Sunday, August 8, 2021

Ozark & Marty Byrde: Breaking Bad, or better?

As we all wait in anxious anticipation for Netflix to finally come forth with the fourth and final extended season of Ozark, I want to look back at this piece I wrote a couple years ago.

As the 2019 Emmy Awards approached, Marty Byrde and I were anxious. He was wondering just how powerful and cunningly cold his wife Wendy really is after she decides they’re not running and will stay in Missouri as Ozark heads into season three. And, I wondered if viewers and critics would wake up to the brilliance of Jason Bateman’s controlled, calculating portrayal of the anti-hero and the potential for Ozark to break new ground in the act of breaking bad. Batemen’s performance as Marty Byrde in the anti-hero archetype had the potential to move beyond the most memorable predecessors including Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and especially Walter White. Sadly, we only get one more season to learn just how far this unassuming Chicago accountant will go. Alas, back in the Emmy season of 2019 two things were certain: Ozark would be once again overlooked by too many viewers and the awards ceremonies, and the third season would be even more mind blowing than the second. So now that the producers have announced the fourth season as the last for the Byrde clan in southern Missouri, and now that the 2020 Emmy awards have come and gone with little recognition for Ozark, outside of the much deserved Best Actress nod for Julie Garner’s portrayal of Ruth, I want to share a few thoughts on what is so brilliant about this show.

The comparisons to Breaking Bad are inevitable and appropriate, and Granted, some critics argue Ozark is simply re-treading ground in an uninteresting way. Astute critics would note that Marty Byrde is a superior anti-hero if only because Walter White never really was one. When did Marty break bad? Or has he yet? The brilliance is that after three seasons, we still can’t be certain just who this guy is. Bateman plays the role of Marty Bird with such precision and control that viewers simply never know what he is thinking. It’s a complicated point. In psychological discussions of the banality of evil, the Columbine killers offer an important dichotomy: one was a true sociopath, the other a depressed and vulnerable kid who was manipulated into committing unspeakable evil. While the prison and the shock studies described in the article may have falsely implied that anyone can become evil, the difference is that the participants weren’t inclined toward evil until the situation presented itself … and afterwards they did not pursue the inflicting of pain. But the truly evil would keep doing it regardless. Eric Harris was always going to hurt people; Dylan Klebold may never have had he not met Harris. Thus, in comparing two recent portrayals of criminal anti-heroes, I will assert this: Walter White was always going to hurt people; Marty Bird could just have easily lived a milquetoast life of a suburban accountant. That’s what makes him an anti-hero. However, other viewers are attuned to just how deftly Bateman and the writers have reimagined the anti-hero trope, presenting Marty’s heroic qualities in a twist on the descent into evil. In fact, Marty Byrde is perhaps the purest of the anti-heroes for his actions always seem reactive yet prescient in an accidental way.

In Chuck Klosterman’s book of essays X: a Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the 21st Century, he makes an informed argument for the greatness of Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of the anti-hero in Walter White. The conceit of that show and the praise showered upon it was found in the title -- viewers were fascinated by how a seemingly good man, a teacher even, could so incredibly and viciously “break bad.” For Klosterman the brilliance was how the evil resulted from a choice, a point at which he decided to become bad, despite his partner and former student’s contemptuous assurances that “you can’t just break bad.” In reality, over the seasons, we realized Jessie was correct while Chuck Klosterman (and far too many other writers) is wrong. Walter White didn’t break bad because he was always evil, or at least a real ass. And unlike anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, there was simply nothing likeable about him. While Breaking Bad was undoubtedly a compelling show about a man giving in to the dark side that lived within him, Walter White was always more of a villain than an anti-hero. But Marty Byrde? Now, that is an incredibly intriguing and complex character for whom the distinction still isn’t clear. That’s the brilliance of Ozark that takes it far beyond anything Breaking Bad accomplished, other than being a popular and well-produced show.

And, in looking at portrayals of evil and ideas of the anti-hero, I haven’t even begun to unpack the incredibly complex and superbly acted female roles. How easy it is, still, for society to overlook the women. At least for Ozark Julie Garner’s role is valued and acknowledged. And as a character, Ruth is another anti-hero in the way Jesse was on Breaking Bad. Different circumstances create a different situation, and the willingness of Ozark’s writers and producers to try anything is another layer of the show’s brilliance. The hillbillies are a more complex trope than we might imagine or give credit for. It’s worth noting the portrayals of violence and their intentions. Jacob Snell was not truly evil, though he’d do horrible things to survive. His wife Darlene, by contrast, is not only truly evil but also down right batshit crazy.

And, of course, if we’re going to look into female characters as anti-heroes and villains, then we must note how Wendy is a far more compelling character than Skyler, Carmela, or Betty could ever have been in their respective shows. As Ozark seems intent on flipping the narrative in a twisted moment of gender equity, Wendy may be the most sinister of characters, especially now that we know how far she might go to protect the family. Her background as a potential political operative in Chicago indicates a moral vacuousness that an accountant like Marty could never have. The power, cunning, and will of Helen, Wendy, Ruth, and even Darlene are additional layers of complexity that go far beyond so many other shows. Laura Linney’s performance is, like Bateman, sadly under-appreciated, and the writing has given her great vehicle as she has risen to Lady Macbeth status in the role of powerful women -- the question becomes will she fall into madness. Or is she already there? Marty is truly an anti-hero, whereas Wendy may be just downright ruthless. If that’s the case, then future seasons of Ozark may find Marty with an even more serious threat than the FBI, the Snells, or the Cartell. It may be his own wife.

Sadly, we only have one more season to find out. And even after I appreciate the brilliant and sure to be stunning conclusion of the series, I will look forward to the Emmys in 2021 with hope that the show will finally garner the full appreciation it deserves.

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