A while ago, I read an article about a wealthy couple getting divorced and how the husband was trying to hide hundreds of millions of dollars in offshore accounts and the wife had to hire a private investigator to track it all down. But the article also described how the couple had made their money; basically, they invented new and even more obnoxious versions of pop-up ads and toolbars that claimed to clean your computer. They specialized in annoying people out of their money. They started with nothing and became very, very wealthy, and suddenly it hit me that when people talk about the American Dream and how anyone can become rich, that is true with a caveat. You have to be willing to be evil. If you can look at your fellow human beings and see nothing more than rubes, then absolutely you can become rich. But if you actually care about other people and their happiness and comfort, your income potential is severely limited. It was hammered home again for me a few weeks later when I saw an article about how a breast cancer “charity” was being fined $350k for defrauding contributors. As I read into the article, it described how the “charity” had made at least $3m a year for six years. So they made $18m and were fined $350k and this was described as a win for the justice system. Being evil is really lucrative.
I was thinking about this while Marty Byrde was giving us his opening monologue, about how the amount of money you have is directly proportional to the amount of work you’re willing to do. The way he lets the word “work” drip, we know it’s just a stand-in for “evil.” So our first introduction to the main character is knowing that he’s a giant douche. But it’s a tricky needle to thread, introducing us to a character through his point of viewing and trusting us to understand that he’s not right. True Detective tried it and it didn’t go well for them.* Ozark has it a little better by sheer virtue of being able to be binge-watched, so if you haven’t picked up on Marty’s life philosophy from his monologue, you certainly will within a few episodes. It’s slightly undercut when the second thing we learn about Marty is that he’s surrounded by even bigger assholes than he is, but that’s the nature of Marty. He tricks you with his innocent-seeming Jason Bateman-ness into thinking he is the spark of good in the murky lake of assholes, but the truth is that Marty CHOSE this lake. He made the effort to surround himself with terrible people, because he thinks this is a lake he can swim in. The third thing we will learn about Marty is that he believes he can talk his way out of any situation.
There is something that differentiates Marty from all of the people you know in real life who think they can talk their way out of anything, and that is that he’s smart enough to know he also has to do to the work to back up his stories. His mouth isn’t plan A, it’s plan C, but it hasn’t failed him yet. This is why his bosses don’t kill him immediately, not that he’s actually the best money launderer in existence but that it’s just so entertaining watching him thrash around on a string. And that’s why we keep watching, to see what happens when Marty is suddenly thrown into another lake.
In the world of Ozark, people live stratified lives. It’s like those tanks demonstrating pollution in water that you can see in aquariums. Most people live more-or-less law-abiding lives, getting loans from banks and running small hotels and maybe finding a tourist to have consensual sex with on weekends. Then there are people who live lives of petty crime, who don’t see the difference between earning a paycheck and “earning” someone else’s belongings, and are just working on getting through each day as it comes until the days stop coming. And then there are the hard-core criminals, who don’t think twice about resorting to murder and value money above all else in life. Marty’s career places him in that last group with the bottom-feeders, but when he’s dropped into the lake and sinks straight to the bottom, he stirs up all the other layers as he goes. Suddenly, the other bottom-feeders are exposed, the petty criminals are contemplating murder and lives of luxury, and the law-abiding people are committing arson just to stay afloat.
Marty is used to talking his way out, but he doesn’t understand the language of this new lake. Even when he’s told repeatedly that gestures matter, he insists on doing things his way, without consulting any locals. In the end, well, you’ll have to watch it to the end. But Marty does have an amazing way of talking himself in circles, and it is very fun watching him thrash about on the line. Even if we no longer know who’s holding the other end.
The first season of Ozark, 10 episodes, is on Netflix. The show has already been picked up for a second season.
*As a bystander, this is still one of the weirdest reactions to a TV show I’ve ever seen. In the True Detective pilot, Cohle has a whole speech about how humanity is a scourge upon the planet and if we had any dignity we’d lock arms and march straight into extinction. I interpreted this as Cohle being emotionally immature and depressed, like most college freshmen who have just discovered nihilism. The way most viewers seemed to interpret it was that Cohle is really, really smart. Then, after the show was lauded for being so smart, the backlash came in the form of people pointing out that nihilism was already a philosophy that existed, and viewers felt betrayed. I swear I could hear the writer’s confusion from the other end of town.