This Netflix drama hopes it looks so much like a dark crime drama that you forget how shallow it is.
Ozark season two is built on a lie, one the audience can see coming from a long way off.
It begins from the premise that Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) will split from the little Ozark resort town they moved to in season one once they’ve built the casino they promised to their various criminal partners. Said casino will help launder money for the Mexican cartel Marty works for, but it will also provide a slightly more legitimate business enterprise for a local crime family, the Snells, whose land will furnish a location for the casino and whose heroin trade might also provide a lucrative side enterprise for the cartel.
This complicated balancing act, with the Byrdes at its center, would seem to set up a second season all about Marty and Wendy trying to keep the casino on track while trying to keep the cartel from stomping on the Snells and the Snells from fucking everything up in a fit of pique. (Darlene Snell, played by Lisa Emery, doesn’t much like “Mexicans,” as she’s fond of pointing out, but she can come up with any number of reasons to stomp on the casino project, some of which she just pulls out of her ass in the moment.)
Yet season two of Ozark is mostly about the Byrdes trying to pretend they’re not characters in a TV show, as Marty and Wendy focus on their plan to split with their two kids for the Gold Coast of Australia once the casino is open, leaving behind whatever mess they’ve created. They give much less attention to their burgeoning criminal empire.
Leaving aside that the Byrdes are frequently the least interesting characters on their own show, perpetually trapped in moral dilemmas prompted by their life of crime (dilemmas you’d really think they would have seen coming had they watched any other crime drama ever made), the audience knows they won’t be leaving anytime soon.
The Byrdes are our point-of-view characters. The story is about their slow descent into outright criminality, juxtaposed with the way said descent changes their family, sometimes for the better (but often for the worse). If they leave the Ozarks, then there is no show.
This is a common thing for an antihero drama to try for a few episodes. The “what if I tried to escape?” story has driven arcs on just about any antihero drama you can think of, though rarely successfully. TV doesn’t handle the moment where the protagonist “refuses the call” well, because it tends to drag out that moment into long bouts of inaction. Thus, in season two of Ozark, the Byrdes are too often reactive protagonists, trying to clean up messes caused by others rather than making new messes of their own.
There are still enough good things going on that I could have written off Ozark season two as competent but ultimately not for me — but for one thing.
Watching any given frame of this series, which has earned Emmy nominations for directing and cinematography, is frequently like looking through a pool of dirty dishwater. So intent on being perceived as serious is Ozark that it never stops to shoot anything in a format other than “ultra-glum.”
Some spoilers follow, mostly in the images, which depict certain situations the characters get into.
Ozark is so dedicated to a visual gimmick of swathing everything in shadow that it sometimes becomes incomprehensible
Let me explain what I mean by starting with a shot that is, on its face, totally defensible. (And I apologize for the watermark on these images, which were drawn from my screeners.)
I call this image “defensible,” because it more or less makes sense why Ruth’s face would be half in shadow. The scene takes place in a car, in late afternoon, in a place without a lot of light sources other than the sun. If you’re following a naturalistic theory of lighting, you can more or less argue for why Ruth appears to be receding into darkness.
But I pull up this image to give you a rather dramatic example of Ozark’s primary method for lighting scenes featuring human beings. Regardless of where they are, regardless of how much light would be present, they’re always lit so that half of their face is in shadow. I spent season two trying to count times when characters weren’t lit this way, and I never got to 15, across 10 episodes where the shortest installment ran 55 minutes and several ran over an hour.
It’s not just Ruth (the teenage would-be kingpin played by Julia Garner, who was the best thing about season one and is frustratingly wasted in season two), either. It’s every character. They’re all constantly trapped between darkness and light, in a bit of not particularly subtle visual symbolism.
Now, again, I could sort of make an argument for any of the above images making sense from the point of view of “there probably would be low light levels in that situation,” especially if you accept that everybody in the Ozarks is turning off lights all of the time to save on their electric bill.
But it’s harder to make that argument for a shot that is set in a hospital room. Have you seen hospital lighting?
Or this shot, set outside, on a sunny day. The sun is literally right behind the subject of the shot, but the director has staged the shot underneath an overhang so that the shadow lies over half the actor’s face.
This is not a problem of any one director, either. The show’s directorial crew includes esteemed Emmy nominees and winners like Alik Sakharov and Phil Abraham and Bateman himself. No, this is just how the show chooses to light every single shot, so that you always know the characters are in a murky moral gray area, caught between their darker selves and their better selves. There’s no attempt to vary this, and everything has a vaguely bluish tint over it, like the whole story takes place at 6:30 am in November.
But all of the above shots are more or less legible. Yeah, I think they’re all kind of silly as visual metaphors, but you can mostly see what’s going on, and a sufficiently skilled actor (and Ozark has plenty of those) will be able to get across just as much with only half their face as with access to their whole expression.
No, the real problems arise when Ozark stages so many of its scenes in ways that downplay visual contrast, leaving almost everything shrouded in shadow, to the point of genuine incomprehension. (At one point in watching season two, my monitor switched off, and it took me a couple of seconds to figure it out. Once I turned it back on, you couldn’t see anything that was happening anyway.)
Like, what are we supposed to make of this …
Or this …
Any one of these images might be stunning if it weren’t surrounded by so many other images that looked just like it. The last one, in particular, accompanies an emotionally powerful moment, and seeing this sort of negative image of a pieta could create something incredibly moving. But when everything is suffused with shadow, it’s harder for those moments to stand out.
The shadowy images are so bad they even swallow some of the show’s attempts at visual humor. For example, try to tell me what’s supposed to be funny about this image:
The joke is that this would-be tough guy is wearing a shirt that reads “Take a Dam Ride.” Even if you don’t know who the character is, you should be able to spot the silly pun. But Ozark’s visual scheme chokes even that out.
There are some occasionally interesting visuals in Ozark season two, usually involving the sudden eruption of fire (which has a tendency to cast an unearthly but much-needed glow onto everything nearby). And I liked the season’s final image, which uses the flatter lighting of a news photograph to throw everything that’s happened into relief.
But the show’s visuals, too often, feel like a series playing at seriousness via tricks it learned on other, better shows.
Ozark knows all the moves, but it doesn’t have the slightest idea how to employ them
I can already hear Ozark fans lining up to say, “So what if it’s dark and moody? I like dark and moody!” Well, let’s take a look at a famous shot from a series Ozark is frequently compared to: Breaking Bad.
Notice how much more definitive the contrast in lighting is here. Yes, you lose a bit of Walter’s face to shadow, but you can still see what’s going on, and the string of lights behind him acts as an effective visual counterpoint to the dark things he’s doing. This is a scene, set at night, that immediately tells you everything you need to know about who Walter is and what he’s doing. And if you know the series, you’ll understand that even better.
What’s more, not all of Breaking Bad was lit like this! In fact, here’s a shot from the very same episode as the shot from above, the classic “Ozymandias” (directed by Rian Johnson).
Look how powerful that shot is because of the contrast between Skyler’s raging emotions and the starkness of daylight. Her whole life has fallen apart, and the unyielding sun is going to make sure you see every iota of her grief.
But I could point to literally any other great antihero drama and find the sort of visual contrast above. Yes, they all had scenes that took place in darkness and shadow, to great effect, and they all had scenes that seemed to take place in an eerie, autumnal chill. But they also had scenes in contrast to those, where the lights are so bright that you can’t look away from the devastation onscreen.
This sort of visual discontinuity is important to an audience’s experience of a filmed story. When everything looks the same, your brain tends to slide down into a rut of numbing familiarity. Effective filmmakers use visual discontinuity, then, to jar your brain out of that complacency, to make you sit up and take notice. (The great YouTube essayist Lindsay Ellis has a wonderful video on just this topic, covering the Transformers franchise, which has a similar problem to Ozark but in an opposite direction — there, the movies have too much going on in every frame.)
Going from dark to light, from action to inaction, from cacophony to stillness are all ways to keep viewers engaged and invested. Making sure everything is muted and coolly blue is a great way to simply trick the brain into guzzling down more episodes without really thinking about what it’s watching, at least not until moving on to the next thing. It’s a way to make what’s being offered seem like it has weight, without actually doing anything weighty.
The illusion of depth without any actual there there is an Ozark specialty. By the end of season two, it’s dragged itself to exactly where you’d think it would go, and racked up quite a body count (also proving it hasn’t really learned the lessons of the shows that came before it, which did their best to hold off on killing major characters). But none of it feels as if it has any meaning beyond getting from the end of season one to the start of season three. It’s a bridge to nowhere that keeps building itself right in front of you.
Tricking viewers’ brains into continuing to just watch stuff without really engaging with it is typical of this streaming era, and especially typical of Netflix, which too often settles for shows that have the appearance of quality without actually trying to do anything worth watching. They might not be good, but so long as they look good and feature good actors and have the sorts of plot turns you’d find in better shows, your brain might think they’re just good enough to keep going.
This is the specialty of Ozark, which is admittedly not the worst show on the air, or on Netflix. But there are few shows that make me feel more like a sucker once I’ve finished watching.
Ozark is streaming on Netflix.