Ozark is not the new Breaking Bad. To claim otherwise would be silly. Director and star Jason Bateman has even pushed back at those who make the suggestion, although he admits that he doesn’t mind comparisons. Obviously, the two dramas are very different in setting, with Breaking Bad largely taking place in sun-drenched Albuquerque and Ozark‘s Missouri-based, moody palette driving some folks into a blue-tinged tizzy. Both dabble with the gritty, and the latter sort-of grinds its heels into prestige, sometimes to the point of extinguishing cigarette butts upon the littered TV corpses of yesteryear. The resemblance to Breaking Bad remains the strongest, but Ozark isn’t truly a successor. “Bastard offspring” might be more accurate, but it’s safe to say that any Breaking Bad fan who hasn’t given Ozark a chance shouldn’t sniff at the opportunity to catch up now.
Listen, I’m really not here to argue that one show is better than the other, and I’m definitely not saying that Ozark is the more superior work. Yet I am saying that if you love Breaking Bad, then you could, at minimum, appreciate certain strengths of Ozark. I’ve got two reasons for this argument, and I like the second one slightly more, but let’s talk it out. First, some necessary background.
Ozark certainly isn’t a show with sweeping focus. It’s weird, really, that the show’s not as tightly written as Breaking Bad, but Ozark maintains a tighter scope, albeit one that’s not as steeped in the art of grandiose storytelling. Still, the two shows are cut from the same cloth. Both put forth much moral ambiguity, and both shows make people root for the middle-aged white guy doing very bad things. Since this piece is geared towards folks who haven’t watched the show, I’m going to try not to spoil much, but here’s the basic set up: Jason Bateman (Marty) and Laura Linney (Wendy) portray parents who flee with their children from Chicago to (duh) the Ozarks. Wendy’s a seemingly spoiled wife having an affair, and Marty, who works under the label of a financial planner, is actually money laundering vast sums of Mexican drug cartel dollars. Yes, that’s not quite as much of a leap as “high school chemistry teacher who’s simply trying to afford cancer treatment (d)evolves into a drug kingpin.” Both men are, obviously, ethically challenged, and there’s the constant question of whether Marty will “break bad.”
Let’s get to my two interconnected reasons that you should give Ozark a shot:
1. Stronger female characters than Breaking Bad: Yeah, I said it. It’s worth discussing because this was a not-so-cool aspect of Vince Gilligan’s love letter to Walter White. When one thinks of Breaking Bad, the two female characters that spring to mind were regarded, by the show and its audience, for what they did or did not do for men. We’ve got: (1) Skyler, who was absolutely loathed because, I guess, she wouldn’t let Walt be great. (2) Jane, who was beloved as hell but, seriously, fridged in the most twisted of ways. And kind-of reverse-fridged, too. Poor Jane couldn’t even be fridged to inspire a man to heroics! Instead, her death leads to three men losing it in devastating ways. She inadvertently “inspired” the plane crash at the hands of her dad and, indirectly, Walt. Her death also didn’t fuel Jesse to greatness either, so yeah, what a fridging disaster. In contrast, the women of Ozark get sh*t done, and they do so in unanticipated ways. I’m not saying that this is noble sh*t, but Wendy’s a surprisingly textured “stay-at-home wife” who comes into her own power. And then there’s Ruth.
2. Speaking of Ruth Langmore: This is the big one, folks. If you dig Breaking Bad, you will be sucked into the Ruth-and-Marty dynamic. Julia Garner (who earned that Emmy), as Ruth, slides onto the scene as nothing but trouble, but she transforms into the soul of the show. She and Marty forge a startlingly similar partnership to the central one in Breaking Bad, and surprise, she’s not simply a tool to help Marty succeed or fail in his crimes. I won’t give away the level of badass Ruth turns out to be, but as with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, Marty Byrde and Ruth Langmore blaze through the same type of surrogate-father/young-delinquent type of give-and-take.
Not that it begins that way for Marty and Ruth. At the beginning, they’re foils for each other’s survival, but shifting goalposts lead to an alliance and (at times begrudging) mutual respect and the rise of an illicit empire. In the beginning, Ruth wants to cause Marty some honest-to-god genuine harm, but their relationship (and yes, it is platonic) blossoms. Maybe it blossoms into a rotten onion, but it still goes to some illuminating places. And Ruth, man. She’s a character who slowly burns through redemption. She deeply cares about her family and sees the good in people, even when they refuse to see it in themselves. She transforms into a hero in isolated instances, and Ruth rises above her own bleak circumstances through her own hard work, both emotionally and in a business sense. Garner’s portrayal of her is both painful and wonderful to witness — not only badass but vulnerable, and at once sharp-witted and disarming — and honestly, Ruth kicks ass. Whatever she thinks about the other Ozark characters, as far as I’m concerned, should be the law in that universe.
Really, there’s a lot of compelling characters, but Ruth is a standout. Marty, well, he’s alright, too. I should probably give him some lip service.
Mostly, I dig Marty because while he probably won’t have iconic moments like Walter White, and he definitely doesn’t have Walter’s brains, he’s got plenty of emotional intelligence. He understands what makes his fellow (often bad) people tick and can read a room, and Marty can make both calculated and on-the-fly decisions that fuel a great deal of audience pleasure to witness. Bateman, finally, has found his career-defining role, one that allows him to finally put both Arrested Development and former child stardom (Teen Wolf Too!) in the past. Yes, he went dramatic in The Gift and was unrecognizable in plain sight with Up In The Air, but he owns the Marty character. Turn up the brightness on your TV and catch up on the show. It’s worth your binging time.
Netflix’s third ‘Ozark’ season streams on March 27.