Theodor Adorno wrote that the splinter in one’s eye is the best magnifying lens. He advocated a kind of “paranoid criticism,” one that overestimates its object and exaggerates its meaning, using the microcosm of the cultural phenomenon to illuminate the surrounding social world. In this view, art and theory alike exist to provoke recognition, to make vivid what is otherwise only dimly perceived.
By that measure, the Netflix show Ozark succeeds brilliantly. Now concluded after its fourth season, Ozark dramatizes the decisive role played by criminal and black-market elements in the functioning of the “transparent” neoliberal economy.
Real-world headlines have long shed light on the reliance of the official economy on the black market. The Panama Papers leak in 2016 exposed the dramatic extent of government and corporate corruption in the developing and developed worlds. It also suggested that money from international organized crime saved world finances during the 2008 crisis. In the pre-neoliberal era, the Three Mile Island nuclear-plant disaster of 1979 was caused by Mafia extortion of the electric company, with the complicity of Democratic Party politicians—showing how such imbrication of organized crime in capitalism is nothing new, even if its scale has apparently increased in recent times.
Ozark tells a similar tale, set on the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Built as a private project in the early twentieth century that presaged the New Deal-era public works projects, this artificial reservoir displaced poor locals and ended up turning the area into a resort destination for rich Midwesterners escaping cities. It is to this getaway that the show’s protagonist, a mild-mannered financial advisor named Marty Byrde (played by Jason Bateman), flees with his family. They are escaping Chicago, where Byrde’s business partner has just been killed by a Mexican drug cartel for whom they were laundering money. To save his own life, Marty offers to use the resort community as a base for a new laundering operation.
Before long, Marty and his family encounter the remnants of the old local community, who self-identify as hillbillies (don’t call them rednecks!). Some turn out to be cartel competitors in heroin production and distribution. The Byrde family’s interactions with the locals become an education in the hard truths of contemporary social reality, as well as a psychological exercise in identification and counter-identification as urban middle-class America faces its poor, rural counterparts. In this way, the show is comparable to Orange Is the New Black, in which the federal incarceration of a young, middle-class, white woman becomes the prism through which contemporary society as a whole can be seen.
The Byrdes are also confronted by the FBI, hot on the trail of the cartel. The feds aim not so much to stop the flow of illegal drugs as to manage it. At one point they suggest that Marty himself assume control of the cartel as an alternative to incarceration. The police are shown to be complicit with crime—for stopping it is beyond them.
The Mexican drug cartel is portrayed in familiar terms as a ruthless but quaint loyalty racket, whose culture remains entirely foreign to the Byrdes. A Catholic priest, the confessor of the cartel’s kingpin, shows up at one point seeking the redemption of Marty’s soul. The priest also offers to help Marty set up the drug lord in order to bring an end to the bloodshed. When Marty expresses skepticism at the ethics of the priest’s ministry to the cartel, the cleric replies that the priest goes where God is most needed. The agnostic Marty doesn’t need him.
The United States appears as almost beyond redemption in Ozark. The nephew of the kingpin, jockeying to replace his uncle, is a graduate of an American business school. He remarks on the country’s decline, saying that America has become merely a “street market” for his wares. A rather Trumpy moment occurs when Marty’s wife Wendy (played by Laura Linney) gets involved in politics. She discovers a widespread electronic voting-machine election-rigging plot, to which she, appalled, nevertheless must accede. She also gets to know the heiress to a pharmaceutical company who is wracked by guilt for the way her company has hooked people on opioids, and who now needs the cartel’s discounted heroin as an ingredient for a rehab drug her company manufactures.
Ozark follows other supposedly “anti-hero” dramas of recent years, beginning with The Sopranos and extending through Breaking Bad and its spin-off series, Better Call Saul. The representation of organized crime becomes an exaggerated microcosm and allegory for the greater society. Besides Tony Soprano, however, these protagonists are not proper anti-heroes. Tony really is a sociopath but Walter White and Jimmy McGill turn out to be true Menschen after all. So do Marty Byrde and the members of his family.
Don Draper in Mad Men is an equivocal case. When the counterculture blooms around him, he sees a business opportunity. He doesn’t choose Buddhism over capitalism, but sees the potential for the latter in the former. The final scene of the series concludes with Draper doing yoga on California’s coastline, at the brink of the turn to neoliberalism, conceiving the “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” 1971 Coca Cola advertisement jingle and tagline while surrounded by hippies on a hill overlooking the ocean at sunset—a recent reviewer bemoaned this scene, preferring, with stunning naiveté, that yoga, as well as artistic creativity, be presented as alternatives to capitalism.
Who are these straight white middle-class men, and what is the key to their vindication? It is their bourgeois ingenuity. In the midst of an almost post-apocalyptic capitalist order, in which old traditions and communities have been swept away, they keep their wits about them and save a few others along the way. It is a fantasy, of course, but of a specific kind. It follows from classic bourgeois literature, in which depiction of quotidian social realities could also propound a certain moral lesson. Unlike older, mostly religious morality tales, these are stories of secular redemption, not of resignation to cosmic fate, whether divine or natural. For bourgeois society, human nature is neither inherently good nor evil, but it is presumed innocent and not guilty.
Marty—whose name I interpret to mean Mart-y, a crafty negotiator in the market of competing interests, rather than the standard meaning diminutive of Martin, or “warrior of Mars”—is contrasted with Helen Pierce, a cynical attorney whose family, unlike Marty’s, remains in privileged middle-class ignorance, entirely oblivious to her involvement in the cartel’s schemes. She’s an important antagonist in the series, and her shockingly sudden death at the hands of the cartel kingpin underlines the amoral nature of her role. The cartel chooses the Byrdes over Helen, whose loyalty is beyond doubt, simply because Marty is more effective at meeting their needs.
Marty’s actions are not amoral. But he follows a different compass than that used by the cartel, FBI, local mafias, and politicians. The drama of the series turns on the ambiguity of Marty’s choices, which at crucial points remain uncertain not only in result but in motivation. Only at the end are Marty’s decisions vindicated—in moral and practical terms. He not only means well but does well.
The lead FBI agent, a righteous black woman, attempts to assert the higher morality of law enforcement but she is betrayed by her superiors, who throw her under the bus for the sake of bureaucratic rationality as well as political expediency. Marty helps to save her life while turning the tables on her betrayers.
He tries to pursue the best interests of everyone, even his opponents and competitors—the bourgeois ideal of market society. He chooses deals over wars. It is not merely a matter of fair play but of self-interest. Marty’s talent is not only running numbers but understanding people. For instance, Marty takes a young local woman, Ruth Langmore (played by Julia Garner), as an apprentice in his money-laundering operation, but is careful to look out for her interests as best he can, through the many twists and turns of their struggles, despite her suspicions of his motives. He is not especially compassionate but he is empathetic. As Adam Smith said, we should appeal to others in their self-interest. Marty embodies what Adorno called “bourgeois coldness.” It is a virtue not a vice.
Marty cannot change the world but tries to redeem it, turning the results of its ugly processes to best effect. He operates in the gray areas of human agency in real life, such as they remain in capitalism, the small acts upon which major ones may find a firm foundation, but which are never seen in official proceedings or big capitalist initiatives, whether economic or political. He is an example of the unsung hero of society, whose acts are neither those of self-sacrifice nor charity but are nonetheless altruistic and courageous. Socialist politics would stem from such bourgeois morality contra capitalism.
The message of Ozark is: Trust not the capitalists, whether of the official or unofficial economy, nor their state and its politics, but the little man of bourgeois society. He may yet save himself—and the rest of us with him.