Breaking Bad Family in Ozark
Television Series Review
Ozark (Season One - Season Four)
Streaming on NETFLIX
Created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams
(Editor's Note: This is a Spoiler filled Review)
“The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity.”
An ordinary American family has their lives uprooted by one of the largest Mexican drug cartels. Ozark begins here, but it develops as Marty, the father of the Byrdes and financial advisor, moves his family from their city life in Chicago to live in Missouri’s country life in the Ozarks after making an agreement with one of the leaders to launder money safely and successfully. All this after being held at gunpoint unaware that Marty’s business partner has been stealing from the drug cartel. The rest of the story centers on the Byrde family (Wendy the wife, and their two kids Charlotte and Jonah). Fate held in uncertainty by the cartel, Wendy and Marty find themselves in complicated and escalating situations in which Marty must navigate his way out while preventing as much damage as possible.
The basic premise of Ozark surrounds Marty, a financial advisor who is caught up unexpectedly by one of the largest Mexican drug cartels due to his business partners’ poor decisions to launder money and ‘steal’ from the drug cartel. Marty is a smart, savvy, financial advisor, yet he is also bored with his life, marriage, and work. As a result of this, he has developed patterns of passivity and his wife, Wendy, is in an ongoing affair. But, his life takes a drastic turn and his smart, savvy financial ways end up saving him and his family after he negotiates a deal with the drug cartel boss to safely and successfully launder money in Ozarks, Missouri.
Wendy, paradigmatically, goes against Marty’s instruction to get ready to move by informing the one she is committing an affair and upon his advice transfers the money from the main family account to another—to protect herself (something Marty explicitly advised her not to do). This spirals as Wendy’s lover is killed, Wendy is punished, and both Marty and Wendy are threatened going forward.
These patterns become instructive throughout the life of the Byrde family. Marty finds himself constantly intertwined in complex morally problematic situations that he must employ negotiation skills to find a way out with the least damage possible to himself, business ventures, and family. In many ways, he is both the central character of the show and the leader of the money laundering business, but in another way Wendy makes the big decisions, which often (not always) leads to ever escalating challenges more severe than the previous. Marty is left to pick up the pieces and salvage whatever is lost. He is often quite capable of navigating his way out of problems—at least most of the time.
This takes an obvious toll not just on Marty and Wendy, but on the whole Byrde family. The Byrde family becomes implicated in the life choices of the parents. And, the children develop patterns reflective of their parents' morally degrading paths. Charlotte eventually comes on board by supporting her parents and desiring to find her way into the business. Jonah, on the other hand, represents the moral fiber of the child who rebels against his parents for their corruption and lack of repentance. But, eventually, he, too, buckles and gives in to the Byrde way.
Like Breaking Bad But Not
In many ways, Ozark has been compared to Breaking Bad. Both reflect the moral decline of individuals (Marty and Walter). Marty begins as a common, albeit talented and generally intelligent, financial advisor. Bored with his life, aware of his wife’s waywardness along with his pent up anger, he becomes passive–someone with whom many men can relate. In another more positive look, his character can be summarized in his quote: “money is, at its essence, that measure of a man’s choices.” And, in many respects this is a positive reflection of his character’s thoughtful choices, but this side of him takes a dark turn that resembles the average middle-income lead in Breaking Bad. He is faced with a difficult choice of protecting his family in season 1 having been caught (unaware and without bearing responsibility) in a money laundering scheme due to his partner's poor choices. The bigger problem is that the laundering shorts a powerful Mexican drug cartel. Marty genuinely cares for his partner and, no doubt, tries to save him, but it is too late for his friend. The anticipation grows as it seems that it is too late for Marty, and his family, but, as becomes thematic throughout all seasons, Marty is able to think on his feet and convince the drug lord to give him a chance to make them more money, safely, than has occurred thus far. I think anyone can sympathize with Marty’s willingness on the spot to make a deal with the drug cartel to save himself and his family. He must repay what is lost as one condition for getting a chance at life. Both shows give us a concrete illustration of Moral Realism and Total Depravity.
Where they differ is important not only as a contribution to film, but as a second-person guide for us as we think through important philosophical theories of decisions as they impact the nature of family.
What is Ozark really about? Is it about the American dream? There are hints of that in the under-privileged character-Ruth—more on her in a moment. Is it about the politics or religion undergirding and making right money-laundering? There is certainly a lot of that. Is it about family? The show depicts that, in cases, as the highest value worth doing anything for–even killing. One commentator even sums it up this way: "Breaking Bad: The Family Edition." This is certainly an important difference between Breaking Bad and Ozark. Is it a picture of American white privilege or just about the American dream in general and its rootedness in capitalist corruption? Some commentators have argued just that. Is it a picture of nihilism? That certainly is present as the family experiences a moral decline that undermines any sense of a moral framework worth its salt. Whatever the main driving cultural critique, Ozark is certainly a show about the realities of cultural sins and the impact collective groups make on society. Whereas Breaking Bad really highlights the sins of an individual turned sociopath motivated by greed and power, Ozark depicts the harsh realities of degrees or levels of generational implication in the sins of progenitors and the subtlety of cultural sins taken to their logical conclusion.
Where I believe Ozark can help the Christian apologist intersect with its depiction of culture and family. It is these two concepts that are depicted so profoundly in the lives, choices, and patterns of the Ozark characters.
Second-personal encounters and Decision-Making
Ample opportunity for considering differing decisions that are close to home, Ozark displays some real life dynamics that are close to the American family and offer concrete illustration that mimics decisions we must make. Some of these decisions are displayed superficially (e.g., the decision to grow passive toward life, the gnawing desire to make a certain standard of living, the regular liturgical activity of tv watching) that many of us are likely to encounter and others are more extreme circumstances (e.g., what would you do in the circumstance where you were held at gunpoint—either stick to your morals or enter into agreement with the corrupt cartel?), but there is still something to be gained from our second-personal interactions.
The Byrde family is, in many ways, an ordinary middle (to upper middle) class family with the aspirations common to American families. Specific insight is given to midwest city life. City life meets crime lords meets lower class redneck midwest culture. The dynamics are particularly acute and grant us a lens into common cultural patterns.
Following Aristotle's belief that tragedy becomes an important lens for us to reflect on difficult life decisions, we are, at one level, given relief through viewing tragedy (so common to life) and given a lens into the lives of characters not our own. In fact, this is, arguably, what makes fictional literature so vital to the life of the mind and interrogating the life of the soul by giving the reader insight into the particularities of life circumstances that analogously relate to decisions we might encounter in a way that is both visceral and emotionally significant. As such, the show reminded me in numerous cases of the complex philosophical discussions of decision-making theory and the complex process we go through implicitly or explicitly when making decisions, but hopefully it will help us to become more intentional and conscious about our decisions and, ultimately, more virtuous.
Moral Decision-making theory
Decision theory aids in the process of adjudicating between beliefs about events, persons, and relations that will give rise to attitudes, desires and future options. Of course preferences come into play when we consider the events and the desires concerning those events and how they might play out. But that doesn’t entail that those preferences are, in every case, legitimate options. Ordinal utilities refer to those in desirability in an ordering relation while Cardinalistic utilities place a value on the distance between the ordinal options. Ideally, we want to become better at making decisions that invest in long term growth fiscally, morally, and spiritually. This is where decision-making theories about rational beliefs and rational desires are practically useful. Typically what is meant by ‘rational’ one might take to mean good, orderly, and sound with our priorities and values intact. Moral decision making begins with cost-benefit analysis. This might seem rather utilitarian and sometimes a bit of utility can be useful, but all choices are governed by values and ought, arguably, to be aimed at virtue. Assessing a cost-benefit analysis of a decision is no different. The values may be implicit but they are present.
The values may be mal-formed, uncritically formed and mis-guided, but that is where concrete case studies and role-playing situations can help us gain the kind of knowledge to successfully, and virtuously, navigate similar concrete situations in life (obviously not all situations will be exactly the same).
Ozark can aid the Christian in this way by giving concrete case studies that we can, due to our closeness to the socio-cultural climate we live, imaginatively navigate in a way that it might shed light on our blind spots, prepare us for similar decisions (even if less extreme), and aid us in thinking both holistically and critically about real-life situations that are often messy, convoluted, and hazy depictions of our present-self in relation to our future-self.
A Theology of Decision Making
Whereas decision-making theory can give us the parameters, some tools, and guides for developing good rational decisions, there is a need to inject a good bit of theology into the discussion that is often amiss. We confess belief in a providential all-powerful and all-loving God (although we often in the moment don’t understand what he’s doing), so this ought to provide shape to discussions we make and may impact what might appear to secular man as irrationally conceived. I recall my experience in undergraduate where a Professor gave us some helpful and biblically rooted principles when making decisions. First, is there an opening? Second, do my skills adequately make me suited for fulfilling the demands of this decision? Third, would other respected counselors advise me to make this decision? Fourth, do I desire to do this? Fifth, is there any apparent moral reason I should not do this? Sixth, how is the Holy Spirit guiding me in this decision?
A part of making good, rational decisions requires that we become informed about our own social-cultural situation, and, especially, the deeply ingrained patterns, structures, and proclivities found in one’s culture that we being inculcated, are, arguably, susceptible.
A Social-Cultural Commentary
American Dream Gone Wrong: One of the common themes reflected in Ozark is the corruption of the American dream. The belief in the American way is that you are your own individual and you can, as it were, pick yourself up by your own bootstraps and move up the ladder of successful living unencumbered by class, origins, family, and inheritance. If you work hard enough, then you can climb through the ranks of business and become successful, at least in theory. But, this sort of outlook does and has taken on its fair share of problematic permutations crisply exemplified in Ozark. The story begins with common, middle-class American individuals who seize opportunities to become financially successful. The Byrde family certainly continues in this pattern reflected in the actions to seize their opportunities by using the system to make more money. Rather than making their move to get out of the Cartel business, the Byrdes constantly gun for more power in the Ozarks and in the drug cartel through numerous power plays—e.g., as seen in season 2 and 3 when they try to negotiate their way into the power pockets of the drug lord by occupying the place of the Chicago lawyer, Helen Pierce, who represents the drug cartel ultimately leading to her death.
Ruth, to an even greater extent, reflects the American dream. She originates from a place of the poor, redneck culture. She gains the trust of Marty, and, arguably, his care and loyalty. She, being a savvy manager, learns to successfully manage the casino in the hopes of taking over and getting out of the laundering business (see especially season 2). Her success, in part however, is due to joining in the corruption of the cartel, but, in the end, she dies.
Decadence: The American dream has led many social commentators to a critique that it quickly becomes a life about decadence both in the sense that life becomes an idolatry of work (represented throughout the show in that all of Marty and Wendy’s life is ordered by their ventures) and an investment in work as a means to the end of pleasure, convenience, and creaturely comforts.
Female Heroine turned Villain: A part of the American dream, at least perceived, is represented in its egalitarian approach to society. We are seeing more and more women, for example, occupy the roles of men. This, too, has been depicted in film and television since the 70’s. And, a growing number of women are occupying the role of hero, even superhero. It is the women who are both the leaders and one’s experiencing upward mobility. They reflect different cultural stations in life. Wendy is often the one leading the way for the Byrde family, and Marty is the one who must come in and pick up the pieces. He’s kind of a mix of the head administrator and clean-up crew at the end of a project. Ruth Langmore takes center stage representing the redneck poor, and her story appears early on as a kind of American dream success story of a girl that pulls herself up out of poverty. Of course, despite her seeming to have a moral conscience throughout much of the show, she had to kill her uncles in the process of giving her loyalty to Marty (or was it loyalty rather than pursuing greed?). Then there’s Darlene Snell representing hillbilly wealth. While certainly not seeming to make the smartest decisions, she makes impulsive decisions to kill, leaving her husband to pick up the pieces. Later on in the show, she is confronted with the potential loss of the family name, so she takes things into her own hands and kills her husband–because let’s face it, he wasn't going to do what it takes. So, Darlene takes things into her own hands. The drug cartel, in large measure, reflects an older way with men leading generationally, but on the American side there is a clear dominance of female leaders. Unfortunately, these females turn out to be villains rather than heroes.
America too has Hierarchies: Ozark also depicts the fact that hierarchies exist in America despite its egalitarian roots and aspirations. The hierarchies look different from history and other cultures and they may not always be virtuous, but they are hierarchies nonetheless.
American Marriage Challenges: Ozark represents common challenges in the modern American world. Many of these are motivated by desires to occupy certain stations in life and to actualize a certain quality of life in material convenience, sensual pleasure and the occupation of property. But, there is also the role change as more women become less reliant on their husbands, career driven, and financially superior. Whatever one makes of these structures ethically, Christianly, they create both opportunities and challenges for decision-making as older values become outdated and newer values become priorities.
‘Cares of the World’: Ozark brings into clearer focus what the Scriptures describe as the ‘cares of the world’ and anyone who has experienced career change and corporate life can feel the struggle with and occupy attention to these cares. Understanding our culture gives perspective to its structures, patterns, our beliefs, desires, goals, outcomes, and opportunities.
Conclusion: A Theological Analysis of Family
Finally, the ‘family’ distinguishes Ozark as a theme that reflects cultural values. We learn in the harshest of ways that marriage is not a private affair but a public one with public consequences. The concluding scene of season 4 captures this when Jonah (i.e., the hopeful one) joins the family to shoot the detective who has evidence to finally put an end to the Byrdes. Despite the rugged individualism found in America, there is also the fixation of family as parents look with hope as their offspring come into the world. And, arguably, this is a good thing in our culture that is rooted in the Scriptural story where God commands husband and wife to procreate and take dominion in the world. This comes through the family as God gives life and blesses that life typified in the ‘royal’ or ‘holy’ family in the New Testament where Divine action concentrates and distributes the blessing to all nations. But, what we see in Scripture as a blessing and great responsibility can also turn out to be a curse. And, Ozark imaginatively turns our minds to the horrifying realities of Breaking Bad Families.
*Warning Ozark contains nudity in the first season in addition to graphic violence and language.
Joshua R. Farris, Rev., Ph.D, is the Humboldt Experienced Researcher Fellow at the Ruhr University Bochum, Associate Editor at European Journal of Philosophy of Religion, and volunteer Professor of Theology and Science at Missional University. He has recently completed The Creation of Self: A Case for the Soul (Iff publishers, 2023).