Here comes another anti-hero story straight from Hollywood. They’re all the rage in the era of TV’s new golden age. Conflicted ad marketers (“Mad Men”). Morally bankrupt teachers (“Breaking Bad”). Presidents with a mean streak (“House of Cards”). So we shouldn’t be shocked to see Jason Bateman, known for playing nice guys with a desert-dry sense of humor, starring in a drama like Netflix’s “Ozark.”
Bateman plays Marty Byrde, a financial advisor whose side hustle is laundering cash for a Mexican drug cartel. When his colleague is busted for skimming profits from the cartel’s leader (Esai Morales, the epitome of quiet evil), Marty flees to the Lake of the Ozarks in a desperate attempt to save his life. If Marty can launder a stash of cash, the gangster may spare his life, and that of his wife and two children.
Bateman’s character may be crooked, but he’s got a redeeming quality that keeps us coming back for more. He’s a devoted dad who happens to be playing a deadly cat and mouse game with a drug kingpin.
Family Feelings Amid Crime Drama
The expected fireworks light up “Ozark” from the opening sequence. People are snuffed out in dramatic fashion. Wives cheat sans regret. Later, vultures circle the Byrdes’ new home, a creepy visual and blunt metaphor. In between, Marty and his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) dole out heartfelt lessons to their teen children.
Yes, Marty can be colder than a first date brush-off with Wendy. You’ll want a sweater when Marty shares his chilling satisfaction over her lover’s nasty death. And when it’s time to talk money he’s all business.
But Bateman’s Marty also melts whenever his children come into view. He’ll do anything for his children. He even briefly plots to surrender his own life to free them from the disaster he created. It might sound comical, but Marty is trying to retain a sense of normalcy in the midst of the maelstrom.
Wendy does what she can to fulfill her motherly duties, too. When she suspects the local crime family of depositing dead critters on their property to taunt her teen daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), she flings one of the animals right back at them. Her life might be collapsing, but she’ll protect Charlotte with every last breath.
That Wendy juggles parenting skills with Survival 101 may not surprise you. She’s not responsible for the family’s predicament, and maternal instincts can bloom in the worst conditions. Marty’s fatherly advice, on the other hand, is both jarring and a welcome addition to the anti-hero trappings.
Sound incongruous? Not in the hands of Bateman and co. (the actor directed four of the first 10 episodes and produces the series). “Ozark’s” delicacy makes it one of Netflix’s better original shows. Call it Must Binge TV. Or “Father Actually Knows Best. Really. Just Wait.”
Turn Off Desperado, Turn On Loving Father
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m Dad. She’s Mom. That first-name business stops right now, is that understood?” Marty tells Charlotte after she unleashes a typical teen rant against “Wendy.”
When young Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) makes a gargantuan but very pre-teen mistake that could cost the family everything, Marty keeps his emotions in check. That’s Good Parenting 101. When he finally discusses the issue with the boy, the moment brims with forgiveness. Marty tenderly brushes Jonah’s forehead with his thumb while wishing him a good night’s rest.
Later, Marty is crushed to learn Jonah has been playing with dead animals. It’s not the standard “is my kid weird” anxiety. On an elemental level, Marty fears he’s scarring his son with his attempt to appease Morales’ gangster. The character’s guilt is massive, making for compelling dynamics.
“I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I am trying to make everything right,” Marty tells Charlotte later. “I know,” she says, and means it. It’s the kind of tender moment you might find in a Lifetime movie, not a coal-black Netflix drama.
We Still Want Good, Even If Hidden Inside Bad
Bateman is already talking about plans for season two. He understands why his character can’t be immoral to the core.
“We had to make sure we were presenting enough humanity and vulnerability, doubt, reluctance, and regret on one side that would counterbalance, justify, and earn a lot of these very dark and unsettling decisions.”
There’s the rub for modern audiences. We’ll tolerate characters who lie, cheat, and steal—maybe even worse. What we clamor for in stories now, however, is some humanity, a flicker of a soul seeking redemption. Even Walter White wanted his family taken care of during all his drug-dealing shenanigans. That he slowly lost sight of that became one of “Breaking Bad’s” cruel realities.
White hat heroes are still few and far between these days on screens large and small. And that’s a shame. We’re still obsessed with the goodness within our favorite characters, even if it’s buried so deeply it’s darn near impossible to see. Bateman’s Marty is digging to find just that in every “Ozark” episode.