Ozark is a Rural, Modern Gatsby

I think the creators of the Netflix hit show Ozark borrowed from a famous hundred-year-old novel.

I realized this as I came to the last episode of Ozark. The story is sort of a rural, modern Gatsby tale. I mean, if you always understood Fitzgerald’s masterpiece to be about the American Dream and not just a love story.

It’s a story of people doing criminal things in the name of the American Dream and getting away with it, plain and simple. While it’s easy to see how Marty’s relationship to his wife, and his pursuit of her, is secondary to the family’s pursuit of obtaining more of the American Dream they already have, it’s not always so easy to see how The Great Gatsby is not a love story, but a crime story.

That is in part because Fitzergald couldn’t write a single thing without romanticizing it, and in part because crime literature worked differently then. If you wanted your book to be literary, you didn’t make it a crime novel, because those were for the pulps. And if you’re going to tell a crime story and have it be a bestseller that avoided censorship, you didn’t include gritty details like sex, violence, and drugs.

So there is a whole backstory in The Great Gatsby only hinted at: How Gatsby climbed to where he is, i.e. where he got his money. Even when he gets a chance to earn his money through hard work, the system shorts him (i.e. some inheritance law and his boss’s scheming widow). The novel beats around the bush without coming out and saying that Jay Gatsby sells bootleg alcohol, the chief narcotic of Prohibition America. Also, fake stocks. That’s where the laundering similarity lands.

Consider the similarities between The Great Gatsby and Ozark in the final episode:

  • There’s a fancy part at nighttime. Surrounding that party is a wasteland of poverty.
  • There’s a great body of water nearby that we’ve spent a lot of time around.
  • There is a violent car wreck.
  • A death is covered up.
  • A golden-haired protagonist who grew up poor and works harder than anybody is shot dead at their pool.
  • Two corrupt, reckless rich people get away scot free with everything and move on with their unhappy, wildly successful lives.
  • 3 people die

Loosely speaking, in this modern tale, Ruth is the classless nobody who has a chance run-in with a rich person, learns everything she can from them, keeps getting screwed over, and finally obtains her desires for herself, if only for a fleeting time, before she is killed as revenge. The Byrdes are the spoiled rich family who get away with everything they didn’t really earn (or at least earn ethically). I mean, compared to the Byrdes, Ruth kind of deserves what she worked for quite a bit more. The world never handed her anything.

I think Ruth is in pursuit of her own “Daisy”—herself. Ruth’s chief struggle is for self-respect and self-love, and the things she is “forced” to do in order to earn what she feels she deserves. Given her situation and family name and skillset, if she wants what the Byrdes have, she has no choice but crime. Ruth is Daisy and Jay all at once. She pursues having the dream to herself. With Jay Gatsby, Daisy represented the dream he wanted. That’s why he said her voice sounded like money. But with Ruth Langmore, there is nobody who don’t know anything about her except herself. She trusts no-one to be loyal to her but her own self.

While James Gatz’s identity crisis is handled by pretending he always came from money, Ruth has no pretensions about that. She wants to prove how hard she had to work for it. And it makes me wonder: Has our view of wealth changed? Do we prefer to say we’ve worked for our money from humble beginnings? Or would we rather project that we were always cultivated to the high life? Or would we rather brag that our wealth is criminal, as a protest to the crookedness of all wealth?

As in the end of Gatsby, at the end of Ozark the wealthy has-it-all-and-each-other family gets a “happy” ending. But it’s not one we’re happy with. Because the American Dream spoils the wrong people, and hurts others. It’s not fair. But that doesn’t mean the pursuit of justice can stop it. This lesson is drawn out of a 1920s New York scandal novel and a 2020s crime show.

As they say in Ozark, “money doesn’t know where it came from.” Wherever Jay Gatsby came from, the mystique is gone long before his death. His origins are more realistic than his dreams, and they never last. The green light at the end of the dock is for all the world’s Ruth Langmore’s to gawk at, someone else’s money, far out of reach, no matter how hard you grasp at it.

One response to “Ozark is a Rural, Modern Gatsby

  1. Greetings. Ozark is a show I won’t forget anytime soon. I don’t write about TV fare all that often, but said a few words about Ozark in my latest piece. Now you’ve got me wondering if I should re-read Gatsby. Neil S.

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