The second season of Netflix’s Jason Bateman drama Ozark is intensely watchable, but also not particularly good. Because the show — about a money-laundering accountant in bed with a drug cartel — borrows so much from Breaking Bad from its premise to its aesthetic, it’s almost impossible to critique without drawing comparisons, but the comparisons are also instructive to understanding why Breaking Bad works and Ozark does not.
It’s not the acting — Bateman and Laura Linney are terrific in Ozark, and they’re surrounded by a strong cast, including terrific performances from Jordana Spiro, Julia Garner, and a performance I’m particularly fond of in Peter Mullan’s Jacob Snell, a gruff and lethal country hick/drug manufacturer who has only one fear: His wife (Lisa Emery, who is Ann Dowd in Handmaid’s Tale terrifying). It’s not in the directing, either — Bateman received a deserved Emmy nomination for his work on the first season, and though there is not nearly enough light in Ozark, I do like the show’s distinctive color palate.
The problems with Ozark come almost exclusively down to the writing: It’s a show that basically takes a Ryan Murphy approach to Breaking Bad. More happens in one episode of Ozark than in an entire season of Breaking Bad, and there’s so much plot chewing in the series that it rarely takes much time to develop the characters. Honestly, that may be for the best, because there are no likable characters in the series — just varying levels of awful. The series plays out like a bad season of Survivor with everyone stranded for six months in a drug and money laundering situation with only one real goal: To make it out alive. Everyone is looking out for only themselves, and alliances shift on a whim from episode to episode.
The biggest difference, however, is that Breaking Bad is a proactive series and Ozark is a reactive one. Breaking Bad is about a man who makes choices to provide for his family, to amass power, or to completely take over the meth trade, and over the course of five seasons, we watch Walter White endeavor to outwit, outplay, and outlast everyone else.
Ozark, on the other hand, is about a man trying to dig himself out of a bad situation as forces converge around him. Marty Byrde (Bateman) doesn’t take action. He does not light fires, he puts them out. Walter White puts bullet holes in people; Marty Byrd sticks his finger in the holes and hopes he can staunch the flow of blood long enough to stay alive another day, and it is exhausting. Season one at least featured the mechanics of money laundering. This season? Things just happen. A lot. All the time. Constantly. The show never takes a moment to slow down and process the last event before moving on to the next, which is probably the smartest thing about Ozark, because if the viewer had a minute to think, she’d realize how entirely implausible the whole shebang actually is.
Let me see if I can tl;dr this: Martin has six months to open a casino in the Ozarks or he and his family will be killed by the Mexican cartel. He has to convince the hillbilly drug-pins to allow them to put the casino on their land, while his wife also convinces a lot of politicians and lobbyists (mostly through blackmail and extortion) to vote to allow the casino. Meanwhile, the Feds are closing in in Marty Byrd and his family, flipping season one’s one decent person, Rachel (Spiro) — who is now a drug addict — on the Byrds.
Marty also has to keep the Mexican cartel from killing the Ozark kingpins, who only want to allow the casino on their terms; the preacher from season one is also back, and he wants revenge because the Snells killed his wife (and he blames the Byrds); Ruth’s father is out of prison and trying to steal money from Byrd; Ruth’s brother wants to go to college but gets expelled from high school; Marty’s son has become a money-laundering apprentice; Marty’s daughter wants to be emancipated from her family; and somehow, the Byrds end up becoming a foster parent to the preacher’s infant son. Oh, and I completely forgot about Buddy (Harris Yulin), the old man who lives in their basement, who also involves the Kansas City mob and their union workers into the casino deal, because yet another criminal organization is just what this show needs.
Everywhere Marty and Wendy turn, there’s a conflict or a problem to be solved or a murder to cover up, but most of these problems just magically avail themselves inorganically, but they are necessary because problems are the only thing that keeps the story moving. No one really makes a plan and expertly executes it; the show just buries one body after another and hangs on for dear life until the end of season two arrives not with any satisfaction, but only with relief. Relief that after dodging punches for 10 episodes (and they’re nearly all over an hour, goddamnit), we can finally sit on a stool a minute before getting back in the ring to dodge more punches, never throwing one themselves. It’s like watching someone backseat drive for 10 bloody hours without ever offering to take the wheel, and all I wanted to do was jump out of the moving car.
Header Image Source: Netflix