The Age of the Anti-Hero: What is it about amoral characters like Marty Byrde that has viewers wanting more?
Jason Bateman always seems to play the same character on screen: this middle-aged white guy with a family who's scared of confrontation and he tries his best to be a pacifist. Meek, unambitious, affable, modest, submissive might be some of the other words that come to your head as well, an unfortunate by-product of his excellent portrayal of Michael Bluth from 'Arrested Development,' and Ray Embrey from 'Hancock.' By design or by choice, he's pigeonholed himself into this kind of a role, and it seemed as though that trend is set to continue with Netflix's 'Ozark.'
At first glance, it's quite easy to misjudge Bateman's Marty Byrde. He's a financial planner in Chicago who's entered that age where the monotony of routine is beginning to chip away at his sanity. He's the typical middle-class American with a wife and two children to support and his primary worries involving saving up enough money to send the both of them to college. And like so many Americans, he's afraid that his wife is cheating on him while he's away toiling and fears that his marriage is a sham despite its longevity. It couldn't possibly get more straightforward than this, right? Marty is the quintessential Bateman character.
Except, he's not. To earn a little more money on the side, Marty agrees to be an accountant for Mexico's Navarro Cartel and soon finds himself neck-deep within a laundering scam that's funneling away billions of dollars a year. But a misstep by his partner ensures he's now in the crosshairs of the barbaric organization and running for his life towards the Missouri Ozarks in search of a new beginning. A man going through a mid-life crisis who decides to get involved in the drug trade to make millions of dollars sounds loosely like the plot for 'Breaking Bad.' Add in the fact that Marty's wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), is a reincarnation of Skyler (Anna Gunn) and unsurprising that comparison has been paraded around quite a bit since the drama's release.
However, it would be unfair to paint 'Ozark' in such broad strokes because it's a brilliant show in its own right, and the only striking resemblance you could draw between the pair is their reliance on an anti-hero to carry the show. While Marty is nowhere as polarizing as Walt — he's still only a season in, but I sincerely doubt Marty ends up as Machiavelian as Walt from say, season 4 or season 5 — he still exhibits glimpses of the traits that prove he's undergoing his own transformation, that he's no longer, the sincere, agreeable financial adviser he once was.
You can see as the season proceeds that he gets more, and more desensitized to the increasing body count around him. He appears a little taken aback as his wife's lover is thrown 10 floors to his death by the cartel's enforcers, but from there on out, the deaths faze him to a lesser and even lesser extent —his partner Bruce Liddell's (Josh Randall) shooting death, the body of Bobby Dean (Adam Boyer) showing up at his house, the gutting of Grace Young (Bethany Anne Lind) by the Snells each have little effect on him. In his bid to repay the cartel's lost money, he develops a ruthless streak that is a product of circumstance, but one you can't help but feel he enjoys at some level.
But why is that characters such as Marty have become more popular in recent years amongst writers and producers? What happened to the good ol' formula of "Good guy finds himself in trouble with bad guy, goes through enormous hardships to steer away from trouble and then gets his happy ending"? The short answer would be that it got stale and failed to hold up the standards necessary to make for a gripping show these days. Television has morphed and shifted in the 21st century to the extent that audiences have come to expect something entirely different. They no longer want to escape their lives by delving into a fantastical, unrealistic world; for whatever reason, they want to see a reflection of their own lives on screen.
In Marty, they have someone they can relate to, and someone they can see themselves living vicariously through. His life mimics that of a vast demographic — whether male or female — in the country, and while his association with a major Mexican drug cartel is not exactly authentic, most will have had an interaction with drugs at some point in their lives. His connection to a way of life — the duffel bags full of cash, the senseless killings, the ever-looming threat of extinction — that a vast majority of the population will remain blissfully unaware of ensures that there's an intrigue factor as well.
There are other aspects of the lives of anti-heroes that prove to be equally appealing to viewers. One of the most common wishes you would find if you went around asking people is that they will tell you they want to take control of their lives. Our existence is dictated by a series of random rules that no one is aware of, and the sense of foreboding and helplessness can get overwhelming at times. But these characters take up the initiative to bring about change, and however perverse that change may be, it's still inspiring.
And let's be honest, we've all imagined ourselves as the so-called 'bad guy' at some point in our lives. There have been those frustrating days where we've thought about abandoning our daily routine, uprooting everything and rebooting ourselves as an underworld drug baron. We've always wanted to command a cartel, have loyal soldiers who would give their lives for us, and experience a cult of brotherhood, but of course, without any of the consequences; all the reward with none of the risk. While Marty is not living a life we've dreamed (for the lack of a better word) about, his ordeal is as close to realistic as it gets.
Now, if you're not a fan of realistic, there are other shows out there for you too. For one, as much as fans such as myself would hate to admit it, 'Breaking Bad.' A high school chemistry teacher undergoing a drastic transformation to become New Mexico's foremost meth dealer makes for one hell of a story, and it gave us some unforgettable moments but you'd be hard-pressed to find an example in the real world. However, that didn't stop legions of viewers from around the world falling in love with the show, did it? While each one would probably give you a different answer as to why they were so riveted by Walt, the essence of it was that he represented these virtues and idiosyncrasies we've all envisaged for ourselves.
I've mentioned two anti-heroes that are based in fiction, so what would one very much rooted in reality? Pablo Escobar in Netflix's 'Narcos' comes across a charming, charismatic man who wants nothing but the development and prospering of his people. He donates excessively to build schools and hospitals, funds football pitches and makes himself available to any common man who wants to reach out to him. During season 1 of the series, you can't help but find yourself thinking, "Why can't these cops leave them alone? When has a little bit of cocaine harmed anybody?" (disingenuous, I know). But then you see him bombing everything around him indiscriminately without a care for the casualties and you change your mind, though there was a pang of fleeting sadness when they eventually do get him. It's a pretty weird thing to feel for a man who, either directly or indirectly, was responsible for millions of deaths, but you can pin that down to how the showrunners portrayed him. He was very much the living embodiment of an anti-hero.
If you want to get even more violent, how about Marvel's 'The Punisher.' Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) had his wife and children murdered as part of a conspiracy to wipe out his special ops team and any trace of them off the face of the earth, and as revenge, he takes on his Punisher persona. He murders anyone and everyone he decides played a part in his current misery and gets away with it over and over again. He singlehandedly wipes out an entire prison wing with his hands too. Merciless, cunning, brutally efficient, and with exactly the cares you would expect from a person who just lost everything, if you ran into him in person, you would do a 180 and walk the other way. But you're still fascinated by characters such as him, why?
If I were to offer up an explanation, I would say it's because they illustrate the good and the bad in equal measure. At a subconscious level, we understand why they're doing what they're doing. There's an inherent greyness to them, and it's entirely possible that they might be the person you walk past on the street or run into at a grocery store, or talk to at a parent-teacher conference, or even be friends with. They're inconspicuous and unobvious. They're real.