interest in Simon, and the reasons become more twisted as the film goes along. If you’re looking for a seed of the selfish twit Bateman plays in Ozark, look no further than The Gift. (It’s actually the film Bateman mentions at the very beginning of the GQ video where he says that Edgerton told him, “You play guys that people kinda like, and the twist in this movie is that you’re not that nice, so I wanna cast somebody where they’re not going to see it coming.”)

My other recommendation didn’t even get a shout-out in that GQ video — it’s The Family Fang. It was Bateman’s second directorial effort — after the really unfunny Bad Words — and it’s far more serious. Based on the Kevin Wilson novel, it stars Bateman and Nicole Kidman as siblings who believe their parents (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) may have gone missing. But there’s a catch: The parents are performance artists who enjoy unleashing public spectacles, so it’s possible their disappearance is just another stunt. The Family Fang is a moody, unpredictable family drama about scarred kids who grew up to be messed-up adults and the parents who made them that way. Funny enough, you can also see elements of Ozark’s dysfunctional family angst in The Family Fang, which didn’t get much love when it hit theaters.

#3. Yes, there is a Kansas City mafia.

Kansas City, Missouri is known for a few things: barbecue, jazz, Robert Altman and the Royals. But until this season of Ozark, I wasn’t aware the city has its own mafia.

During Season Two, Marty gets involved with mobsters who will help him get his proposed casino off the ground. But as kingpin Frank Cosgrove (John Bedford Lloyd) makes plain, you don’t want to mess with the Kansas City mob.

Because I’ve had family in Kansas City for decades, it’s hard to imagine such a nice, sunny Midwestern town being a hotbed of mafia dealings. Little did I know: I started researching and discovered the city’s rich mob history. Apparently, since the earliest 20th century, there’s been mob activity in Kansas City, these gangsters first flourishing during Prohibition. In 1927, Kansas City reportedly had more murders than Chicago, and for the next several decades, illegal gambling and crime were overseen by mobsters such as Nick Civella.

Even now, you can tour Kansas City’s most famous mob locations, including spots where infamous hoods were killed. There also have been a couple high-profile films that have touched on the city’s mob ties. Altman’s Kansas City, which takes place in the 1930s, helped to shed light on the town’s inglorious past, while Martin Scorsese’s Casino (about gangsters in Las Vegas) features characters with ties to the Kansas City scene.

So, clearly, I just hadn’t been paying attention. But is there still a Kansas City mafia? According to Gangster Report, sorta. Writer Scott Burnstein says, in an undated post, that (per his sources), “The Italian mafia in Kansas City is a small, quiet crime family, probably on [its] last legs with only a few loose remnants of a time when the syndicate operated on a much larger scale and held national prominence decades ago. … These sources place membership in the K.C. mob at ‘a dozen people or less’ and claim its rackets mostly consist of gambling and loan sharking with a small amount of dabbling in extortion scams, primarily within the sex, drug and strip club industry.”

Apparently, they’ve recently bolstered their operations to include casinos in Lake of the Ozarks.