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‘Ozark’ on Netflix: This Lake Has Hidden Depths

But beneath its choppy crime-drama surface, “Ozark” explores deeper issues.

It’s a middle-class nightmare amped to the extreme — in a blink everything you’ve worked for is gone, your stability shattered and the future full of peril. The show also suggests, in flashbacks depicting Marty’s descent into money laundering, that the line between ambition and felonious greed is thinner than we might like to believe.

Kindred Criminals

Early in the production process for “Ozark,” the showrunner Chris Mundy explained the general story to Netflix. Then he did it again.

“I said ‘I’m going to lay this out to you twice — once on a pure plot thriller level, and once on an emotional family level,’” he said. “Because we thought of it as both things.”

As much as it is a story of a man trying to scramble out of a life-threatening bind, “Ozark” is equally about a fractured family that is forced to reconnect. The early moments find the marriage between Marty and Wendy on the rocks and their children absorbed in their own melodramas. Their daughter, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), is a classic teen, resentful and lost in her phone. The son, Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) is quirkier, and might have darker inclinations.

“For us, the big question of the season was, can this family stay together somehow?” Mr. Mundy said.

As in nervy crime dramas like “Breaking Bad” or “Bloodline” (Mr. Mundy has written for “Bloodline”), a major theme of “Ozark” is how the sins of one family member affect, infect and jeopardize the whole group. But the twist in this case is that the lawlessness might bring them closer together, said Bill Dubuque, the screenwriter (“The Accountant”) who came up with the story and wrote the first two episodes.

“We thought, why don’t we take this on a trip where the familial bond, and what these children are capable of, are actually benefited by what they’ve gone through rather than decimated by it?” he said.

Elsewhere on the lake, assumptions about families and class are similarly subverted. An extended clan of petty crooks is overseen by one of its youngest members, a teenage girl. Perhaps the warmest relationship on the show is a marriage between two other local criminals, a pair of murderous heroin dealers.


Laura Linney in “Ozark.”

Jackson Davis/Netflix

These dynamics get at how families can function as both liabilities and sources of strength, and at their fundamentally esoteric nature. They are really only understood from the inside, even as the members can be mysterious to one another.

“They all have secrets, and they’re all going to learn a whole lot about each other,” Ms. Linney said.

Newcomers Disrupt

“When you hear the word ‘Ozark,’ there’s this immediate perception of what you’re dealing with,” Mr. Dubuque said.” But to make it interesting, you’ve got to stand that on its head.”

Mr. Dubuque, who grew up in and still lives outside St. Louis, spent many summers at the Lake of the Ozarks, a 54,000-acre man-made reservoir with 1,150 miles of coast line. He remains fascinated by its contradictions. It’s a place of pristine natural beauty better known for revelry — The New York Times once described the lake’s Party Cove as “the oldest established permanent floating bacchanal in the country” — where expansive waterfront mansions sit within a few miles of trailer parks.

The annual summer influx of tourist cash also made it an ideal setting for a story about money laundering. (The series’s 10 episodes were shot partially at the title lake but primarily in Atlanta.)

“Here’s an area you just don’t see on television,” he said. But “the one thing I stressed was, you can’t make these people stereotypes.”

Marty, the arrogant Chicago financial expert, is consistently thwarted by locals who are smarter than he assumes, with schemes of their own. “He makes a really bad miscalculation in what he perceives that environment’s going to be, and his ability to manipulate it,” Mr. Bateman said.

This story about urbanites confronting a heartland culture they don’t understand coincidentally captures a dynamic that has received plenty of attention since Donald J. Trump won the presidency. Initial “Ozark” scripts were written long before the election. But Mr. Bateman allowed that the parallels between “a pseudo-intellectual guy who thinks that he can go down to the sticks and big-city these simple folk” and President Trump’s critics, flabbergasted by his victory, “weren’t lost on us.”

“These people are not in a cosmopolitan, metropolitan, ‘progressive’ society, and they are to be reckoned with,” Mr. Bateman said. “They have a different set of ideas and rules about the way things are done.”

The filmmaking reinforces the themes — in one scene in the pilot, directed by Mr. Bateman, the camera pulls away dramatically to isolate family on a rocky cliff, suggesting what they’re up against. But the overarching metaphor actually posits the newcomers as the interlopers bringing chaos to a stable environment. At one point, Jonah watches a documentary about the European starling, and how it wreaked havoc upon its introduction to North America. (The Byrde family, get it?)

“That came out of the idea that this family was an invasive species,” Mr. Mundy said “If they’d never come in, think of people who would still be alive, whose businesses would be fine.”

“They disrupted, without knowing it, a whole ecosystem,” he added.

But amid all the carnage there is a simpler and perhaps encouraging point, in these divided times, about the ultimate fruitlessness of clinging to regional or any other prejudices.

“You’ve got highly intelligent people everywhere in the country, and you’ve got remarkably stupid people everywhere in the country,” Mr. Dubuque said. “It’s not geographically specific.”

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