Battle of the Blondes: Why “Ozark” is More Interesting than “Breaking Bad”
The Netflix crime drama gives its female characters much more complexity than its predecessor.
Now that it’s been announced that Netflix’s Ozark has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, I’d like to make what will no doubt be a controversial statement: I think that this series is significantly more interesting than Breaking Bad.
It’s not that I don’t like Breaking Bad. In fact, I was a devoted watcher when it was on the air and I, like so many other viewers found myself utterly transfixed by Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White, the school teacher who turns to cooking high-grade meth to help pay his medical bills and begins a slide into absolute monstrosity and moral depravity. And it has to be said that in some important ways Ozark is a bit derivative of Breaking Bad (though it’s also fair to point out that Breaking Bad was itself derivative of a number of other crime dramas that preceded it). Like its predecessor, it focuses on a mild-mannered man who gets increasingly caught up in the world of drug cartels and money laundering. He flees to the Ozarks with his wife and their two children to set up a new series of money laundering operations for his drug cartel overlords, and the three seasons of the show that have aired so far follow Marty and Wendy Byrde and their children Jonah and Charlotte as they get further sucked into the criminal vortex.
Despite the similarities between the two series, however, there is one point at which they diverge, and that is in how they engage with their female characters. From beginning to end, Breaking Bad was primarily concerned with Walter White’s abjected masculinity, and so much of the series narrative energy was focused on exploring the ways in which his descent into criminality was a means for him to reclaim what had been stolen from him. And it’s no secret that a significant chunk of the fandom hated Walt’s wife Skyler with a passion bordering on the pathological. Though she became more complex — and complicit in Walt’s degeneracy — as the show went on, Skyler was still viewed by man fans as the absolute worst (after she stopped being an impediment to Walt’s meth manufacturing, they decided to indict her for her hypocrisy). For far too much of its run, Breaking Bad seemed to work overtime to make her into the sort of castrating bitch stereotype that is all-too-common in premium cable dramas focused on the “struggles” of deeply dysfunctional men (which is to say most of them).
Ozark, however, takes a very different approach to the question of criminality. To start with, Bateman’s Marty is no Walter White. Though Bateman does have moments of intensity, for the most part he’s a far colder personality, more cerebral and ultimately less hubristic than Walter ever was. More than that, though, the series seems genuinely invested in its female characters and how they contend with changing fortunes of the Byrdes.
Take, for example, Laura Linney’s character of Wendy Byrde. From the beginning, she’s a woman who has many depths. She’s emotionally starved by her husband’s unavailability and so she starts having an affair. She nevertheless accompanies Marty to the Ozarks, where they try to rebuild their marriage and launder enough money to keep themselves alive. In fact, one of the fascinating things about this show is the fact that Marty and Wendy, despite everything, do seem to genuinely love one another, and there is never any question that they also love their children and will do anything to protect them.
By the time that we get to the third season, Wendy’s own sense of what is best for her family has begun to diverge sharply from Marty’s, in part because, when it comes right down to it, she’s much more ambitious than he is. Whereas a show like Breaking Bad, with its relentless (and sometimes a little cloying) interest in Walter’s masculinity and its endangerment, would paint such ambition as deviant and dangerous, in terms of the narrative it is in fact Wendy’s ambition that keeps things rolling forward and, strangely enough we in the audience find ourselves wanting her to succeed. She’s the antihero that we’re led to cheer for she as she steadily builds up the Byrde empire, forging alliances with unscrupulous billionaires (and then betraying them), manipulating politicians to get a casino gambling license approved, and cozying up to the head of the cartel.
And it is ultimately Wendy that has to make some of the most wrenching decisions. Most notably, in the third season she must make a fateful choice between her bipolar brother Ben — who, after going off his meds, threatens to bring the entire edifice the Byrdes have constructing tumbling down on their heads — or her children, who are endangered by Ben’s loose lips. Linney superbly captures Wendy’s sense of despair and guilt over what she has become, and the scene in which she reprimands Ruth, the family employee and Ben’s girlfriend, for blaming her for Ben’s demise is one of the best in the entire season.
Of course, Ruth is herself a fascinating figure, even though I’ll be the first to admit that when the show first began I found Ruth a rather irritating character. Her desire to drag herself out of her white trash origins was noble enough, but my own ingrained prejudices (born in part of my Appalachian upbringing) made me resent this yearning for a better life for herself and her family. As each season has gone on, she has shown herself to be a fully-fledged character in her own right, and she has shown a steely grit that has allowed her to survive tremendous family tragedy. However, it’s also worth pointing out that, while she is very noble and seems to have her own moral code, she is also prone to committing heinous acts, such as when she electrocutes her two uncles to keep them from murdering Marty. It’s an act for which she will do penance for the next two seasons, until she too turns her back on the Byrdes, in the belief that they are the cause of her woes. It’s a moment of phenomenal delusion on her part, but the joy of the show is that it allows a character like Ruth the opportunity to be bad, rather than fitting her into a more one-dimensional role.
And, of course, there is the avenging angel Darlene. When the series begins, she is married to Jacob Snell, an Ozark local whose family was displaced from the land to create the lake. He also, as it happens, runs his own heroin business, and he grows huge fields of opium poppies on his property in the hills. Darlene is one of the characters that allows this series to verge into the realm of the Southern Gothic, precisely because she seems to be a relict from an earlier period of American history, when ties of blood and honor and kinship mattered more than they do today. She’s prone to spouting Bible verses, loading up her shotgun and shooting cartel operatives in the face (for daring to call her a redneck in her own home), as well as cutting babies out of their living mothers. And, at the end of season two, she even murders Jacob by lacing his coffee with cyanide from cherry pits (to be fair, he was also planning on killing her because her her constant subversion of his authority).
Yet for all of her rash violence, there is a softer side of Darlene that keeps her from sliding into one-dimensional villainy. She yearns for a child, and while her relationship with Jacob is passionately sexual even after so many years together, they never have any of their own. And she, like Ruth, deludes herself into believing that the Byrdes are the source of her misery, even as she steadfastly refuses to take accountability for anything that she’s done.
For my money, though, the show’s most fascinating female figure has to be Helen, the drug cartel lawyer who showed up in season two and came to play a significantly greater role in the Byrdes’ lives as the show went on. She’s an absolutely captivating screen presence, with a steely gaze that reminds me of a raptor, waiting for just the chance to strike those that she feels endangers either her own family or the cartel’s interests. It certainly helps that she’s played by Janet McTeer, who’s six-foot-one frame endows her character with a towering physicality that often dwarfs that of anyone else in the frame. She also shows herself to be a woman of many layers, for while she is ruthless in her pursuit of the cartel’s interests (even going so far as to torture Ruth by waterboarding, and it is she who forces Wendy to choose between her brother and her children), she also cares deeply about her daughter and does everything in her power to protect her and keep her away from any kind of knowledge about what she does. Her brutal death at the end of the third season was narratively necessary, but I know I for one will miss her character.
As these examples show, it’s actually the women in this series who have the more interesting storylines. Again and again, it’s the women who keep the narrative moving, who are responsible for all of the things that happen. Most importantly, they’re all allowed to be antiheroes, to do the morally reprehensible things that the men can’t or won’t do. There is, frankly, no male character (with the possible exception of Agent Petty of the FBI), who can hold a candle to these four formidable blondes.
In a sense, Ozark is as much a family melodrama as it is a crime drama. While male-centered crime dramas — The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire — are also deeply melodramatic, and while they do focus on the family, they seem to work overtime to make sure that those aren’t the things that viewers care about. Fans of those series don’t really seem to think much about the pathos side of the equation, preferring instead to focus on the blood and brutality, in other words on those things that are typically coded male. Ozark, by contrast, really does seem interested in the dynamics of family, of the ways in which complicated codes of loyalty force people to make decisions that they would never consider under more normal circumstances. Each of the women must, at some time in the series, make a choice that involves their family, whether it’s Wendy’s Sophie’s choice situation between her children or her brother or Ruth’s between her uncles at Marty. The brilliance of Ozark is that it allows us to understand their choices, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.
I can’t help but wonder whether Ozark’s focus on family and “women’s issues” goes a ways toward explaining the rather lukewarm reception it has received among television critics. The first two seasons really slumped in the 70s and, while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s not that great either. What’s more, it doesn’t seem to be a prominent part of the general cultural conversation in the same was as Breaking Bad was, even though we now have three seasons worth of material. One can only hope that that will change with the fourth, and final, season.
Fortunately, both Laura Linney and Julia Garner (who plays Ruth) have earned Emmy nominations for the last two seasons, though so far only Garner has won (though given the truly magnificent performance that Linney delivered in this season, I find it almost unimaginable that she won’t at least be considered in major contention). Now that McTeer’s Helen has been dispensed with by the cartel, the stage is set for yet another cataclysmic confrontation, this time between Wendy and her family on one side and Ruth and Darlene on the other.
It’s hard to say who will win, but I can’t wait to find out.