“Magnanimity is the proper estimation of one’s own worth in relation to the highest honors.” – Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
There is something special about the new Netflix show, OZARK. In this age of exponentially increasing demand for new, fresh stories, Ozark delivers in a great way. Without dropping spoilers on you, I’d like to describe why, at this time, Ozark is more than a television show: it is, at its root, a meditation and commentary on American Social Darwinism, and how once a person’s ethics are breached, the truest test of that person’s character begins. In the end, the existential question posed by the show (not too dissimilar from BREAKING BAD) is, once a person starts down an unethical path, can they ever get back to equilibrium?
Marty Byrde is a father, first; a financial planner, second; and, a husband, third. That, in and of itself, is all too common with upper middle-class white American males these days. What’s uncommon about Marty though is, mostly due to ennui, naivete, and a dash of hubris, he agrees to launder cash for some pretty unsavory people, with the idea in mind that his skill with money management is so superior that he’ll be able to insure his family will be “set for life, for generations.” And even in his illegal dealings, Marty displays a level-headed adherence to a code of ethics even when most everyone around him is making choices based solely on emotion. He remains magnanimous in the face of ever-increasing stakes — he’s truly a phenomenally intriguing American hero, on par with Walter White and Tony Soprano. Jason Bateman’s portrayal of this man is spot on and should land him many awards, not to mention way more artistic cred. Also, it should be noted that Bateman’s direction on the first few episodes is nothing short of masterful.
There are two types of smart people in this world – those who make the simple seem complex, and those who make the complex seem simple. Marty Byrde is that second type of smart person. This alone makes me root for him. Combine that with the fact that this man does not betray people, even his shady employers, while most everyone around Marty at some point or another betrays him, is commendable. That Marty does not act out against those who’d do him harm, he even empowers them, and that he even is willing to sacrifice himself for the seemingly innocent, makes him a surprisingly relatable American everyman. In the end, he’s not motivated by greed, he’s motivated by a desire to survive, which is accentuated by the idea that he truly believes he can make things right, for everybody involved.
If only the people in Marty’s life acted rationally! Instead, they act on instinct and emotion. How rational can human beings be, when we are, essentially, animals, whether we like to believe that or not? Our prime directive is self-preservation and survival, no matter how much we may try to divorce ourselves from that truth. A truly fascinating motif employed throughout Ozark has to do with the cold, brutal naturalism of our existence. There are constant allusions to this; from the mere fact that the family surname is Byrde, to Marty’s son’s constant fascination with the animal kingdom, to even the fact that Marty’s cell phone ring is the sound of crickets, the show makers have made the deliberate choice of making animals a part of the show, and laid the foundation that this show is allegory of Darwinism (ironically set in an area of the country where the majority of people shun evolutionary theory.) The visual and the sonic language of the show are just meticulous and brilliantly conceived.