OZARK AND AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS BLUES
Marty Byrde talks and thinks about money all the time. Even when he is preoccupied with his family Marty is more concerned about their potential prosperity. At the beginning of Ozark we hear him over the soundtrack share his thoughts. ‘Money is what separates the haves from the have-nots. Patience, frugality, sacrifice, deciding to invest in your family’s future and taking responsibility for your actions. Money is the measure of a man’s choices.’ As an opening to a TV series, the words are not that impressive, not the dramatic hook that audiences expect. But later we understand the words are a sales pitch that Marty would have made to potential customers when he was a financial advisor or salesman. The problem for Marty is that his marketing waffle has become a philosophy. It is how he evaluates himself, his society and existence. Marty is the pure product of the ambitions of his society. He is a monetised human being. Type ‘American middle class physical health’ into Google, and the search engine will reproduce nothing but links to websites about the cost of health care. Americans worry more about financing their health treatment than whether they are actually healthy. Value for money rather than well-being transcends anything and everything.
Ozark has been compared to Breaking Bad, and at this point people are hedging their bets about how the TV series will develop. It depends on your point of view. Ozark explores similar themes to Breaking Bad or is an opportunistic rip off. Marty Byrde is the main character in Ozark. Byrde is educated and affluent and should be settled in middle-class comfort. Instead he was tempted by a well-paid offer to manage the accounts of a drug cartel. Now he is involved in money laundering schemes and obliged to keep both gangsters and the police at bay. Despite the potential for mishap, violence and chaos Ozark will not match Breaking Bad for narrative invention. This is a safe prediction because nothing ever will. Darlene Snell is the wife of a local hillbilly drug runner. She is impulsive, violent and carries a loaded shotgun. Already in the first season she has become a dependable plot device to ensure surprises and twists. But any TV series that has a ten year old define gross domestic product and explain how it does not measure the production of anything has to be given some respect. The show is less effective at making clear the process of money laundering but it makes a more serious attempt than most.
Jason Bateman is a key player in the production. He plays the main character and has directed several episodes. Bateman lacks the dark potential of Bryan Cranston, who played Walter White in Breaking Bad, but his wife is played by the great Laura Linney and together they make a fine and interesting couple. Marty Byrde is a hustler but he is also a peacemaker. He wants his family to be happy rather than a monument or a legacy. It is tempting to regard Byrde as an innocent. One character, though, describes him as the Devil. Byrde broods about the accusation. People die around him. No one can predict if Ozark will generate the dead body count of Breaking Bad or whether Byrde will eventually take the violent options that tempted White but there should be plenty of fun in working out who is slain next.
The plot of Breaking Bad was shaped by the struggle of Walter White to pay the medical bills for the treatment of his cancer. He did not have enough money to deal with a crisis. Byrde is different. He made his decision to commit to performing mundane money laundering tasks in 2007. A whole episode is devoted to a flashback to that year. Financial security and perhaps a little adventure are what tempted Marty. Wendy his wife agrees to the diversion. They are either being greedy or romantic or maybe both. The significance of 2007 is obvious. Although it is not mentioned in Ozark, 2007 is the year of the financial crash. This is the year when American middle class lives became even less secure, vulnerable rather than successful. The episode is an audacious innovation and it establishes an important metaphor for life in a modern money shuffling economy. The episode deserves to be admired. We discover that Marty and his wife are a couple that lacked the imagination to understand the limits of economic aspiration. They assumed that economic good times could last forever. They had the same trust in gangsters that financiers have in debt. Neither are reliable, and now Marty is hustling around a lake in Missouri looking for businesses in which he can invest the drug money.
Middle class hope is symbolised in the show by the trampoline. It exists in the memories of Marty and his wife. The children in the family are troubled by the revelation that Dad is a money launderer. Imagining their teenage daughter and son as young children bouncing in the air helps the parents to remember good, decent and innocent expectations of progress. When Marty feels he might just survive and there is prospect of settled family life, he reassembles the trampoline. In another episode it looks as if there is no scope for him to continue as a father or a man. Marty retreats to the trampoline and he lies on its surface. He is alone and staring at a sky that is now a weight. Bouncing and optimism are no longer options.
Both Breaking Bad and Ozark reveal the crisis that is affecting the American middle class this century. In the USA social class is defined exclusively by money or income. Right now the income for a middle class male in the USA ranges from $43000 to $71000. For women the range in income stretches from $26000 to $54000. People with income below that are identified as lower class, and those above that range are described as upper class. In UK terms the American middle class contains both people with working class jobs that have decent wages and those who in Britain would be described as lower middle class, folk whom we used to think of as ‘comfortable’.
Mark Gongloff in The Huffington Post has described the last 36 years for the American middle class as a ‘sea of suck’. There was brief respite in the 90s when the technical boom and the Internet bubble lifted incomes. It did not last. Overall wages and household income have been stagnant for nearly forty years. Any growth in income since 1980 has gone to the upper class. Some of this extra money would have, before the neoliberal reforms, landed in middle class bank accounts. Creating that growth in upper class income has often been the burden of the middle class. And not everything in the work ethic garden is rosy. Now Americans sleep 20% less than they did at the beginning of the last century.
Meanwhile the costs of being middle class have increased and the standard of living has fallen. Utilities, child care, education and health have become a financial drain on American middle class households. Neither are the well paid jobs so secure. A majority of middle class American families will at some point in their existence experience poverty or a financial crisis that will have them worry about what will happen next and feel desperate. The jobs when they do appear are also more demanding. People are easier to exploit, and companies are competing against rivals that know how to control labour costs and maximise efficiency. Yet there is good news. Technology has controlled the prices of motor cars and electrical equipment. We have big TVs and smartphones. Thanks to feminism women are also safer in the home. Men are less violent to their spouses but, because everyone is working so hard, their is less time to throw punches.
Physical safety is desirable and welcome but it does not constitute security or stability. Breaking Bad and Ozark are shows about people at their wits end. Walter White and Marty Byrde are both an inspiration and a warning to American fathers. The lucky get rich but the American dream of sharing a comfortable life with a contented family in a secure home is beyond people who have normal lives. Mortgage repayments are juggled, and so are insecure jobs, and what Mom and Dad do to earn the money that pays for the mortgage and everything else is best not talked about. Money is both tainted and threatening. The best that can be said about Mom and Dad is that they are not as shabby as the powerful monsters that make Mom and Dad shiver. Domestic partners unable to share their despair, pessimism and self-hatred tell lies to one another.
It may have been always like this, of course. But the data showing what has happened to the American middle class and also to a lot of British workers is stark. Thatcher and Reagan arrived, and the upward curves showing income growth on the graphs disappeared. Americans work harder but after nearly forty years of extra effort they earn no more than their predecessors. Their children face even worse prospects. Relaxation is possible. We have big cheap TVs and watch middle class heroes struggle and resist. They grit their teeth when they understand the odds against them. Walter White and his teeth survived for as long as six seasons but he was doomed. If Marty Byrde lasts that long, he will be doing well.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.