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“He’s Not Good, But He’s Not Bad”: Jason Bateman as the White, Middle-Class Devil

Barbara Selznick

Résumés

Jason Bateman, ancien enfant star, puis fêtard hollywoodien devenu père de famille, acteur sur lequel l’âge ne semble pas avoir de prise et bardé de privilèges, a créé une persona déterminante pour comprendre les séries télévisées (et les films) dans lesquels il joue. L’examen des performances de Bateman révèle qu’il incarne une domination blanche et masculine problématique combinant la rationalité et l’ordre souvent associés à la blanchité et l’autorité liée au privilège patriarcal. Cet article soutient que l’image de Bateman, telle que façonnée par les discours promotionnels à son sujet et son rôle dans Arrested Development, lui a permis – en tant qu’acteur, producteur exécutif et réalisateur de la série Ozark – de développer un personnage offrant une potentielle critique de la conception hégémonique de la masculinité bourgeoise blanche.

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Introduction

1Praising Jason Bateman’s work in the Netflix drama Ozark (Netflix, 2017-), Variety critic Sonia Saraiya writes about his character Marty Byrd:

  • 1 Sonia Saraiya, “TV Review: Netflix’s ‘Ozark,’ Starring Jason Bateman and Laura Linney”, Variety, Ju (...)

He’s not sympathetic, but he’s not a villain either; he’s not good, but he’s not as bad as he could be. In his calculated, failing inertia — his resignation to his own failed state — he is one of the most relatable characters on television this year. He is not even striving as much as he’s just surviving — treading water, in the deep Ozark Lake1.

2Bateman’s Marty is a white, upper middle-class man struggling to keep his family safe from a threat on their lives resulting from his legal and economic misconduct. Interestingly, much of this description could also apply to Bateman’s character in his earlier series Arrested Development (FOX, 2003-2006; Netflix 2013-2019). This comedy centers around Bateman’s character, Michael Bluth, who takes on the responsibility of trying to rescue his family from threats to their way of life resulting from their legal and economic misconduct. In both series, Bateman stars as the “relatable character” trying to save his family through his no-nonsense, practical intelligence grounded in middle-class values (regardless of whether his character is actually middle class). Although very different in tone and style, both the complex comedy and the prestige drama ultimately comment on masculinity, whiteness, and class in the United States. Bateman’s characters exist within worlds of uncertainty and chaos in which it falls to him to fix problems and create order, often at the expense of other characters. In Ozark, Bateman offers a more serious deconstruction of the responsible, organization man that he parodies in Arrested Development, relying on his existing image to question the ability, stability, and morality of the white middle class.

3Jason Bateman, a minor celebrity, was foundational to these shows’ representations for the ways that he – as a former child star, a Hollywood party-boy-turned-family-man, and a seemingly un-aging actor imbued with privilege – personifies the sociocultural qualities examined in these series. Combining the rationality and order often associated with whiteness and the authoritative expertise connected to patriarchal privilege, Bateman’s television roles (and many of his film roles as well) reveal the problematic position of dominance that he embodies. Here I argue that Bateman’s public image, as shaped by his publicity along with his role on Arrested Development, positioned him to – as an actor, executive producer, and director on Ozark – develop a character who offers a potential critique of hegemonic ideas about white, middle-class masculinity.

1. “He’s Nice. He’s Polite. He’s Ambitious:” Jason Bateman as a Child Star

  • 2 Barbara Vancheri, “Before they Were”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 27, 2004.

4Jason Bateman was a child star and a minor teen heartthrob, appearing, most notably, as supporting characters in Little House on the Prairie (NBC, 1974-1982) from 1981-1982 and Silver Spoons (NBC, 1982-1986; Syndication 1986-1987) from 1982-84. He eventually rose to fame in Valerie (which changed its name to Valerie’s Family and then The Hogan Family when Valerie Harper left the show; NBC 1986-1990; CBS 1990-1991). Bateman didn’t have another hit until he became a breakout star in Arrested Development, which he credits for giving him the opportunity to make a significant comeback. Bateman plays the “stabilizing voice of reason2” within a family that would kindly be described as eccentric. Bateman’s strength playing a reliable, responsible son tasked with keeping the family from falling apart was bolstered by the actor’s public persona, which evolved along with his career.

  • 3 Vernon Scott, “Jason Bateman is Two-Faced for the Right Reasons,” United Press International, Novem (...)
  • 4 Vernon Scott, “Veteran Kid Actor in Third Series,” United Press International, August 27, 1984.
  • 5 Scott, 1984.
  • 6 Scott D. Pierce, “Bateman Is Not What You Might Expect,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City), January 6, (...)
  • 7 Pierce, 1997.
  • 8 Caryn James, “Television Review; With These Brothers, 3 Is a Madding Crowd”, The New York Times, Ja (...)
  • 9 Bateman’s publicity can be seen to be in conversation with his acting role again in 2001 when, in C (...)

5As a young actor who primarily depicted precocious and sometime mischievous children, Bateman’s publicity emphasized his youth, intelligence, and ambition. Bateman referred to his friends as “surfers and hell raisers3” (and described his goal to be a serious leading man along the lines of De Niro, Hoffman, and Pacino4. In what appears to be a jab at television stardom, he explicitly stated “I don’t want to be Tom Selleck5.” This image began to change in the 1990s, as Bateman aged. In 1997, when Bateman was cast in the NBC show Chicago Sons (NBC, 1997) alongside Judd Hirsch and Bob Newhart to play the “stable” son, interviews with Bateman drew attention to his interest in developing similar security in his own life, potentially by focusing on acting and directing in sitcoms. As one interviewer noted, “He’s well-adjusted. He’s nice. He’s polite. He’s ambitious, but his ambitions are to hold a steady job and build a normal life6.” A Salt Lake City newspaper reported Bateman saying, “although I’m not married, I one day want to coach a Little League team and drive the carpool, and doing a sitcom gives you the kind of time in your life to do those sorts of things7.” Bateman’s public persona resembled “the sweet and sensible middle brother8” that he was playing on television9.

2. “I Don’t Want to Pretend to be Somebody Else:” Jason Bateman as the Sensible Son (Arrested Development)

  • 10 Jill Vejnoska, “Bateman’s Arresting in Quirky Show”, Cox News Service, October 30, 2003.
  • 11 See Brett Mills, “Comedy Verité: Contemporary Sitcom Form”, Screen, Vol. 45, No. 1, Spring 2004 [p. (...)

6Bateman’s publicity around the success of Arrested Development further entrenched his image as a “normal” guy. When the show premiered, Bateman was hailed as a “revelation” in this comeback role as the “one sensible member of the wealthy, wittily dysfunctional Bluth family10.” Within popular and academic writing, Arrested Development was acclaimed as a “quality” comedy series. As part of the trend of “comedy verité”, the series mimicked documentary style by eschewing a laugh track, utilizing single camera shooting, playing with hand-held camerawork, and including voice over narration11. Arrested Development’s reputation as highbrow comedy also developed from the innovation used to set up unexpected and at times complex narrative arcs that opened up a biting space for satire. Although critically acclaimed, Arrested Development consistently failed to garner a significant audience for FOX; nevertheless, it was significant in both reigniting Bateman’s career and setting the tone for his public image. If Arrested Development could be taken seriously, then so could Jason Bateman.

  • 12 Julia Leyda “The Financialization of Domestic Space in Arrested Development and Breaking Bad,” Clas (...)
  • 13 Rachel McKinney, “Bourgeois Bluths: Arrested Development and Class Status”, In Arrested Development (...)

7In the series, Bateman plays Michael Bluth, who tirelessly tries to save his family from their own narcissism and greed. Bateman functions as the point of identification for viewers, often at least paying lip service to a set of values and ethics more in line with the middle class than the (lack of) values and ethics demonstrated by his bourgeois family. Released during the first full season of television written after 9/11, Arrested Development, according to Julia Leyda, can be understood best within the context of the economic situation that generated the housing boom and the questionable morality that shaped it12. If the Bluth family embodies the careless selfishness underlying the impending financial crisis, then Bateman’s Michael stands somewhat apart. While “within the world of the Bluths we see bourgeois identity in the practices of consumption and leisure13,” Michael generally avoids many of the eccentric trappings used to create humor around other family members. His clothing tends toward conventional business casual, he rides a bicycle around LA, and he lives in a prototypically suburban (if questionably constructed) model home. Unlike other family members, Michael also regularly goes to work and/or spends his time talking about and thinking about work.

  • 14 Leyda, p. 169.
  • 15 Ibid.

8Additionally, Michael defines himself through his son, trying to maintain a close relationship with him and instill in him a moral compass as well as a work ethic14. So, while in many television comedies, the women (mothers, wives, daughters) are positioned as the moral center of the family, in Arrested Development that role is taken on by the (white) man who also comes the closest to reflecting middle-class values. Michael’s identity is grounded in his role as a father and a middle manager; while he is expected to run his family business and keep his family out of trouble, he is not given the authority to succeed at these tasks, and the show’s comedy often stems from placing Michael in impossible situations and blaming him for outcomes he doesn’t have the power to control. Arrested Development also finds humor in the pretense that belies Michael’s stolid normalcy, as he continues to run a questionably fraudulent business and regularly breaks his own moral code. As Leyda notes, “Michael’s hypocrisy becomes a running joke in the series, often in the context of his teaching life lessons…which are then closely followed by scenes in which he does the exact opposite of what he instructs them [his son and niece] to do15.” Nevertheless, Michael continues to be regarded as the reliable and sensible character with whom middle-class viewers are expected to identify, both in his aspirations and his frustrations.

9At the same time that Bateman was becoming known for his role as the responsible son on Arrested Development, in interviews he began to discuss his less-responsible past, revealing that he was more involved in the party scene as a young actor than his contemporaneous publicity revealed. In interviews Bateman talked about drinking, smoking, and doing recreational drugs. Comparing himself to other child and teen stars who faced scandals, Bateman told Vanity Fair, “I was just a lot smarter about not getting caught. Although I never stuck anything in my arm, I certainly enjoyed my youth16.” Bateman also explained that his partying was a response to the heavy weight he felt within a family that wasn’t “healthy.” He said, “I learned at a very early age how to handle responsibility – huge adult responsibility at like 11 – which was difficult at times. If you don’t keep a C average on your report cards you lost your work permit, and if you lost your work permit you’re kicked off the show, and if you’re kicked off the show, we can’t make the mortgage. That was tough17.” Now, Bateman configured his public image around the ideas of maturation and rehabilitation. In a 2007 interview he explained that he no longer smokes or drinks at all, he runs daily, and focuses on his family18. Bateman framed his narrative as one with which so many can identify – his desire to save himself from the consequences of an unstable family by working hard and building a loving family. Bateman’s wife, Amanda Anka (daughter of singer Paul Anka) reinforced this impression, telling an interviewer, “He’s not selling a six-pack. He’s not selling an image. He’s the Everyman’s guy19.” Bateman himself supported his image as the “everyman” as well as the conflation between his “self” and his characters. In a reversal from the goals he set as a younger actor to emulate De Niro, Hoffman, and Pacino, he told one interviewer, “I don’t want to pretend to be somebody else…. I just don’t want to be a character actor. I don’t want to be the guy that explodes and does a bunch of acting. I like to be somebody who’s a little bit more of a tour guide for the audience and observes those people that are doing a bunch of acting20.”

  • 21 Jonah Weiner, “Jason Bateman, Anchor of All-Star Comedy Ensembles”, Yukon News (Yukon), July 15, 20 (...)
  • 22 Steven Zeitchik, “Mean Mouths Abound”, Chicago Tribune, March 24, 2014.

10Following the critical (if not ratings) success of Arrested Development, Bateman continued to be cast in these types of “straight man” roles that exemplified his “everyman” persona even as he moved into films. As Jonah Weiner wrote, Bateman was getting roles as supporting characters and “ensemble comedic work in which he invariably plays a relatively muted straight-man. He doesn’t deliver outsize, scene-stealing performances but, rather, reacts to others with a signature combination of understated wit and deadpan exasperation21.” As he transitioned to leading roles in films – in movies such as The Switch (Josh Gordon and Will Speck, 2010), Horrible Bosses (Seth Gordon, 2011), and Game Night (Daley and Goldstein, 2018) – Bateman’s roles continued to present him as the regular guy faced with irregular situations. Even his wardrobe in many of these films, often seemingly interchangeable from one film to the next, marks his “normalcy” through what looks like off-the-rack khakis, button down or polo shirts, and loafers. But in these roles, we begin to see the unease behind his depiction of the everyman who is reacting to contemporary pressures. The self -directed Bad Words (2014) and The Gift (Edgerton, 2015), take Bateman’s edginess even further, pushing at the boundaries of his persona. In Bad Words, Bateman plays Guy, who embodies a character type that Steven Zeitchik called the “male jerk hero.” Guy’s bad behavior is both made more shocking by his embodiment by Bateman and made possible because we are willing to forgive Bateman for his bad behavior. The film’s screenwriter Andrew Dodge explained the difficulty of writing this kind of role: “you have to make a character likable enough that you still want to watch him but hateful enough that it’s still funny22.” Bateman’s persona enables him to walk this fine line, keeping the audience on his side, and allowing the film to provide Guy with a happy ending that doesn’t enrage the audience. The Gift is an even bigger departure for Bateman who, in ways that predict Ozark, uses his persona to create suspense. In this thriller, Bateman again plays the everyman, Simon, who seems to have it all: a good job, a nice house, a loving wife. Simon’s character and deservedness are called into question when he is revealed to be a “male jerk” – but not a hero. And as a thriller, this film doesn’t feel the pressure to provide Simon with a happy ending, though, in its very problematic and disturbing ending, it potentially does reinscribe Simon as the wronged man who is the lesser of two evils. The Gift, like Bad Words, relies on Bateman’s likeability and relatability, our sense of him as a good guy, to generate suspense, setting up the tension that would eventually fuel Ozark, in ways that, I will argue, are much more interesting than we ultimately see in The Gift.

  • 23 Ebony Bowden, “There’s Nothing Funny about Jason Bateman’s Turn as a Money Launderer in Ozark”, The (...)
  • 24 Richard Dyer, Stars, London, British Film Inst., 2004, p. 48.

11In 2018, Bateman said of the characters he plays, “I’m really enjoying being in this one specific lane, which is the audience’s proxy, like just a normal guy who gets to inhabit the centre of the story and is your lens through which you are observing and experiencing this odd plot or group of people or scary guy or funny guy23.” Bateman repeatedly described his characters as stand-ins for the audience members, relying on the sincerity and authenticity that encourages audience identification with him as the “Good Joe” type discussed by Richard Dyer, who is likable, agreeable, but also strong enough to stand up for what is right24. Bateman constructed for himself a persona within the contemporary television ecosystem that plays out in provocative ways as he entered the world of complex dramas.

3. “The Good Joe:” The White, Middle-Class Man in Crisis and on Television

  • 25 Dyer, p. 25.
  • 26 Sally Robinson, Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000, (...)

12Although Bateman is not at the level of stardom examined by Dyer in Stars, his explanation that “stars embody social values that are to some degree in crisis” provides a lens through which to analyze Bateman’s significance in shaping Ozark25. The phrase “in crisis” resonates particularly well with Bateman’s persona and character both of which can be understood in relation to the crisis reportedly faced by white, middle-class men in the U.S. after the Great Recession. As Sally Robinson explains, idea that masculinity is in crisis gained momentum starting in the 1960s, as feminism and civil rights movements in the U.S. raised questions about the normativity of white, male power. While this rhetoric of crisis, as Robinson observes, did not threaten patriarchal power, she writes, “the question of whether dominant masculinity is ‘really’ in crisis is, in my view, moot…the undeniable fact remains that in the post-liberationist era, dominant masculinity consistently represents itself as in crisis26.” Examining Bateman’s persona in the context of the anxieties and discourses surrounding white, middle-class masculinity in the early 2000s can help explain how hegemonic ideas about identity and the representation of the “crisis” of white, middle-class masculinity played out on television during its Golden Age of narrative complexity.

  • 27 Raewyn Connell, Masculinities, 2nd edition, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005, p. 90.
  • 28 Connell, p. 165.
  • 29 Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 2 (...)
  • 30 Michèle Lamont, The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigr (...)

13In the mid-1990s, R.W. Connell introduced the term “hegemonic masculinity” which she describes as “culturally linked to both authority and rationality, key themes in the legitimation of patriarchy. But authority and rationality can be pushed apart, given changing economic relations and technologies27.” These changing relations, Connell explains is evident in the rise of knowledge-based industries that created the “new middle class:” professionals who had expertise but lacked the authority and control to which they were accustomed, thus provoking fear and anxiety28. As Michael Kimmel describes it, “American manhood – always more about the fear of failing than the excitement of rising, always more about the agony of defeat, as it were, than the thrill of victory – suddenly felt desperate, clinging to whatever it could find, just trying to hold on29.” Michèle Lamont found in her study on working-class and middle-class men, that for those in the upper middle class, this attempt to “hold on” centered on providing the economic support that would allow their children to go to college and have a range of enriching experiences30. For the “new middle class” professionals then, their functions within the family linked their class and gender identities, and their value hinged on the ability to provide financial support even while their positions at work were becoming increasingly insecure. This conflict created instability both in their roles within the middle class and in their understanding of themselves as men.

  • 31 Matthew W. Hughey, “Backstage Discourse and the Reproduction of White Masculinities”, The Sociologi (...)
  • 32 Matthew W. Hughey, “The (Dis)Similarities of White Racial Identities: The Conceptual Framework of ‘ (...)
  • 33 Hughey, 2009, p. 1290.

14Matthew Hughey argues that the concept of hegemonic masculinity is also intertwined with ideas about race and whiteness writing that, “…throughout an average young white male’s formative years, he is encouraged to adopt a special vision of white manhood as strong, autonomous, rational, neutral, objective, and meritocratic characteristics that commonly (yet never exclusively) characterize a dominant, idealized, or hegemonic form of masculinity and whiteness31.” Here, Hughey urges us to acknowledge that the notion of hegemonic masculinity that values such qualities as autonomy, rationality, and merit – many of the characteristics purported to be in crisis in the 2000s – also rests on the often-ignored privilege of whiteness. The pressures felt by new middle-class men, stemming from their increasingly precarious economic position, was compounded by anxieties about the declining dominance of white men. Hughey argues that “white male anxiety over changing race relations and expectations is widespread and resonates strongly in diverse, even supposedly antithetical, locations32.” Hughey found similar discourses about race and masculinity used by white men with a range of political beliefs who centered white supremacy by creating inter-racial and intra-racial distinctions that marked whiteness as different and better than non-white and by “marginalizing practices of ‘being white’ that fail to exemplify dominant ideals33.” This research demonstrates the importance of understanding the intersection of race, class, and gender in shaping the fears faced by white, middle-class men and how this eventually played out on television.

  • 34 Geraldine Harris, “A Return to Form? Postmasculinist Television Drama and Tragic Heroes in the Wake (...)
  • 35 Aaron A. Toscano, “Tony Soprano as the American Everyman and Scoundrel: How the Sopranos (Re)Presen (...)
  • 36 Morgan Fritz, “Television from the Superlab: The Postmodern Serial Drama and the New Petty Bourgeoi (...)
  • 37 Stephen Shapiro, “Cracking Ice: The Shield and the Middle-Class Crisis of Social Reproduction”, in (...)
  • 38 Toscano, p. 466.
  • 39 Fritz, p. 181.
  • 40 Fritz, p. 177.

15The complicated connections between race, class, and gender in the 21st century are demonstrated in the academic work focused on the complex dramas of the post-network period. Shows like The Shield, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad, which fall into the category that Geraldine Harris called postmasculinist dramas, have been the subject of scholarly analyses examines how issues of gender, class, and to some extent race, are probed within the “quality” cable dramas that epitomize complex television. These series navigate the sociocultural moment by depicting the pressures felt by the middle class and “exploring the corruption and loss of the ‘American dream’…34.” Demonstrating the growing unease and frustration felt by middle-class men, Tony Soprano can be understood as a “suburban middle manager dealing with the stress of surviving the American Dream35,” and Walter White “is not a stakeholder or decision-maker, and his resentment of this fact is ultimately his primary motivation36.” The crisis of the middle class, Stephen Shapiro argues, found an outlet in these TV dramas that suggested that “at the center of the dissolving present stands a morally ambiguous patriarch…37” These representations of criminal men raise a host of questions, particularly regarding the moral implications of what may be necessary to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. The Sopranos implies that “short cuts would be too dangerous or beneath [the middle-class audience’s] refined sensibilities38,” but Walter White finds financial stability and self-actualization (if not familial stability) in his life of crime39. And, although Walter White approaches “financial security as his birthright40,” the series doesn’t explore what this may tell us about the privilege of whiteness that connects the majority (if not all) of the anti-heroes discussed in this body of work.

  • 41 Amanda E. Lewis, “‘What Group?’ Studying Whites and Whiteness in the Era of ‘Color-Blindness’”, Soc (...)
  • 42 Michael L. Wayne, “Ambivalent Anti-Heroes and Racist Rednecks on Basic Cable: Post-Race Ideology an (...)
  • 43 John Hartigan, “Unpopular Culture: The Case of ‘White Trash’”, Cultural Studies, vol. 11, no. 2, 19 (...)
  • 44 Matthew W. Hughey, “Hegemonic Whiteness: From Structure and Agency to Identity Allegiance”, in The (...)

16In their unwillingness to acknowledge the hegemonic whiteness of their characters, treating it as “a background to identity rather than constitutive of identity41,” some of these complex dramas, are not quite so complex in their interrogation of race. Characters of color are more violent and less moral the antihero protagonists. Michael Wayne considers how these white antiheroes are generally depicted as either “colorblind” or at least less racist than other characters on their series, relying on their relative morality to paint them as “better” than those around them42. The characters that the protagonists are set against in these cases, Wayne observes, tend to be poor white men. John Hartigan notes that the category of “white trash” is frequently used to separate white people who do not conform to dominant ideas of whiteness either by being too poor, too loud, or too impulsive. “White trash” become a scapegoat: “it is only ‘those people’ who are racist; only those women who are licentious; only those men who are that cruel and violent43.” The middle-class white men, then, maintain their superiority at the expense of the poor, white characters. As a result, while more overtly destabilizing dominant ideas about gender and class, these complex dramas continue to engage in the practices of inter- and intra-racial ‘othering44,’ maintaining the foundation of hegemonic whiteness in the face of social and economic upheaval.

4. “The Measure of a Man’s Choices:” Jason Bateman as the Devil (Ozark)

  • 45 Dyer, p. 125.
  • 46 Ibid.
  • 47 Dyer, p. 131.

17How viewers understand the “morally ambiguous patriarch” in Ozark and his representation of sociocultural anxieties can be connected to how they understand Bateman. As Dyer writes, “The ‘truth’ about a character’s personality and the feeling which it evokes may be determined by what the reader takes to be the truth about the person of the star playing the part45.” Audience members’ initial relationship with Marty Byrd is impacted by the “Good Joe” persona constructed by Bateman’s publicity and his previous roles, particularly that of Michael on Arrested Development. A Chicago-based financial planner with a wife and two children, Marty parallels Bateman’s public image as a responsible working man who’s focused on his family. Over the course of the pilot, which, as will be discussed, starts on a dark note but quickly jumps back in time to set up Marty’s “everyman” persona, the audience learns about the imperfections in Marty’s life. His wife is cheating on him, he is cleaning money for a drug cartel, and his business partner – who was stealing money from the cartel – has now put Marty’s life, as well as the lives of his entire family, in jeopardy. Marty saves his family by promising to move to the Ozarks and launder even more money for the cartel. Marty’s complicity in the danger that threatens his family sets up a “problematic fit” between Bateman and the character he embodies46. As Dyer proposes, the work now is to explore the “particular ideological significance” of this disconnect47. Focusing on the first season, I will argue that viewers’ initial instinct to trust Marty – made possible from the beginning of the series because of a slippage between Bateman’s public image and his on-screen character – encourages a rethinking of how the middle-class man functions in society. Furthermore, while the series relies on our understanding of Bateman as a “Good Joe” to purposefully problematize ideas around masculinity and class, it, ultimately, like other complex dramas, sidesteps questions about whiteness by relying on common tropes that position the white, middle class as morally superior to both men of color and poor, white people.

18From its opening scene, Ozark engages with ideas about class and masculinity. The series opens with an over two-minute sequence in which we watch Marty hide money under the cover of darkness while in voice over he lays out a theory that conflates the function of money with family responsibility. He says money is

Deciding to miss the ball game, the play, the concert, because you’ve resolved to work and invest in your family’s future. And taking responsibility for the consequences of those actions. Patience. Frugality. Sacrifice. When you boil it down, what do those three things have in common? Those are choices. Money is not peace of mind. Money’s not happiness. Money is, at its essence, that measure of a man’s choices. (S01E01)

  • 48 César Albarrán-Torres, Global Trafficking Networks on Film and Television: Hollywood's Cartel Wars, (...)

19This opening monologue is imbued with conviction and authority, at least in part, because it is being delivered by the series’ star, Jason Bateman. Furthermore, due to our perception of Bateman as conscientious, intelligent, and mature, we expect that Marty will be “upright;” that he will make responsible and reasonable choices. Our trust is reinforced when, after the opening sequence and title credit, the episode cuts back in time showing us Marty as the hard-working, honest financial planner who is concerned about the economic strain of expanding his business, the betrayed husband whose wife is having an affair, the stodgy father who tries to teach his children the value of money; a man whose business partner says is living a “tragically subdued life.” (S01E01) Even as we learn that Marty is laundering money for the (second largest) Mexican drug cartel, we continue to give him the benefit of the doubt and are inclined to categorize him with Walter White at the start of Breaking Bad – a good man ground down by the economic pressures of U.S. society. As César Albarrn-Torres writes, “Everything in Marty, beginning with his wholesome name, spells normalcy: he is the stereotypical all-American dad. Crisp shirt all tucked in, SUV to fit in all of his family; it is all there. Clearly this must be a mistake, as he does not fit the description of a criminal or a money launderer. Surely, he was tricked into committing these crimes. Either that, or he had no other option48.” The strength of Bateman’s image – from interviews in which he was depicted as a loving family man as well as his role in Arrested Development in which he played a caring, if not always competent, father – further creates a comfortable connection for the viewer, bolstering our faith in Marty. Just as Marty repeatedly uses his persona as the sincere, white, middle-class man to get what he wants, Ozark uses Bateman’s persona as the everyman, the “Good Joe,” to question our assumptions about hegemonic masculinity and class in the United States.

  • 49 To be certain, Marty increasingly becomes the victim of violence and more comfortable with witnessi (...)
  • 50 Sean T. Collins, “Ozark is the Platonic Ideal of a Netflix Drama”, Vulture, April 22, 2020, www.vul (...)

20As opposed to other television antiheroes, Marty’s masculinity does not depend on his committing escalating acts of violence,49 nor does his connection to hegemonic masculinity strengthen over the course of the season. Rather, much like what we see foregrounded in Bateman’s interviews, Marty’s identity as a man emanates from the control and rationality that rule his professional and personal lives; what he describes in the first episode as his ability to prioritize, compartmentalize, and time-manage. Whether faced with family stress (his wife’s affair, his daughter’s arrest, concerns about his son’s mental health) or death threats from the drug cartel, he does not panic but instead marshals deep reserves of self-control and becomes incredibly efficient and productive. As Sean Collins writes, “As Marty, Bateman is almost preternaturally calm, as if all his emotional and intellectual energy has been rerouted to the task of keeping himself and his family alive50.” The restraint shown by Marty effectively define his rationalized approach to masculinity, which he mobilizes to “protect and provide for my family;” this, Marty tells his drug cartel contact Del, is his most important priority, the thing that trumps everything else for him. Ozark can be read as the story of how Marty struggles to maintain his waning patriarchal control by cultivating a ruthlessness that leads him to cause grave harm to others while justifying it as the only means to save his family.

  • 51 The last scene of the season recalls this memory as Marty is lying on the trampoline when he hears (...)
  • 52 We eventually learn that Marty, after agreeing to launder the money and seeing the previous money l (...)

21Throughout the series, there is never doubt that Marty, like Bateman, loves his family. In the opening episode, when Marty believes he is about to be shot by Del, he closes his eyes and recalls a happy memory of playing on a trampoline with his children while Wendy squirts them with the water hose51. Over the course of the season, however, Marty’s capacity to fulfill the roles through which he defines his masculinity -- as a husband, father, and provider -- comes into question. He must increasingly rely on others, giving up some of the control he has within the family. While Wendy is initially seen as a disloyal wife who Marty graciously shields from the cartel, over the course of the season she becomes more instrumental to saving the family52. Even the children become involved in the money laundering scheme by helping to package and hide money, and Marty’s son Jonah uses his newfound skills with a rifle to try to scare off a henchman. Over the course of the season, we watch as Marty’s capability to protect and provide for his family slip and he requires increasing amounts of assistance to simply keep them alive.

  • 53 Robert Koehler, “TV or NOT TV: Ozark’s America and the Rise of the Longform”, Cinema Scope, July 2, (...)

22Just as Marty is losing control within his family, Ozark depicts his weakening authority at work. As discussed above, the anxiety from the new middle class stems from the uncoupling of proficiency and power. As a financial advisor and the owner of his own business at the start of Ozark, Marty seemingly embodies both expertise and authority. Robert Koehler observes, “Ozark posits its central criminal as a capitalist par excellence…. In an era when the top American ‘industry’ is financial management, Marty is a man of the moment, preternaturally gifted with numbers, ledgers, and cash flows, the ideal player if your game is cleaning drug money53.” Again, we see how initial assumptions about Marty coalesce with Bateman’s public image, created from his publicity and previous roles, as competent, responsible, and intelligent. But, by going into business with the Mexican drug cartel, Marty surrenders control in the pursuit of money. Furthermore, when he moves to the Ozarks with plans to use its resources to launder more money, he must contend with local forces. Jacob Snell, the head of a competing drug business in the Ozarks, recognizes Marty’s lack of authority as well as his attempts to manipulate people to achieve his goals. Jacob kidnaps Marty, explaining that Marty is disrupting the Snell’s drug operation and stressing Marty’s lack of power within the Ozarks (S01E06). Marty now must navigate between two competing criminal enterprises both of which are stronger than he is and have the potential to destroy him and his family.

23Furthermore, unlike in Breaking Bad, financial insecurity did not lead Marty to become a criminal. We are not asked to think of Marty as a working class or even lower middle-class man who needs to launder money in order to support his family. Not only do we see the Byrd’s nice home in Chicago before the move to the Ozarks, but Marty and his family exude a confidence and comfort that comes from economic security. The association of Marty with the upper middle class is further is reinforced by Bateman’s previous roles and publicity, both of which support the image of a sensible lack of extravagance balanced by a clear lack of precarity. So, Marty’s foray into money laundering is not driven by need and fear, but his desire for more: more opportunities for his children, more security; the desire to “never have to worry about money again. Ever” (S01E08). Vanity also plays into Marty’s choices. He knew that he’d be good at laundering money saying, “I would do it really well,” so he and Wendy dismiss all of the possible negative consequences (going to jail, getting into trouble with the cartel, breaking up the family), saying these things would “never happen.” Even the illegal money laundering does not pose much of an ethical problem for Marty and Wendy as they rationalize that they wouldn’t actually be moving drugs, just “pushing a mouse around my desk” on the computer. Marty and Wendy discount the harm they may be doing in their self-centered focus on their personal and professional aspirations.

24Marty very quickly confronts the danger involved with his decision when Del murders the previous (dishonest) money launderer in front of him. His witnessing of this gruesome death perhaps provides some justification for Marty’s readiness to go to extremes to meet the demands of the cartel. Nevertheless, the Byrd’s initial greed has disastrous consequences not just for themselves but for others. When the situation gets more dire, as the Byrds work to save themselves from their own bad decisions, they proceed to wreak havoc on many lives, particularly those of the lower classes, in the Ozarks. Marty uses his strong persuasive skills to manipulate people in the Ozarks because his upper middle-class status lends him an air of authority. Innocent (and not so innocent) lives are destroyed because the Byrds give precedence to their own family’s safety at the expense of everyone else. After getting caught up in the web of lies created by Marty and Wendy, characters become addicted to drugs, their money is stolen, their livelihoods are destroyed, they are killed, families are torn apart, a baby is ripped from his mother’s womb before she’s killed. Many lives are ruined and ended after being duped by Marty’s convincing persona of authority, competence, and sincerity – a persona heavily borrowed from the actor portraying him.

  • 54 Two exceptions to this depiction are Ruth Langmore whose street-smarts, strength, and vulnerability (...)

25Despite the series’ questioning of Marty’s image as the strong family man and its indictment of his position within the matrix of socioeconomic class, the show avoids an interrogation of race. Much like Bateman’s press, which ignores the privilege that emanates from his whiteness, the series silently reinforces hegemonic whiteness. The moral relativism discussed by Michael Wayne is evident in the ways that the seemingly colorblind Byrds are set up in opposition to the members of the Mexican cartel and the white, lower classes in the Ozarks. The Mexican cartel is clearly depicted as more violent and sadistic than the Byrds. We see Brown people torture, murder, dismember, and dissolve characters in acid. They are flatly portrayed, savage criminals with no conscience (and little to no backstory). Next to these Mexican characters, the Byrds seem practically upright since they generally don’t harm others themselves and we see them express regret when others are harmed. On the other hand, the Langmores are the “white trash” who demonstrate characteristics that set them apart from hegemonic whiteness. They are messy, lazy, uneducated, immoral, and lack self-control,54 all qualities that Marty clearly contrasts. The disfunction in the Langmore family, as they fight amongst each other, steal from one another and ultimately kill each other position the upper middle-class Byrds as the “competent” criminals who perhaps deserve to succeed because they are, at least, respectable about it. And, finally the Snells, the family that runs the competing drug operation in the Ozarks, who although presumably wealthy because of their business, are marginalized by their self-identification as hillbillies grounded in the values of the rural; values that mark them as brutal and bigoted. While Jacob, the head of the family is depicted as somewhat levelheaded (if ruthless), the family’s matriarch, Darlene, is painted as a callous murderer and a racist, telling Del with a sneer that her dog is “sensitive to different smells” and sending someone to follow Del and his bodyguard outside because she doesn't “want them touching anything” (S01E10). Darlene, like the Langmores, lacks self-control, getting upset when Del refers to the Snells as the “less fortunate” because of their simple lifestyle and eventually killing Del when he refers to the Snells as rednecks (they prefer to think of themselves as hillbillies). In comparison to these rural, poor, and racialized groups, Marty Byrd, based on an expectation that he, like Bateman, is not racist, maintains the supremacy of whiteness despite the other social critiques offered by the program.

26Importantly, though they may be relatively more moral than other characters on the show, Ozark reminds us that, despite the temptation, we should not celebrate the Byrd’s success. In the seventh episode, Jonah, who has taken a disconcerting interest in hunting and local wildlife, watches a video about starlings and asks if he can kill them. He informs his mother, “you’re supposed to kill starlings; they’re invaders….” (S01E07). The starlings, described as predatory and dangerous, function as a direct symbol of the Byrds and their actions in the Ozarks. Their own son tells viewers that these invaders from Chicago are not a benefit to the ecosystem and perhaps deserve to be killed. Marty himself, in the eighth episode, reminds the audience of the importance of personal responsibility. After a pregnant Wendy loses a baby in a car accident, Marty tells his business partner Bruce that he doesn’t believe in fate: “Things happen because human beings make decisions; they commit acts that make things happen. And it creates a snowball effect with, you know, their world around them. Causes other people to make decisions. Cycle continues, snowball keeps rolling.” Although this episode is a flashback to Marty’s life before he was a money launderer, at this point in the season audiences are prompted to recognize that Marty himself knows the truth – that his choices influenced and harmed many other people. Finally, in an overt condemnation, the distraught Pastor Mason, whose unborn son was removed from his wife’s womb before the Snells killed her, discusses family with Marty. Marty reassures Mason that “kids are hope. You know, that maybe things can get better.” Mason responds, “There’s gotta be a good, ‘cause there’s a devil. I think you’re the fucking devil” (S01E10). The expectations that we had for the normal, everyman – expectations strengthened by assumptions surrounding Bateman as a leading man – are turned upside down as we’re asked to consider the possibility that this seemingly respectable, stable white, middle-class man is the devil. In the first season of Ozark Bateman’s persona encourages a certain set of assumption about his character, many – but significantly not all – of which the series tears apart, raising questions about middle-class (but not white) masculinity in the United States.

Conclusion

27The transformation of our understanding of Marty across the first season of Ozark reveals the harm being done by the (white) middle-class man in his efforts to reclaim the control that he gave away in the desire for “more” and to keep his family safe within the precarious world of his own making. This essay posits that Jason Bateman as the starting point for our relationship with Marty, was integral to this representation and its potentially powerful effect on viewers. Bateman’s public representation as a responsible, hard-working, family man encouraged a certain set of assumptions with which Ozark was then able to play. Questions remain, however, about the potential impact of this critique. After the show’s first season dropped on Netflix, Bateman’s public image took a hit. He came under fire for a New York Times interview with the cast of Arrested Development in which he defended co-star Jeffrey Tambor who had been recently accused of sexual harassment on the set of his series Transparent. Jessica Walters, who plays Bateman’s mother on the show, tearfully explained how Tambor yelled at her on set in a way that, in all of her years in the industry, she had never experienced. Bateman very painfully tried to justify Tambor’s behavior toward Walters with excuses that referenced the acting process and family dynamics. As Walters sat beside him, Bateman said, “Not to say that you know, you [Walter] had it coming. But this is not in a vacuum -- families come together and certain dynamics collide and clash every once in a while. And there's all kinds of things that go into the stew so it's a little narrow to single that one particular thing that is getting attention from our show55.” After being heavily criticized for this interview, Bateman responded on Twitter with an apology: "Based on listening to the NYT interview and hearing people's thoughts online, I realize that I was wrong here. I sound like I'm condoning yelling at work. I do not. It sounds like I'm excusing Jeffery. I do not. It sounds like I'm insensitive to Jessica. I am not. …There's never any excuse for abuse, in any form, from any gender. And the victim's voice needs to be heard and respected. Period56." In some ways, this disturbing exchange realigned Bateman with his Ozark character, reinforcing the ways in which his privilege is problematic and harmful. Bateman’s apology staved off any serious criticism of him and didn’t appear to impact Ozark’s viewership. Audiences’ willingness to give Bateman a pass underscores the build-up of equity that belongs to the white, upper-middle-class man. Future seasons of Ozark may have even benefited from Bateman’s tarnished image as it potentially became a bit easier to dislike Marty and see him more as “smarmy” than “conflicted.” This examination of Bateman’s public persona in relation to the role he plays on Ozark demonstrates the “particular ideological significance57” of the slippage between Bateman and his role, the ideological possibilities this allows, and the ensuing limitations.

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Bibliographie

Albarrán-Torres, César. Global Trafficking Networks on Film and Television: Hollywood's Cartel Wars, London, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2021.

Bowden, Ebony, “There’s nothing funny about Jason Bateman’s turn as a money launderer in Ozark”, The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) - Online, September 7, 2018. 

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Fritz, Morgan, “Television from the Superlab: The Postmodern Serial Drama and the New Petty Bourgeoisie in Breaking Bad”, Journal of American Studies, vol. 50, no. 1, 2014, p. 167–183., doi:10.1017/s002187581400187x.

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Notes

1 Sonia Saraiya, “TV Review: Netflix’s ‘Ozark,’ Starring Jason Bateman and Laura Linney”, Variety, July 12, 2017, p. 125.

2 Barbara Vancheri, “Before they Were”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 27, 2004.

3 Vernon Scott, “Jason Bateman is Two-Faced for the Right Reasons,” United Press International, November 20, 1987.

4 Vernon Scott, “Veteran Kid Actor in Third Series,” United Press International, August 27, 1984.

5 Scott, 1984.

6 Scott D. Pierce, “Bateman Is Not What You Might Expect,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City), January 6, 1997.

7 Pierce, 1997.

8 Caryn James, “Television Review; With These Brothers, 3 Is a Madding Crowd”, The New York Times, January 8, 1997.

9 Bateman’s publicity can be seen to be in conversation with his acting role again in 2001 when, in CBS’ Some of My Best Friends he played a gay man who becomes roommates with a stereotypically masculine Italian aspiring actor. In this case, the promotional material released by the producers included the fact that Bateman was engaged to be married (only heterosexual marriage was legal at this time), thus actually separating Bateman from his representation of a gay man, which was still somewhat controversial in 2001. Scott D. Pierce, “Stereotypes abound in ‘My Best Friends’”, Deseret News (Salt Lake City), February 27, 2001.

10 Jill Vejnoska, “Bateman’s Arresting in Quirky Show”, Cox News Service, October 30, 2003.

11 See Brett Mills, “Comedy Verité: Contemporary Sitcom Form”, Screen, Vol. 45, No. 1, Spring 2004 [p. 63-78].

12 Julia Leyda “The Financialization of Domestic Space in Arrested Development and Breaking Bad,” Class Divisions in Serial Television, eds. Sieglinde Lemke and Wibke Schniedermann, Palgrave MacMillan, 2017, p. 165 [p. 159–176].

13 Rachel McKinney, “Bourgeois Bluths: Arrested Development and Class Status”, In Arrested Development and Philosophy: They’ve Made a Huge Mistake, eds. Kristopher G. Phillips and Jeremy Wisnewski, Hoboken, Wiley, 2012, p. 87 [p. 85-95].

14 Leyda, p. 169.

15 Ibid.

16 George Wayne, “Growing up Bateman”, Vanity Fair, October 22, 2007, www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/11/wayne_bateman200711, Accessed October 1, 2021.

17 Brendan Vaughan, “Jason Bateman Cover Story”, GQ, March 21, 2013, www.gq.com/story/jason-bateman-interview-gq-april-2013, Accessed October 1, 2021.

18 Wayne, 2007.

19 Vaughan, 2013.

20 Sarah Rodman, “Jason Bateman Just Keeps Simmering; When’s he Going to Explode?”, Show Tracker, July 14, 2017.

21 Jonah Weiner, “Jason Bateman, Anchor of All-Star Comedy Ensembles”, Yukon News (Yukon), July 15, 2011.

22 Steven Zeitchik, “Mean Mouths Abound”, Chicago Tribune, March 24, 2014.

23 Ebony Bowden, “There’s Nothing Funny about Jason Bateman’s Turn as a Money Launderer in Ozark”, The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) - Online, September 7, 2018.

24 Richard Dyer, Stars, London, British Film Inst., 2004, p. 48.

25 Dyer, p. 25.

26 Sally Robinson, Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 11.

27 Raewyn Connell, Masculinities, 2nd edition, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005, p. 90.

28 Connell, p. 165.

29 Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 218.

30 Michèle Lamont, The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration, Russell Sage Foundation, Boston, Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 31.

31 Matthew W. Hughey, “Backstage Discourse and the Reproduction of White Masculinities”, The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 1, 2011, p. 134 [p. 132–153].

32 Matthew W. Hughey, “The (Dis)Similarities of White Racial Identities: The Conceptual Framework of ‘Hegemonic Whiteness’”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 33, no. 8, 2009, p. 1306 [p. 1289–1309].

33 Hughey, 2009, p. 1290.

34 Geraldine Harris, “A Return to Form? Postmasculinist Television Drama and Tragic Heroes in the Wake of the Sopranos”, New Review of Film and Television Studies, vol. 10, no. 4, 2012, p. 444 [p. 443–463].

35 Aaron A. Toscano, “Tony Soprano as the American Everyman and Scoundrel: How the Sopranos (Re)Presents Contemporary Middle-Class Anxieties”, The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 47, no. 3, 2014, p. 452 [p. 451–469].

36 Morgan Fritz, “Television from the Superlab: The Postmodern Serial Drama and the New Petty Bourgeoisie in Breaking Bad”, Journal of American Studies, vol. 50, no. 1, 2014, p. 176 [p. 167–183].

37 Stephen Shapiro, “Cracking Ice: The Shield and the Middle-Class Crisis of Social Reproduction”, in Interrogating the Shield, ed. Nicholas Ray, Syracuse, N.Y, Syracuse University Press, 2012, p. 196.

38 Toscano, p. 466.

39 Fritz, p. 181.

40 Fritz, p. 177.

41 Amanda E. Lewis, “‘What Group?’ Studying Whites and Whiteness in the Era of ‘Color-Blindness’”, Sociological Theory, vol. 22, no. 4, 2004, p. 627 [p. 623–646].

42 Michael L. Wayne, “Ambivalent Anti-Heroes and Racist Rednecks on Basic Cable: Post-Race Ideology and White Masculinities on FX”, The Journal of Popular Television, vol. 2, no. 2, 2014, p. 213 [p. 205–225].

43 John Hartigan, “Unpopular Culture: The Case of ‘White Trash’”, Cultural Studies, vol. 11, no. 2, 1997, p. 323 [pp. 316–343].

44 Matthew W. Hughey, “Hegemonic Whiteness: From Structure and Agency to Identity Allegiance”, in The Construction of Whiteness: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Race Formation and the Meaning of a White Identity, eds. Stephen Middleton, David R. Roediger, and Donald M. Shaffer, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2018, p. 230 [p. 212-232].

45 Dyer, p. 125.

46 Ibid.

47 Dyer, p. 131.

48 César Albarrán-Torres, Global Trafficking Networks on Film and Television: Hollywood's Cartel Wars, London, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2021, p. 62.

49 To be certain, Marty increasingly becomes the victim of violence and more comfortable with witnessing violence and causing others to experience violence.

50 Sean T. Collins, “Ozark is the Platonic Ideal of a Netflix Drama”, Vulture, April 22, 2020, www.vulture.com/2020/04/ozark-ideal-netflix-drama.html. Accessed October 1, 2021.

51 The last scene of the season recalls this memory as Marty is lying on the trampoline when he hears his family, who had been running from the cartel, return to him.

52 We eventually learn that Marty, after agreeing to launder the money and seeing the previous money launderer murdered, retreated from Wendy emotionally, and, therefore, she had an affair.

53 Robert Koehler, “TV or NOT TV: Ozark’s America and the Rise of the Longform”, Cinema Scope, July 2, 2020, p. 62, cinema-scope.com/columns/tv-or-not-tv-ozarks-america-and-the-rise-of-the-longform/, Accessed October 1, 2021.

54 Two exceptions to this depiction are Ruth Langmore whose street-smarts, strength, and vulnerability allow her to be taken under Marty’s wing and Wyatt Langmore whose book-smarts offer him potential for success.

55 Sopan Deb, “The ‘Arrested’ Cast Gets Raw”, The New York Times, May 26, 2018, p. C1.

56 Jason Bateman, “@batemanjason,” Twitter, May 24, 2018, https://twitter.com/i/events/999611181684768768, Accessed December 9, 2021.

57 Dyer, p. 131.

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Référence électronique

Barbara Selznick, « “He’s Not Good, But He’s Not Bad”: Jason Bateman as the White, Middle-Class Devil »TV/Series [En ligne], 20 | 2022, mis en ligne le 27 avril 2022, consulté le 30 juin 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/tvseries/5834 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/tvseries.5834

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Auteur

Barbara Selznick

Barbara Selznick is an Associate Professor in the School of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of Arizona. She is the author of Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema and Global Television: Co-Producing Culture. Her work has appeared in edited books as well as journals such as Science Fiction Film and Television, Quarterly Review of Film and Television, Spectator and Global Media Journal.
selznick[at]email.arizona.edu

Barbara Selznick est maîtresse de conferences à l’Université d’Arizona (School of Theatre, Film and Television). Elle est l’autrice de Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema and Global Television: Co-Producing Culture. Elle a contribué à des ouvrages collectifs et des revues scientifiques comme Science Fiction Film and Television, Quarterly Review of Film and Television, Spectator and Global Media Journal.
selznick[at]email.arizona.edu

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