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Jason Bateman Deserves to Be Taken Seriously

The longtime straight man in comedies has recently turned his attention to acting in, and directing, crime dramas. He’s not the first actor to make the tonal shift, but he’s managed to navigate it seamlessly.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Jason Bateman has a very punchable face, and I mean this in the best possible way. He doesn’t have what some people describe as resting bitch face; it’s more like a resting smug face. (Or, as my colleague Shea Serrano aptly called it in 2018, the Jason Bateman Face.) Bateman has used his signature facial expression to great effect in his decades-long career as an actor—you can count on that look popping up onscreen as much as you can Daniel Day-Lewis going full Method en route to an Oscar nomination. But the expression can also manifest in some unexpected places.

At the 2019 Emmy Awards, the prevailing sentiment was that Game of Thrones would sweep a lot of the dramatic categories, despite the final season’s dip in quality and general lack of coherence. In the Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series category alone, Thrones represented three of the seven nominees. Suffice to say, the audience was shocked when Bateman’s name was called for his directing in Ozark, leading to instant meme material:

Three of the most obvious holy shit reactions in that shot belong to Bateman’s wife, Amanda Anka, and his Ozark costars Laura Linney and Julia Garner, the latter of whom won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. (I’m not the biggest Ozark stan, but Garner is constantly throwing heaters on the show as the most intimidating baby-faced teenager on television.) But even though Bateman is responding with what I can only assume is shock, there’s still a faint—if perhaps unintentional—look of knowing self-satisfaction spread across his face. Intentional or not, he’s earned the right to flex.

While Bateman is primarily recognized for portraying the straight man in ensemble comedies or sitcoms in which he can play off of wackier costars (see: Arrested Development), the actor has recently pivoted to more dramatic work—and, as you can surmise from the directing Emmy, he’s also started cutting his teeth behind the camera. The main vehicle for that career turn is the aforementioned Ozark, the Netflix series molded—sometimes to a fault—in the form of classic antihero crime dramas like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. On the show, which returns for a third season on Friday, Bateman plays Marty Byrde, an accountant who launders money for a Mexican drug cartel through businesses in the Lake of the Ozarks, along with his now-complicit wife and kids. (The big centerpiece of the Byrdes’ operation in Season 3 is a riverboat casino.) You’ll be shocked to discover that working for a cartel comes with some deadly consequences—when Netflix sent critics screeners for the third season, one of the company’s two requests was not to spoil, quote, “ALL the deaths.” (Minor spoiler: There are, indeed, a lot of deaths.)

A comedic actor moving to more dramatic work is not entirely unprecedented, particularly in the antihero genre. Before Breaking Bad, viewers knew Bryan Cranston as Malcolm’s dad, and Bob Odenkirk—now killing it leading the spin-off series Better Call Saul—as one half of a popular ’90s sketch comedy series. This sort of path already has been paved, so while Bateman isn’t exactly a comedy-to-drama trailblazer, his particular, skillful smugness has led to one of the most seamless transitions of its kind.

As Marty, Bateman is still a (relatively) reasonable man in a world of eccentric drug lords and petty criminals—characters whose personal exuberances match their lofty ambitions. But just because Marty isn’t prone to violence or emotional outbursts doesn’t make him any less insidious than the people he works with. On other antihero dramas, characters try to justify their amoral behavior or attempt to curb their worst impulses—Walter White repeatedly insisted he became Heisenberg to leave money behind for his family; Tony Soprano went to therapy. The scary thing about Marty is that he doesn’t seem particularly torn about who he is or what he’s doing. From the beginning of the series, Marty seems more than willing to accept that he’s a shitty person, which colors the way he glibly interacts with bosses, subordinates, and his family.

Here, Bateman’s resting smug face isn’t played for laughs, but used to portray a kind of baseline apathy toward everything around him that allows Marty to shrug off the nastier sides of the business and emotionally disassociate from his loved ones. I swear he treats an Excel sheet with more warmth than he shows to his own children. Really, the only thing that gets a rise out of him are ongoing conflicts with his wife, Wendy (played by Linney), who has taken to money laundering with alarming ease and whose ambitions don’t always align with her husband’s in the third season. (Linney has her own trademark expression on Ozark: a wry, condescending smile that sometimes signals a literal death sentence for anyone getting in her way.) In skipping the step where viewers could try to empathize with or justify the characters’ behavior in the antihero genre, Ozark paints a bleak portrait of a family barreling toward oblivion without even looking for the brakes.

But Ozark wasn’t the beginning and end of Bateman’s pivot toward drama. In between the second and third seasons of Ozark, Bateman took a detour on the HBO miniseries/Stephen King adaptation The Outsider, which also allowed him to do some directing. In front of the camera, Bateman played Terry Maitland, a little league coach in small-town Georgia who’s suspected of mutilating and killing a young boy. (Minor spoilers for The Outsider incoming.)

The evidence pointing to Terry as the killer is as definitive as it is perplexing. A witness sees blood all over Terry’s face in a parking lot near where the boy died, and there’s ample surveillance footage of him making his way through town afterward; meanwhile, there’s conflicting evidence that Terry was attending an out-of-town conference when the killing happened. The Outsider doesn’t keep the uncertainty going for long—things get supernatural, it’s Stephen King, after all—but Terry’s innocence is harder to maintain in the viewer’s eyes because his default setting is just so enigmatic. The Outsider does an excellent job of weaponizing the Jason Bateman Face to create suspicion until the nature of Terry’s murderous doppelgänger is revealed.

But The Outsider also reminds us that Bateman, for all he can do with that face, is capable of much more when given the opportunity to flex some other acting muscles. Perhaps the best moment of the entire miniseries happens at the beginning of the second episode, when an incarcerated Terry talks with the lead detective, Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), about his innocence and the detective’s late son, who used to play on Terry’s little league team. It’s a devastating scene that makes it abundantly clear that Terry is just a normal guy trapped in an unimaginably horrible scenario; it’s a wrenching last stand from Bateman before his character is shot and killed outside of the courthouse by an aggrieved family member of the slain child.

Bateman’s swift, tragic exit from The Outsider was shocking in the moment, but makes sense in practical terms. He’s already starring in and directing another drama series; juggling both would probably have been unsustainable unless he really could be in two places at once, like his HBO character. But between Ozark and The Outsider, Jason Bateman has cemented himself as a great dramatic actor and an Emmy-winning director—someone who deserves to be taken seriously. And who could blame him for being a little smug about that?