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The Ones Who Really Knock

‘Ozark’ follows in the footsteps of classic antihero dramas like ‘Breaking Bad’—with one important difference

Netflix/Ringer illustration

As Netflix continued expanding its library of original programming, the 2017 debut of Ozark followed in the footsteps of House of Cards and checked off an essential box for the streamer: the antihero drama. The series premiere finds mild-mannered accountant Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) staring down the barrel of a gun after his business partner is caught skimming money off a Mexican drug cartel, and then saving his own life by proposing a money laundering operation in the Lake of the Ozarks. And so Marty uproots his family from Chicago to Missouri, where he soons discovers that an act borne out of self-preservation might actually be a secret calling: Turns out, he enjoys breaking bad—pun very much intended.

In the Mount Rushmore of television’s male antiheroes—Tony Soprano, Walter White, Omar Little, Don Draper—Marty’s amoral trajectory most closely resembles that of Heisenberg. But while Ozark shares plenty of surface-level similarities with Breaking Bad, the show adds its own unique touches. For starters, Marty’s wife Wendy (Laura Linney) becomes complicit to the money laundering scheme from the jump, and it takes all but three episodes before their kids, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), are let in on the secret. It’s not exactly smooth sailing, but the Byrdes adjust to their new normal. The family that launders money together, stays together.

But one other tweak to the formula is what truly separates Ozark from Breaking Bad, and the antihero subgenre as a whole. Even though Marty proves to be resourceful, he’s mostly content to just run the numbers. The Byrde patriarch isn’t anyone’s idea of a good person, but he also isn’t getting his own hands dirty. Instead, the compellingly corrupted soul of Ozark is Wendy, whose Lady Macbeth act becomes more gripping—and reprehensible—with each season.

Far from being horrified by Marty’s actions in working for a cartel, Wendy becomes the public face of their operation and all that it entails. With a background in Chicago politics, she transforms the legitimate side of the business, including a riverboat casino, into a reputable local institution before forming a political foundation in the family’s name. Wendy’s big-picture view is using the capital from money laundering to influence national politics, but the character’s justification that doing the wrong thing now will lead to the right outcome down the road conceals an insatiable craving for power at any cost. Wendy has signed off on multiple assassinations in the series—including against her own brother, Ben (Tom Pelphrey), marking a harrowing point of no return. Ozark might’ve begun with Marty as its Walter White analogue, but heading into its endgame, Wendy is the one who knocks.

Subversion has long been a characteristic of the antihero drama, and by giving female characters like Wendy a spotlight historically reserved for men, Ozark is subverting the genre itself. That storytelling choice extends to the series’ answer to Jesse Pinkman. Upon arriving in the Ozarks, the Byrdes cross paths with Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), a local whose family is routinely mixed up in petty crimes. But Marty sees potential in Ruth, taking her under his wing and showing her, if not a better way of living, then a more forward-thinking life of crime. The series’ X factor and undisputed MVP, Ruth’s unassuming appearance—she’s short, baby-faced, and sports curly blonde hair—belies an explosive temper and arguably the foulest mouth on television. But what has made the character truly resonate is the fact that beneath her profane bark, Ruth is extremely intelligent—her anger stems in part from knowing that she’s been dealt a poor hand in life—and in her own way, full of empathy. Ruth is fiercely protective of her comparatively innocent cousins and sees the good in people even if they can’t see it themselves—including Ben, whom she falls in love with in Season 3 before Wendy has him killed. Of Ozark’s three Primetime Emmy wins, two belong to Garner for her breakout performance, and it wouldn’t be surprising if she added a third for herself later in the year.

While Marty remains a central figure in Ozark’s final season, Wendy and Ruth continue to occupy the show’s most fascinating real estate. Following the revelation of Ben’s death—and Ruth, iconically, referring to Wendy as a “fucking bitch wolf”—Marty’s former protégé has decided to forge her own path by teaming up with local heroin producer Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery). (Darlene is yet another example of Ozark’s uniting philosophy—a secondary villain also happens to be a woman, and who seizes control of a drug empire by poisoning her husband for being too soft.) But switching jobs isn’t liable to end well when your old employer is a cartel, and one of the people standing in your way was willing to kill her own brother.

The ongoing tension between Wendy and Ruth—and the other characters needing to choose their allegiances—has propelled Ozark to thrilling new heights as it enters the first half of its fourth and final season. Without future seasons to worry about, it feels like anybody could end up in a body bag—or, more likely given that the Byrdes own a funeral home, tossed in a crematorium to avoid an evidence trail. (This is not a joke: For the second year in a row, the only spoiler note Netflix gave out for press was to not reveal “all character deaths.”)

Marty’s passive attitude—or at best, apathy—to the ugliest aspects of his family’s line of work underlines the series’ uniqueness. Historically, audiences have had a prickly (and at times toxic) relationship with certain female characters in antihero dramas, primarily for the “crime” of reacting like any rational person would after discovering that their husband was, say, cooking meth. But Ozark flips the script by not just making sure that female characters aren’t overlooked, but by largely having them be responsible for the shocking narrative developments that make these kinds of dramas so irresistible to watch.

Of course, the life-or-death stakes in Ozark’s final season will seem quite familiar for television viewers with even a passing knowledge of The Sopranos or The Wire. But by embracing complex, morally conflicted female characters in various positions of power, Ozark has forced the antihero drama to evolve. There’s no reason why breaking bad should be a boy’s club—not when standout characters like Wendy Byrde and Ruth Langmore are just as willing to scheme, shout, and kill their way to the top.