Failing at Goodness in Ozark

Robert Hubbard

Visiting a meaningful location from our past can trigger a nostalgic sense of wistful affection, a reminder of how far we’ve come and how much we’ve changed.

In the first episode of Ozark Season 3, Wendy (Laura Linney), the matriarch of the Byrde crime family, finds herself standing outside a suburban home near Chicago. She used to live here with her family, before a money-laundering scheme caused the Byrdes to frenziedly flee to southern Missouri, where she began her Lady Macbeth-like rise as a disturbingly gifted white-collar criminal. Wendy locates the hidden key still hiding where she left it more than three years ago and discretely lets herself into her former home. She respectfully admires the new family’s photos, eventually ending up nostalgically staring at an unmade bed in her son’s former room. With maternal care, she carefully makes the bed for her proxy son, then pauses.

As if awakened by a wave of evil, Wendy deliberately yanks the covers to the floor and begins a spree of petty vandalism. She drinks the beer from the fridge, puts food coloring in the milk, and hangs the large family portrait over the mantle upside down, all while Radiohead’s “The Daily Mail” plays on the soundtrack.

Wendy’s acts of vandalism exemplify a prominent theme in the Netflix series: Ozark consistently depicts a family trying and failing to be good, at least to each other. While embroiled in money laundering, illegal drug distribution, and even murder, parents Wendy and Marty (Jason Bateman) persistently strive to maintain their nuclear family. Their earnest yet doomed efforts have a lot to teach Christians about why we fail to be good and how we may ultimately realize a true and selfless sense of goodness in our lives.

Save the felonies and mysterious deaths of their enemies, the Byrdes’ domestic life appears surprisingly normal. Daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) agrees to comply with the family’s life of crime on the condition that her parents seek marriage counseling. Marty and Wendy gamely agree. What neither partner knows is that the other is secretly paying off the therapist to take their side. After buying herself a fancy sports car with her proceeds, the agreeable marriage counselor (Marylouise Burke) offers the hilarious question: “What does it say about a marriage when a husband and wife both try to bribe a therapist?”

Similarly, when geeky son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) asks if he can use his new drone to supply security for the family’s riverboat casino, Marty and Wendy encourage him to instead look for a normal summer job. Like good parents, they want their boy to learn the value of hard work. His parents’ child, however, the undeterred Jonah sticks with his plan and ends up accidentally recording a mass mob hit on his drone’s camera.

Perhaps the most powerful example of moral goodness polluted by dark interests occurs when Wendy starts a family charitable foundation. Without a whiff of irony, she asks her children to select altruistic causes in which to funnel the ill-gotten fortune of their drug-dealing business partner (Felix Solis). Defending the strategy while simultaneously revealing her lust for power, Wendy professes, “We can give millions to the causes we care about. We can run this god**** place.”

Ozark consistently depicts a family trying and failing to be good, at least to each other.

On one level, we may find encouragement in the Byrdes’ persistent attempts to care for their children and salvage their marriage, perhaps as a distant if perverted echo of 1 Timothy 5:8. Maybe we can even admire the Byrdes’ commitment to each other. Indeed, Marty’s love for Wendy grows tenderest during her moment of greatest need. Unable to care for or save her charismatic brother (Tom Pelphrey), who suffers from bipolar disorder, Wendy descends into inconsolable grief. With earnest affection, Marty pleads, “You are our whole life. Let me take care of you.” As Scripture teaches, love is a powerful call.

Sadly, however, the Byrdes’ quest for wealth and power eventually devours such acts of love; the end result is agony. While still alive and increasingly rich in Season 3, the Byrdes are more miserable and fearful than ever, resembling another famous fictional power couple. In Macbeth, perhaps Shakespeare’s most morally straightforward tragedy, the title figure laments:

Better be with the dead
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy.

After committing nearly as many heinous crimes as Wendy and Marty Byrde, the Macbeths come to know a profound truth: doing wrong brings no joy. Indeed, despite the alluring tug of worldly pursuits, wickedness begets anguish.

That great scholar of English literature, C.S. Lewis, offers Christians a helpful insight as to why. In Mere Christianity, Lewis predicts that trying to “be good” without Christ inevitably forces us to rely on our “natural selves” as the starting point for our morality. Lewis uses the phrase “putting on Christ” to describe God’s call for us to dress our broken selves in Christ’s grace-filled example. Rather than being good to make up for our badness, “putting on Christ” covers our sinful natures in his redemptive love. Grateful for that, we can offer our “goodness” in response. While being good all by ourselves, for ourselves, may work for a time, Lewis proclaims that “the more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you.”

In the end, Lewis predicts that, without the “Christ-life inside,” we may eventually give up “trying to be good” and, like Marty and Wendy Byrde, “become very unhappy indeed.”

Topics: TV