Marty and Wendy Byrde and the banality of evil

The following discussion of morality in the Netflix series Ozark contains numerous spoilers.

“Byrde swoopin’ in,” announces Wendy Byrde as she invites herself for a drink with Buddy on the lawn of their shared house overlooking the lake. It is a key moment in the their initially antagonistic relationship, one that helps create an emotional bond based on mutual respect and affection. But it also announces the fundamental narrative of the series: the Byrdes are literally swooping into the Ozarks and, like all invasive species, they “wreak havoc on the local ecosystem” and its inhabitants.

This is made plain in the video Jonah watches in Nest Box (Series 1 Episode 7) about the invasion of the European starling. The narrator tells us:

“In 1890, a Bronx-born theatre enthusiast named Eugene Schieffelin took it upon himself to introduce all aviary species mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to the American continent. He began by releasing one hundred starlings into New York’s Central Park. The starlings proliferated monumentally, they devoured entire orchards, costing farmers millions each year, today over two hundred million starlings in North America consume nearly all the eggs of the nearly extinct eastern bluebird.”

The Byrdes too proliferated monumentally after they were released into the Ozarks in the first episode, and by the end of Series 4, they had destroyed countless lives and devoured huge tracks of the local economy, putting anyone who stood in their way out of business or in their crematorium. Do the Byrdes feel bad about impact this invasion has on the local residents? Not in the slightest. In fact, they tell anyone who will listen, they are bringing jobs and prosperity to a backward region and helping good causes through their family foundation. Of course, altruism has nothing to do with their actions, they are impelled initially by the need to secure their own survival and latterly by the desire to gather enough financial and political capital to make them bulletproof. For the Byrdes, any means necessary will be used to achieve their goal. Any troubling moral issues have to be “buried deep underground.”

The main driving force of the Byrde invasion is Wendy. She is far more ambitious than her detail-orientated husband and very quickly grasps the big picture and the potential for empire building that the Ozarks presents. As the perceptive drug lord Omar Navarro notes, Wendy “wants it all.” She is Lady Macbeth, threatening, cajoling and deliberately undermining her more cautious husband to get what she wants – “thane of Glamis,” “thane of Cawdor” and “king hereafter.”

Her all-consuming ambition eventually leads to the murder of her own brother and brings Wendy, who suffers from severe bouts of depression, to the edge of madness. Towards the end of the series, she checks herself into the mental asylum that she sent her brother to. Although this can be seen as a cynical ploy to prevent her children from leaving, Wendy’s distress is palpable.

Her hands are indelibly stained: “Will these hands ne’er be clean… Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” But Wendy’s relentless quest for it all continues unabated. As Ruth puts it:

“She’s fucking soulless. She will rip your heart out of your chest if it helps her get what she wants. She’s like a fucking predator that doesn’t even know why she is killing anymore.”

Marty has a much simpler agenda, as Navarro identifies, he just wants to “wants to win.” He wants to win in his battles with his wife, the Snells, the FBI, and the cartel, and he will lie to everyone’s face, threaten and betray anyone to get the win. Life for Marty is about problem solving, making calculated choices, seeking to minimise risk and optimise benefits. His actions are in essence no different from those he employed as a child to achieve the highest score on the aptly named arcade game Beast Slayer.

Morality does not come into the equation but sometimes his judgement is clouded by emotion. This is particularly true when it comes to Rachel and Ruth. He has confused sexual/fatherly feelings for both women and will on occasion make choices for their benefit (such as threatening Agent Petty to let Rachel go) as long as those choices do not directly go against the Byrdes’ primary agenda. Wendy of course is well aware of this deviant behaviour and constantly challenges Marty about it, accusing him of favouring people from outside the family over his own.

At various points in the series, both Marty and Wendy consider flight from the Ozarks. But this is not prompted by any sense of shame or guilt at their actions, it is usually compelled by visceral fear or a rational calculation that flight will enhance their chances of survival. Their children initially were not so corrupted and had grave misgivings about their parents. They both sought their freedom but ultimately accepted the need to put family first.

Charlotte’s bid for emancipation can be seen as response to her sense of moral repugnance but she quickly reconciles with her parents and becomes an integral, even enthusiastic, part of the business empire. Jonah, like the prophet he is named after, is at first a loyal acolyte of his money-laundering father but when his mother sanctions the murder of his Uncle Ben, Jonah can no longer tolerate the moral hypocrisy and for a while joins forces with the rapidly diminishing local population. In the end however it seems that Jonah too is swallowed by the family leviathan. In the very final scene of the series, Jonah appears to step up and secure the dynasty’s survival by killing Mel Satten, the private investigator who had been on their trail for the whole of Series 4 and who is threatening to bring them down. However, this conclusion is deliberately left open with a fade to black followed by the sound of a gunshot, echoing the final scene in The Sopranos, that other iconic American crime family.

To find any real moral authority in Ozark, you have to look beyond the Byrde family to the local community, and in particular the Snell and the Langmore families. Jacob Snell has a profound sense of honour and moral obligation. The first time we meet him, he relates a homely parable to the sinner Bobby Dean about a redneck and hillbilly and the importance of humility before God. Darlene then smites the redneck Bobby Dean dead with an overdose of heroin. Jacob has a much clearer understanding of moral principle than the babbling and deluded preacher Mason Young, who he uses as a front for his heroin distribution network. He is also willing to make tough choices, such as killing Ash, if it is the right thing to do. Ash sadly had to pay the price for Darlene’s rashness in killing Del, and his own carelessness in getting caught on camera covering up the crime.

It is easy to see Darlene simply as a crazed killer, but she is a loving wife and mother who is fiercely protective of her family. She has an overly quick temper but understands what is right, and even concedes to Jacob that killing Del might have been an “overreaction.” When Darlene hears that the Byrdes failed to deliver justice for Ruth after she was badly beaten by Frank Jr, she remarks “Jesus, what is wrong with these fucking people?” She then takes matters into her own hands and shoots Frank Jr’s dick off.

Wyatt Langmore probably has the strongest moral centre of any character in the series. He is quiet, thoughtful and kind. As Ruth says, everybody likes him. At different points in the series, he stands up to the kid who was bullying Jonah, criticises Charlotte for stealing a first edition from an antiquarian bookstore, and refuses to accept any money from Ruth after she confessed to killing his father. He is willing to work hard and is scrupulously honest. When Wendy goes to court in an attempt to take Darlene’s adopted baby Zeke away from her, Wyatt acts as a character witness for Darlene because he understands who the better mother is.

Wyatt is appalled by violence and after Darlene commits one casual murder too many, he tentatively agrees to make a break for it with Ruth. But when Wendy’s scheming again threatens Darlene’s custody of Zeke, Wyatt marries Darlene to protect their family.

Perhaps because of the contagion from the invading Bydres, Ruth is a far more complicated and morally compromised character than her cousin. Darlene points out that the Langmores used to be successful and locally respected bootleggers until they descended into petty crime. And we can see Ruth’s attempts to make a better life for herself and her cousins as an effort to reverse the damage caused by her degenerate father and uncles, and restore the Langmores to their former glory.

“God is a motherfucker. Isn’t he?  Built me smart enough to know how fucked up my life is. But not quite smart enough to haul my ass out of it.”

Marty says he “can help with that” but in choosing to work with the Byrdes, Ruth is dragged into their amoral abyss. In order to learn how launder the money she plans to steal from Marty, she has to protect Marty from her own family. Ruth is torn between family loyalty and the prospect of a better life that the Byrdes can offer. She is willing to go along with the Byrdes even after she is tortured by the cartel and beaten up by Frank Jr. But the final straw is Ben’s murder. She quits Byrde Enterprises and tellingly follows the Langmore code of “don’t rat and don’t run,” two options the Byrdes would have no problem taking if they thought it would benefit them. She tells the cartel lawyer Helen that she will not seek revenge for Ben’s death but that she is out of the business, and Helen is clearly impressed. Helen is a stone-cold killer but she can read people, and sees that unlike Marty and Wendy, Ruth actually has integrity.

Omar Navarro is a violent and ruthless drug lord who demands absolute loyalty and obedience. But he is also a deep thinker who understands his own mortality and wants to make sure his children are provided for in the event of his probable death. Even after his arrest, he maintains his moral principles, telling the Byrdes whose children are in hiding, “I don’t kill children, I don’t threaten to kill children. You disappoint me.”

Navarro spends a lot of time in his private chapel with his priest, Father Benitez, and often makes confession, but usually only about the small stuff like losing his temper with his young son. Father Benitez tells Marty that he goes were God needs him to be and offers Marty the chance to confess his sins as well. Marty is somewhat taken aback but does a quick cost/benefit analysis and rejects the offer. Confessing one’s sins is an alien concept to Marty and one rejected long ago by Wendy who was beaten and abused by her alcoholic preacher father. She tells Father Benitez, “I don’t need to be saved, I can do that myself.”

In the final episode of the series, Father Benitez suggests that the car crash that the Byrdes miraculously all walked away from was God’s final warning for them to abandon their wicked ways. Wendy smiles condescendingly and tells him, “Oh no, it’s an assurance that we’re gonna make it out alive.”

God and organized religion are an ambivalent presence in the series; Father Benitez seems to be sincere and is willing to serve God in the darkest places, but pastor Mason Young is violently deluded, and Wendy’s father, Nathan, is a vengeful hypocritical drunk. The church that appears in Ozark is a corrupted and fallible institution that cannot provide salvation for anyone, except perhaps for the gullible and luckless Sam Dermody who has been used and manipulated by the Byrdes since Day One but sees the light in the ample charms of Nathan’s girlfriend Annalise.

The American government, in the form of the FBI, is even more corrupt and duplicitous. Agent Petty is among the most despicable characters in the whole series and no one shed a tear when Cade Langmore killed him, but everyone else in the bureau is tainted to some degree. Everyone that is except perhaps for the self-righteous and incorruptible Special Agent Miller, who resolutely resists Marty’s attempts to groom her for the cartel but is ultimately punished by the bureau for arresting Navarro without authorization.

The rich political elite that Wendy cultivates in the Midwest, starting with Charles Wilkes, and rapidly moving up the food chain, are all cut from the same amoral cloth as she is. All they care about is wealth, power and self-advancement, which is why Wendy can manipulate them so easily. Her chief ally in the Midwest political swamp is Jim Rattelsdorf, who betrays his former boss Charles Wilkes and joins Team Byrde as their personal lawyer/fixer.

Names, as we have seen with the serpentine lawyer Rattelsdorf, are important signifiers in Ozark. Most of the morally complex and thoughtful characters in the series are named after important Old Testament figures, Ruth, Jonah, Jacob and Rachel etc., whereas the amoral characters have bland unimaginative monikers; Marty, Wendy, Charles, Jim etc. that exemplify the banality of evil. In the end, evil triumphs because those who stand by their moral principles and resist the Byrde invasion are selected for extinction while the amoral elite proliferate monumentally.

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