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With ‘Ozark,’ Jason Bateman Mixes Michael Bluth With Walter White

In the new Netflix series Ozark, an unscrupulous main character is haunted by his sinful past, a plotline that doesn’t sound that dissimilar from several acclaimed recent television dramas — most specifically, the Emmy-winning Breaking Bad. As Vulture’s Jen Chaney mentioned in her positive review of Ozark, “Once again we have a man who looks decent on the surface but … gets involved in dirty deeds that dig him into deeper, more dangerous holes.” Writing at Uproxx, Alan Sepinwall was less generous, observing, “What might have felt like a novel idea 10 or 15 years ago — middle-aged white antihero does something terrible to help his family, and only gets pulled in deeper and deeper — is now so tired that it would require sheer brilliance to come out feeling [original].”

But while Ozark owes a major debt to Breaking Bad — not to mention the somber darkness that’s the hallmark of so much prestige television — its protagonist is a long way from Walter White. And as played with intriguing opacity by Jason Bateman, those differences are what help Ozark find its own rhythm. The horror of Breaking Bad was its reveal of the murderous, greedy megalomaniac hiding beneath the surface of a seemingly mild-mannered chemistry teacher. In Ozark, our antihero (Bateman) never kills anyone, never plots anybody’s death and never really changes from the slightly wonkish number-cruncher we meet at the beginning of the 10-episode season. We’re not even sure if he’s actually evil — if anything, Ozark’s horror is that the audience doesn’t know precisely how to feel about this wholly anonymous nobody.

Bateman, who directed four episodes and serves as an executive producer, plays Marty Byrde, a Chicago financial planner who appears to have a pretty pedestrian upper-class, white-collar life working in a blandly sleek downtown office. But soon, we learn his secret: He and his business partner launder money for a calmly ruthless Mexican drug runner named Del (Esai Morales), who’s pissed after discovering that someone in the operation is skimming profits. (That someone is not Marty, who is proud of his personal integrity and had no knowledge that others were cheating Del.)

Having killed Marty’s associates in cold blood, Del trains his gun next on Marty, who talks his way out of being assassinated by proposing a crazy notion. Rather than operating illicit activities through Chicago, where law enforcement is rampant, why not move to the relatively unmonitored Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, where tourists spend a lot of cash? Marty guarantees he can easily launder $8 million in a manner of months — after all, there won’t be Feds around monitoring his activities in such a sleepy backwoods — and Del agrees, threatening Marty’s whole family if he fails.

From there, the show consists of Marty liquidating all his assets and quickly moving his brittle wife Wendy (Laura Linney) and teen children Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) to the Ozarks so they can start a new life — and so Marty can buy up a struggling local business he can use to clean Del’s dirty money. Not surprisingly, lots goes wrong with his plan, as he runs afoul of regional heroin dealers, a scheming white-trash teenager (Julia Garner) and some FBI agents hot on his trail.

Ozark has been seen by some as Bateman’s Breaking Bad — a chance for the actor, like Bryan Cranston before him, to shed his comedic persona and show off some dramatic chops. But the trick to his compelling performance is that, really, it’s not all that different from his role as Michael, the competent, steady center of the dysfunctional Bluths on Arrested Development.

In that acclaimed sitcom, Michael was always confident in the fact that he was brighter than all the spoiled, vain idiots in his family — a realization that often led to laughs when his overconfidence resulted in his own comedic undoing. Marty carries that same edge of superiority into every scene he enters, especially when he lands in the Ozarks, using his polite, unthreatening manner to sweet-talk failing local-yokel business owners into selling their shops, presenting himself as an “angel investor” whose financial acumen can turn their stores around.

But where Walter’s descent into becoming Heisenberg was fueled by self-righteousness, a cancer diagnosis and a feeling of emasculation in his dead-end life, Marty has no justification for his actions. Ozark will eventually flesh out a bit of his backstory so that we understand why such a milquetoast guy got into bed with a Mexican cartel, but even then, there’s no complex, dramatic explanation for Marty’s risky decision. Basically, he did it just for the money — and because he’s willing to put aside personal ethics in order to do so.

As a result, watching Marty navigate the messes he gets himself into during Ozark is a far different viewing experience than it was on Breaking Bad, The Sopranos or House of Cards. On those other shows, the darkness was guided by dynamic, towering figures whose emotional complexity informed their immoral choices. By contrast, Marty is the very model of a blank-slate financial planner: He’s got a head for numbers and is adept at convincing people to trust him, but he seems so devoted to logic that he’s almost entirely programmed out anything about himself that might be human.

Early on, he discovers that Wendy has been cheating on him for years, but the revelation elicits no emotional tirade. Instead, after she makes an impassioned defense about why she feels so distant from him. Marty merely listens and then matter-of-factly responds, “We are not husband-and-wife anymore. We’re just business partners, and our job is to raise those kids.”

In a later episode, during a flashback to his first conversation with Wendy about whether to work for Del, Marty justifies his potential involvement with the cartel by explaining flatly, “I wouldn’t be a mule, I wouldn’t be a dealer — I’d be just pushing my mouse around my desk.”

That kind of rationalization is how he handles everything in Ozark. Walter White built his meth empire to feed his need for power, getting off on being the badass in his own story after decades of feeling like an ineffectual loser. Marty does nothing out of emotion or for his ego — everything is executed with the bloodlessness and cold efficiency of a keystroke. Even when the attractive owner of a rundown Ozarks lodge (Jordana Spiro) starts to take a shine to Marty, he never indulges in an affair. He seems cut off from everything — himself most especially.

Bateman’s uniquely qualified for such a role. You could argue that his whole career has been driving toward Marty. His early years as a cute kid in lame sitcoms like Silver Spoons paved the way for his rebirth as the snarky Michael on Arrested Development, the actor’s sarcastic, put-upon demeanor not just the perfect response to the wildly irresponsible Bluth clan but also an ironic, self-mocking commentary on his earlier pin-up fame.

But in recent years, Bateman has twisted Michael Bluth’s bland handsomeness into a kind of weapon, playing soulless corporate types in movies like Hancock, Up in the Air and The Gift, the characters’ inoffensive exteriors proving to be a ruse to hide the ugly ambition underneath. In a recent Vulture interview, Bateman seized upon this dilemma about his career as the pleasant, slightly forgettable guy. “[N]o one is going to see a ‘Jason Bateman vehicle,’” the actor said. “Why would they? I can’t do what Will Ferrell does. I’m not that guy. I’m the guy you cut to after Will Ferrell’s character does something who gives a frozen blink.” As Bateman put it, “You can’t hang a movie on that guy.”

Maybe, but you can definitely put him at the center of a twisty, pulpy Netflix series. The whole secret to Marty’s success is that, as an everyday financial planner, he was able to walk through life undetected, effortlessly laundering money without tipping off the Feds. His undistinguished whiteness allowed him to blend into the background, which is how he likes it. But as Marty’s life gets more complicated in Ozark and different people want him dead, he doesn’t discover a newfound, darker persona or get a taste for killing.

In fact, Marty never once even mentions the idea of bumping off any of his many adversaries — a move that Walter White and other prestige-television characters have discovered is a handy way of getting out of tight spots. Marty is too fundamentally benign and buttoned-down to ever consider something so heinous. If he’s indeed evil, it’s the kind that’s a lot less showy. Sure, he may launder drug dealers’ millions, but he’s not a monster.

In the era of Breaking Bad, there’s been a lot of talk about why we watch (and maybe even root for) dastardly characters, and the answer is usually that because they’re such nuanced, compelling figures we become magnetized by their contradictions and mixture of charm and malice. Ozark challenges that assumption by giving us an antihero so plainly ordinary that there’s no glee or discomfort in watching Marty try to outfox his foes.

Near the end of the show, a born-again pastor — one of Ozark’s beacons of goodness — feels his faith shaken. And yet, he tells Marty, “There’s gotta be a god, because there’s the devil. I think you’re the fucking devil.” It’s a shock to Marty — and maybe the audience, too. We’re used to our television devils relishing in flashing their horns and pitchfork. At the height of his power, Heisenberg arrogantly demanded to his underlings, “Say my name.” But most monsters aren’t like that — more often, they’re Marty, who hopes you don’t notice him at all.