TV or Not TV | Ozark’s America and the Rise of the Longform

By Robert Koehler

“Why do I have this feeling that it’d be better off if you were dead?”

Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) says this to Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) in their first encounter inside a public-park washroom in Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams’ longform series, Ozark. As one of the notorious Langmores—a clan of (mostly) criminals going back to their early bootlegging days in the Ozarks, and close cousins to the ruthless, raucous Crowe family in Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens sagas (which were adapted into the series Justified, of which Ozark is a direct descendant)—Ruth was born with larceny in her heart and a keen instinct for sniffing out a fellow crook when she sees one. Marty, a Chicago investment advisor in flight from the law, has boldly barged in on the Langmores as they’re figuring how to handle the dough they’ve just stolen from Marty. What they don’t know is that the dough doesn’t belong to Marty, but to the Michoacan-based cartel lord Omar Navarro (Felix Solis), who has assigned his lieutenant Camino Del Rio (Esai Morales) to ensure that Marty launders $500,000 in (already clean) cash in the Lake of the Ozarks resort region in Missouri as a test of Marty’s self-declared skills. Marty, displaying his top three talents—1) numbers, 2) selling others on an idea, and 3) wiggling out of a bad jam—puts the hillbilly Langmores in their place by letting them know that they’re not fucking with him, they’re fucking with what will simply be known, pace Don Winslow, as “the cartel.”

So, Ruth meets Marty and we’re off, for what has emerged as one of the key masterworks made for screens not in cinemas—right now in the pandemic, and maybe from this point on, the only screens that matter. Ruth and Marty’s encounter is like the first time we see James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, or Michael Kenneth Williams’ Omar Little in The Wire, or Bryan Cranston’s Walter White crossing paths with Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, or Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan facing off with Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowther in Justified. These lives of crime—because those on either side of the law are living it—trigger sagas of enormous passions, strung along by a chain of actions and reactions that serve to tell a story about America. 

Crime fiction is the best way to get inside and fathom America, to grasp the basic fact that the country based on the principle of equal protection under the law is also in love with the idea of breaking the law. That’s what the mavens of high culture always have wrong about American literature: the cockeyed notion that The Great American Novel is the key to understanding a country founded on defiance and racism, based on jungle capitalism, and revelling in ungovernability. Fiction about characters in a world of crime takes America on its own terms and tells it like it is. In a land where making money is everything, how can crime not be definitional? You’re either doing it, or you’re getting it done to you. As Dubuque and Williams introduce Marty, they also introduce Ozark’s animating idea and their take on capitalism—and what was the last movie or TV show you saw that did that? Here’s Marty, transporting stacks of cash by boat to his hiding place, explaining his view of capitalism in voiceover: “Most people have a flawed view of money,” that it isn’t about its intrinsic worth. “Money is a measure of a man’s choices.”

Marty, with his wife Wendy (Laura Linney), teen daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), and middle-school son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), has to choose between three unsavoury options when he faces near-certain death at the hands of Del Rio in the pilot: work for the cartel and prove to them that he can launder cash, execution, or suicide. (WITSEC, the US witness-protection program, so porous that it’s lost all respectability, is never a real consideration. Suicide, on the other hand, is definitely on the table.) The Byrdes’ destination: Osage Beach at the Lake of the Ozarks, a long way from the FBI’s focus, and, with its 1,100 miles of coastline and hundreds of hideout coves patrolled by eight Missouri state boats, relatively easy to hide your activities. For 30 hour-long episodes across three seasons and counting, the continuing narrative of Ozark grows and develops the concept of choice like kudzu, less as a thematic and more as a state of action. 

Unlike The Sopranos, which melded the Godfather saga’s notion of the mafia as a metaphor for capitalism with the suburban family’s disarming identity as a clan so comfortably upscale as to be the object of aspiration, Ozark posits its central criminal as a capitalist par excellence whose family remains in the middle class, but, true to its Trump-era setting, is far less stable than the Sopranos. In an era when the top American “industry” is financial management, Marty is a man of the moment, preternaturally gifted with numbers, ledgers, and cash flows, the ideal player if your game is cleaning drug money. The opening episode of Ozark is less a standard pilot than a precis on the essences of Marty (oh so careful, watch how he hangs a tennis ball in his garage so he knows how far to pull in the car) and Wendy (cheating on Marty with a wealthy businessman, conniving to empty their bank accounts before police and the cartel swoop in). Beyond how many complex incidents Dubuque and Williams manage to pack into less than 55 minutes, the episode also establishes Ozark as a saga that will consider, in endless variations, how one character’s decision spins off a myriad of consequences and counter-decisions for many others that character may not know. What begins as one man’s bad business decision becomes an epic about a community.

At points during the middle of all three seasons, I counted more than 20 characters contending with the effect of the Byrdes landing at Lake of the Ozarks, and the reason for such a crowd piling into a narrative is organic to Marty’s central need: he must find local cash-based businesses that are financially vulnerable, needing “an angel” (as Marty calls himself) to come to the rescue with influxes of capital. His project pulls various tentacles of the Lake’s community into his orbit, which is strong even as it faces maximum resistance. Walter White went the easy route and simply bought himself an Albuquerque car wash; Marty’s venture is far more difficult, true to Ozark’s depiction of labour as Sisyphean. He fails to pitch a storage-unit owner; he runs up against the owner of the area’s only “titty bar,” Lickety Splitz (which he eventually takes over by force); he more successfully pitches a partnership on Rachel (Jordana Spiro), owner of the Blue Cat Lodge, but even this turns into a shitstorm. Meanwhile, Wendy—now going full criminal in the second season after trying to just keep the family intact in the first—partners with Marty to obtain a riverboat casino, which involves buying off whole portions of the Missouri state legislature, sweet-talking the state’s most powerful (and right-wing) mover and shaker, Charles Wilkes (Darren Goldstein), and getting in bed with the meanest couple east of the Pecos, Jacob and Darlene Snell (Peter Mullan and Lisa Emery), whose farming is a side business to their heroin production. (The corrupt local law, represented by Robert C. Trevelier’s Sheriff John Nix, looks the other way, and even help the Snells move their product.) 

It hardly ends there: far from Marty’s presumption that the Feds wouldn’t catch up to him in the backwoods (a spectacularly naïve notion in retrospect), FBI Special Agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner), a deeply disturbed gay man whom his ex-lover and fellow agent Trevor Evans (McKinley Belcher III) calls a “sociopath” to his face, doggedly tracks the Byrdes by any (usually illegal) means necessary, including turning Rachel into a wired informant by feeding her drug addiction. True to this narrative’s Zolaesque capacity for jumping among America’s social classes and sub-categories (backwoods hillbillies to inner-city street dealers, billionaires to trailer trash, and everyone in between) and characters in diametric opposition, the new FBI agent who tracks Marty in season three, Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes), is the anti-Petty, a firmly idealistic lawwoman who can’t be bought, but whose weaknesses Marty finally manages to exploit.

This ever-expanding world, involving the most ambitiously executed ensemble on the small screen outside of Game of Thrones, exerts one kind of force on the Byrdes’ presence: call it the inside-outside effect. Ruth, who engages in the most complex and unpredictable relationship with Marty (Garner, in a tour de force of verbal cloudbursts and emotional releases, delivers one of our era’s great performances), feels this effect most profoundly. But Ruth’s sneaky-smart cousin Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) captures the essence of what the Byrdes are facing when he explains (alluding to The Martian Chronicles, by one of his favourite writers, Ray Bradbury) the Lake’s visitors-vs.-locals dynamic to Charlotte: “They always leave. It’s the difference between them and us. You’re with us now.” One of the narrative’s sustaining tensions is if the Byrdes, the ultimate outsiders, will ever become part of the local web, or simply ensnared by it. 

The other force is more classically American: the Byrdes’ upward mobility as they acquire ever-more-upscale money-laundering operations and manoeuvre through a procession of knotty problems that naturally evolve out of their situation. Graduating from crappy hideouts for cash that would embarrass Nick Ray’s poorest desperadoes to a gleaming riverboat casino, the Byrdes are moving on up, but with more rewards come more risks. A crowning characteristic of Dubuque and Williams’ writing is how they reshuffle a standard trope of multi-season episodic saga storytelling, the turnstile of entering and exiting characters presenting fresh obstacles for the protagonist. The emergence of Navarro himself, Navarro’s ice-cold attorney Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer, surpassing even her high standards for commanding attention), or the fearsome Teamster and Kansas City mob boss Frank Cosgrove (John Bedford Lloyd) never play as chess pieces deployed in an ever more elaborate game (as is literally the case in Game of Thrones): each character forms an additional link in the chains of authority on both sides of the law, physically mapping America’s—and in season three, Mexico’s—systems of power and capital. 

Quietly suggested at first, and then bursting into full and tragic perspective in season three, is the irony that so long as the new character obstacles are part of a definable system or institution— whether strip clubs, legislative bodies, or cartels—the Byrdes are smart enough to manage them, but when they’re faced with personal dilemmas, the family nearly comes apart at the seams. Charlotte gets so fed up with her parents’ shenanigans that she decides to legally “emancipate” herself, and boy howdy, just watch the ensuing Laura Linney meltdown. More devastating is season three’s dramatic thunderclap with perhaps the show’s most emotionally wrought character, Wendy’s bipolar brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey, whose performance in his final episodes feels like a total dissolution of the wall between actor and character). The ferocious reality of the Byrdes’ control of their circumstances becomes clear: any control is an illusion.

Changes in technology foster changes, sometimes profound changes (for good and bad), in moving-image art; the development of streaming has worked like an accelerant. I would argue that its impact on what we watch on smaller screens is arguably greater than the impact of sound or portable cameras on cinema, since it has opened up a new art form. Like Ozark on Netflix, Goliath on Amazon Prime also ponders the current state of American power and capitalism through the lens of crime fiction. The key difference, perhaps betraying its creator David E. Kelley’s roots in network television, is that Goliath’s hero, Billy Bob Thornton’s bedraggled defense attorney Billy McBride, always begins a new case each season, while the Byrdes’ adventure keeps going. Each show applies the law of suspense—time times pressure—in the viewing experience of a massive moving-image narrative; again, the difference is that the pressure of the Byrdes’ deadlines are more severe than Billy’s. Goliath’s primary director, Lawrence Trilling, recently told me, and I think he’s right, that these streaming series “can’t be called ‘television,’ and I don’t call them ‘streaming’ either, because that reduces this work to its technology. The best term for them is ‘Longform.’” 

Ozark is the greatest work in Longform to date because it develops in unprecedented ways how Longform permits ever-complicating states of action that create, in John Truby’s phrase, story weave. Truby observes that story weave (using Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential [1997] as a study case) inevitably involves character weave; in Ozark, with a league of primary and secondary characters, each of whom is worthy of a story unto themselves, the story weave is formed by the characters rather than being imposed on them. Ozark’s narrative nature encourages continuity—you fire it up, you can’t turn it off—and this nature is heightened as a Longform work viewed with streaming technology. The Wire, perhaps the first television work to similarly apply such an ambitious story weave through character weave, presaged Longform before the technology allowed it, and was only contained by HBO’s one-episode-per-week policy and the show’s conceptual limits of depicting a single institution per season. Ozark has no such constraints. By the end of season three, when Navarro has voted with his gun to select the Byrdes as his main US business partner, it’s fair to say that viewers have no idea where Marty and his family are headed. There’s none of the noir sense of doom of a Walter White or even Tony Soprano, none of the certainty of Raylan on his mission to root out what he calls “a garden of assholes.” There’s only the constant, endless sense of accumulating power (or is it receding?), the sense that you’re in the garden, deeper and deeper—and that if you’re not dead, then maybe you’re winning. Koehler Robert