16 The Secret Agenda of a Quiet Town
-by Michael Mitgang
Imagine fearing your boss to the extent that you would commit murder, launder money, and move to the middle of nowhere just to keep your job…life and family. The Netflix T.V. show Ozark, created by Bill Bubuque and Mark Williams, provides a thrilling experience that conveys the effects of being involved in the black market. While following the life of the Byrde family, the viewer becomes hooked on the crazy, illegal life of working for a Mexican drug cartel. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), Netflix summarizes this show as “the Byrdes and their teenage kids, Charlotte and Jonah, are, for all intents and purposes, an ordinary family with ordinary lives. Except for the job of Marty, a Chicago financial advisor who also serves as the top money launderer for the second largest drug cartel in Mexico. When things go awry, Marty must uproot his family from the skyscrapers of Chicago and relocate to the lazy lake region of the Missouri Ozarks.”[i] The show allows the viewer to gain insight into the life of people involved in the black market. The Byrdes’ family connections allow them to slip under the radar and run thriving black market businesses, which then create tension in their family.
In the beginning of the series, Martin Byrde, played by Jason Bateman, works as a regular accountant in Chicago with his business partner. However, due to a slip up on the “job,” a Mexican cartel decides to murder his business partner. Forced to move to the Ozarks, Martin Byrde and his family scramble to adjust to life in Missouri. Unknown to the family, Martin is tasked to launder money or else he is the next to die. Freaking out, Martin tries to convince the local bar/restaurant owner, Rachel, who is played by Jordana Spiro, to let him fix up the place. This run-down restaurant named “The Blue Cat” is a dump. Martin manages to use the Blue Cat to launder the cartel’s money. He generates a large amount of money for renovations on The Blue Cat, which creates more foot traffic in the town. Slowly but surely, the owner believes him and gets sucked into Martin’s ways. The rise in visitors and donated money piques the FBI’s interest. As Martin becomes a person of interest, the townspeople start finding dead bodies, due to the cartel’s violence in support of Martin’s assignment.
The setting of the Ozarks gives the Byrdes an advantage as they reinvent their lives. The map of the Ozarks shows that the mountain range stretches across Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.[iii] The New World Encyclopedia explains the land as “a physiographic, geologic, and cultural highland region of the central United States”[iv]. How does the land being a highland region play into the involvement of illicit businesses? One can infer that the open and vast land does not have much security roaming the area, so illicit activity goes unnoticed. Illicit businesses, of course, try their hardest to move their activity to areas where the police cannot handle big cartels.[v] One can conclude that Martin Byrde “chose” the Ozarks because of its relative invisibility to the FBI or any other law enforcement.
The show also integrates the rural religious culture into the story by having the black marketeers take advantage of religious practices. “Conservative, or individualistic, with Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists, traditional Anglicans, and other Protestant Pentecostal denominations present” describes the culture in the Ozarks.[vi] For example, Martin and Wendy meet a young preacher, Mason Young, who inadvertently helps the black market when he sells bibles that unbeknownst to him are hollowed out to hold drugs. This type of trickery fools people into participating in illicit business.
In addition to religion, the socio-economic statuses of the people living in the Ozarks play a huge role in the success of the illicit trade depicted in the show. In actuality, the most common types of jobs in the Ozarks are lower paying jobs. The “Top 10 Occupations by Projected Growth” in the Ozarks are:
- Information Security Analysts
- Personal Care Aides
- Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
- Nursing Instructors
- Meeting Planners, Convention Planners, and Event Planners[vii]
This list broadens the viewer’s idea of the characteristics of individuals living in the Ozarks. The smaller population does not support larger companies with higher paying positions. In fact, average income is lower in much of the Ozark areas of Missouri compared to Missouri as a whole.[viii] In adjacent border areas of the north Arkansas Ozarks the government documents a significant pay deficit between the amount people make for the same job comparing urban earnings to the Ozark highlands.[ix] In the show, the viewer gets introduced to a poor and unmotivated family–the Langmores. The family resides in an old trailer located in a rundown area. The family ends up resorting to aiding illegal businesses. The show implies that the average poor family must resort to illicit activity to survive in the Ozarks, which in reality probably is not true.
Lower educational attainment plays a role in the socio-economics geographically. In the show, the local high school is depicted as under resourced. Research shows that the young learn and become educated to the degree of the resources given to them.[x] The data tells us that the highland areas of Missouri generally have a higher percent of persons without high school degrees or GEDs and a lower percent of persons with bachelor degrees.[xi] The depiction of the show conforms to the information about the area. Gabrielle Levy states in a U.S. News article four steps that will help the country succeed in the education field. She believes “high quality pre-kindergarten,” higher high school graduation rates, college-ready high school graduates, and college completion will lead people to a successful life. Levy states, “Those are goals that keep high-wage, high-skill jobs in our country. Those are jobs that grow the middle class…we should have lots of flexibility and local innovation around the best means and we should see what works best in rural communities”.[xii] Less education results in more more impoverished population.
The area’s available resources define what success looks like. In the show, open fields and croplands allows farmers to take advantage of underground market activities. However, successful people, like the Snells, can still exist in underpopulated areas. The Snells have a huge plot of land for growing crops. In addition to their farm, they sell drugs on the side. It is realistic that a family like the Snells could be involved with illicit drug trade (See Figure 2). An unclassified DEA Intelligence Report suggests that the Sinaloa Mexican Drug Cartel operates within the area of the Ozarks. The shading of the image indicates “potential high density drug markets that TCOs [Transnational Crime Organizations] will look to exploit through the street-level drug distribution activities of urban organized crime groups/street gangs”.[xiii] The cartel focuses on the Ozark’s population for black market business deals because organized crime groups exist in that unsuspected area. Whereas, high paying jobs in the city require a higher education degrees. Meanwhile, in an area where no high paying jobs exist, individuals struggle to make a good living because of the poor local economies.
The drug cartel forces Martin Byrde to take part in a money laundering scheme. According to Kevin McCoy on USA Today, money laundering happens in three steps. The first step, placement, refers to where one should put the money in order to remain secret. For example, Martin puts his money into the Blue Cat because of its run down facade. Due to its unassuming appearance, the situation looks like an innocent civilian from Chicago bought the restaurant for its revival. The second step, layering, means putting the money through multiple transactions so it becomes unnoticeable. For example, Martin fixes up the place and buys new items for the bar so it appears as innocent restaurant renovations. The third step, integration, allows money launderers to provide proof that the money was legitimately earned.[xiv] In the beginning, the Byrdes go unquestioned because their wealth gives them authority, which allows them to work through the money laundering steps. The show relies on the notion that the Byrdes would not have encountered this gullibility if they were still in Chicago.
As Martin gets caught up in laundering the Cartel’s money, the relationships within the family start to crumble. His wife, Wendy, suspects that he and the owner of The Blue Cat are having an affair. She decides to sleep with another man with whom she confides. The cheating changes their relationship from a loving marriage to a strict business partnership. The viewer never sees the married couple kiss. The relationship with their children also changes. The daughter, Charlotte, befriends one of the Langmore children and starts smoking marijuana. Charlotte misunderstands why her parents became criminals. All she wants is a normal life. She tries to emancipate herself from the family in order to save her future. In one heartbreaking episode, Wendy throws Charlotte’s clothing into their yard in a rage because Charlotte was trying to leave the family. The son, Jonah, becomes exposed to many illegal business ideas and he too becomes a part of the family business. He starts laundering money stolen from his parents in online trade deals. He accomplishes this task without instruction from adults despite his young age.
In my class about black markets, we discussed that black markets can flourish in areas with high poverty rates. In Ozark, this flourishing happens because the Byrdes manipulate relationships to their advantage. The role of poverty and manipulation of relationships mirrors investigative reports of real black markets. In “McMafia,” the author Misha Glenny implies “[desperate people] will do anything to leave their crime filled towns,” often relying on their relationships.[xv] For example, Martin used Ruth Langmore to his advantage because of her low socio-economic status. Ruth wants the best for her brother. The Byrde family forced Ruth to work for them because she needed money. This option was the easiest way to get what she needed to support her brother.
The ability to use persuasion is also vital to success in black markets. Martin’s actions exemplify models and tactics of persuasion such as those expressed by Cialdini. Specifically, while working with Ruth, he uses reciprocity, authority, commitment and consistency.[xvi] Martin creates a relationship where Ruth feeds off of him, always needing him around. She does what he wants because she will get money. Authority comes into play because his education and experience causes her fear. Consistency presents itself through the ongoing pattern of Martin and Ruth’s interactions. Martin holds Ruth accountable for her actions and she expects the same from him. They know they can trust one another. We see in the show and in investigative reports that regular law-abiding citizens become roped into these businesses because they want to do the right thing for their family; however, they end up doing the complete opposite.
Season two of Ozark ended with a cliffhanger. One can only image what might happen next. Martin plans for Ruth to be in charge of the cartel’s money laundering while he goes away to hide his family. Real life suggest that Martin might fall victim to violence. Often times black market leaders have back-up plans for dangerous situations. One possible outcome involves Ruth turning on the Byrdes to save her and her brother’s innocence. Maybe the Byrde family will disappear into thin air. Hopefully, they recover from the awful situations they were involved in. Their involvement in the illicit market was forced upon by the Mexican drug cartel. Often times black market deals go unnoticed and left alone. Maybe they will get lucky and this short period in their lives will be over. The writers create a sense of hope for the family and make the viewer sympathize for the Byrdes. Despite the hopeful tone at the end of season two, black markets are shown to have profound effects on individuals involved; therefore, nothing guarantees their safety.
Martin’s background in accounting allows him to use backhanded ways to get around the FBI. His ability to launder money through town projects such as rebuilding the Blue Cat and creating a Casino covers the cash flow from the cartel’s illicit drug deals. Being the cartel’s personal financial assistant causes great stress and strife in Martin’s and others’ lives. Although the creators and writers want the viewer to have a sense of sorrow and hope for the Byrde family, one must realize that Martin knowingly engages his family in these illegal affairs. The actions he took deserves years in jail. He inserted many people into the never-ending cycle that is the black market. He and his wife endangered their own children and the Langmore children. They caused many deaths of those who helped with their business. Martin’s ability to launder money in a business-professional way provides them with immense opportunity to thrive as criminals; however, their involvement in the black market tears their family apart.
[i] “Plot.” IMDb. Accessed October 16, 2018. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5071412/plotsummary?ref_=tt_stry_pl.
[ii] Smith, Scott M. “Ozark Aquifer.” Ozark Aquifer. 2006. Accessed October 16, 2018. http://academic.emporia.edu/schulmem/hydro/TERM PROJECTS/Smith/Ozark1.htm.
[iii] Ozark Plateaus National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program Map. Accessed October 16, 2018. https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/ozark-plateaus-national-water-quality-assessment-nawqa-program-map.
[iv] “The Ozarks.” The Ozarks – New World Encyclopedia. Accessed October 16, 2018. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/The_Ozarks.
[v] Fox News. “Mexican Cartels Take over Methamphetamine Trade in the Ozarks.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 16 May 2016, www.foxnews.com/world/mexican-cartels-take-over-methamphetamine-trade-in-the-ozarks.
[vi] “The Ozarks.” The Ozarks – New World Encyclopedia. Accessed October 16, 2018. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/The_Ozarks.
[vii] “Ozark Region Data.” Cost of Living First Quarter 2018, www.missourieconomy.org/regional/profile/?ac=2915000005.
[viii] Glenn. “Missouri Educational Attainment and Income.” Missouri Census Data Center. January 26, 2017. Accessed December 11, 2018. https://census.missouri.edu/category/economics/.
[ix] Cartwright, Richard, “Rural Profile of Arkansas” Division of Agriculture University of Arkansas, 2017. Accessed December 12, 2018. https://www.uaex.edu/publications/pdf/MP541.pdf
[x]”Ozark School District / Homepage.” / Homepage. 2002. Accessed October 16, 2018. https://www.ozarktigers.org/.
[xi]Glenn. “Missouri Educational Attainment and Income.” Missouri Census Data Center. January 26, 2017. Accessed December 11, 2018. https://census.missouri.edu/category/economics/.
[xii]Levy, Gabrielle. “Rethinking Education in America.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 27 July 2018, www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2018-07-27/americas-schools-arent-working-for-americas-kids.
[xiii]“DEA Intelligence Report”. dea.gov. Accessed December 7, 2018. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2018-07/dir06515.pdf
[xiv]McCoy, Kevin. “Follow the Money: Here’s How Money Laundering Works.” USA Today. October 30, 2017. Accessed October 16, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/10/30/follow-money-heres-how-money-laundering-works/813379001/.
[xv] Glenny, Misha. McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime. London: Vintage, 2017.
[xvi]“The 6 Principles of Persuasion by Dr. Robert Cialdini [Official Site].” INFLUENCE AT WORK, Influence At Work, 2018, www.influenceatwork.com/principles-of-persuasion/?gclid=CjwKCAiA9K3gBRA4EiwACEhFe5XLknbTBQ3eov-RPH_hGgLgP6LX8iC25hP9vw9DhRQAKwA7o1zwdxoC1CgQAvD_BwE.
Cartwright, Richard, “Rural Profile of Arkansas” Division of Agriculture University of Arkansas, 2017. Accessed December 12, 2018. https://www.uaex.edu/publications/pdf/MP541.pdf
“DEA Intelligence Report”. dea.gov. Accessed December 7, 2018. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2018-07/dir06515.pdf
Fox News. “Mexican Cartels Take over Methamphetamine Trade in the Ozarks.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 16 May 2016, www.foxnews.com/world/mexican-cartels-take-over-methamphetamine-trade-in-the-ozarks.
Glenn. “Missouri Educational Attainment and Income.” Missouri Census Data Center. January 26, 2017. Accessed December 11, 2018. https://census.missouri.edu/category/economics/.
Glenny, Misha. McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime. London: Vintage, 2017, Page 189.
Levy, Gabrielle. “Rethinking Education in America.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 27 July 2018, www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2018-07-27/americas-schools-arent-working-for-americas-kids.
McCoy, Kevin. “Follow the Money: Here’s How Money Laundering Works.” USA Today. October 30, 2017. Accessed October 16, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/10/30/follow-money-heres-how-money-laundering-works/813379001/.
“Ozark.” IMDb. Accessed October 16, 2018. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5071412/plotsummary?ref_=tt_stry_pl.
“Ozark Plateaus National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program Map”. Accessed October 16, 2018. https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/ozark-plateaus-national-water-quality-assessment-nawqa-program-map.
“Ozark Region Data.” Cost of Living First Quarter 2018, www.missourieconomy.org/regional/profile/?ac=2915000005.
“Ozark School District / Homepage.” / Homepage. 2002. Accessed October 16, 2018. https://www.ozarktigers.org/.
Smith, Scott M. “Ozark Aquifer.” Ozark Aquifer. 2006. Accessed October 16, 2018. http://academic.emporia.edu/schulmem/hydro/TERM PROJECTS/Smith/Ozark1.htm.]
“The Ozarks.” The Ozarks – New World Encyclopedia. Accessed October 16, 2018. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/The_Ozarks.
The 6 Principles of Persuasion by Dr. Robert Cialdini [Official Site].” INFLUENCE AT WORK, Influence At Work, 2018, www.influenceatwork.com/principles-of-persuasion/?gclid=CjwKCAiA9K3gBRA4EiwACEhFe5XLknbTBQ3eov-RPH_hGgLgP6LX8iC25hP9vw9DhRQAKwA7o1zwdxoC1CgQAvD_BwE.