You would think the author of a well-read television blog would have Netflix. You’d be wrong. My relationship with it (and all the streamers except Paramount+) has been full of one-month stands. Get caught up, get my clothes, get out by breakfast. That’s how we’ve been. But over the holidays I mooched my brother’s subscription and ended up getting my own so I could finish the list of shows I started.
Here then are my thoughts on three of Netflix’s most popular shows in recent years: Squid Game, Ozark and The Queen’s Gambit.
Squid Game is, without a doubt, the most difficult show I’ve ever watched. Not because it was hard to understand or bad (it was neither) but because I had to work so hard to find pleasure in it.
This show is built around death. Rampant, unrepentant, graphic death. No one is coming to save the 456 players who bet their lives on a chance claim the $38 million prize. Misery is everywhere. Death awaits for all but one.
There are no heroes in Squid Game. But there are sympathetic characters. It was seriously failing my who are these people and why should I care test for the first few episodes until I understood the characters were experiencing the same misery and dread I was as a viewer. Marvelous! I never felt stuck on an island during Lost or fighting for the crown on Game of Thrones. Knowing I would be hit with scene after scene of violent death gave me something in the characters I sympathize with. Not just that there would be more death, though. That there would be death for every character except the one who won the final game.
Squid Game’s creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, said expanding the story from a movie to a TV show let him “focus on the relationships between people [and] the stories that each of the people had.” That’s what made the show work. You watch players form relationships knowing they might have to look each other in the eye and kill each other in the next game. Building bonds with other humans is supposed to be joyful and exciting. Being in the Squid Game wouldn’t allow participants or viewers to experience any such thing. Even winning does not bring relief. How could you be elated to have all the money you could ever dream of if you got it this way?
Squid Game wants you to think the financiers who watch the players (quite ridiculously, I might add. Easily the low point of the series.) are the show’s villains. They certainly are awful people. But I nominate a different character: Oh Il-nam. This bastard played the game knowing they wouldn’t let him die. For that, I hate him.
One last note: I recommend watching with the original Korean dialogue and English subtitles. That way you get the emotion the actors intend in their performance.
Marty Byrde is the most pragmatic of bastards. Nothing phases this guy because he’s never thinking about what just happened, as if The Langoliers wipe the past from his memory. In Ozark’s first episode, he watches a Mexican drug lord shoot a woman through a bathroom door simply for knowing her boyfriend—Marty’s business partner—launders drug money. Does Marty Byrde dwell on this? No. He takes her murder, and the subsequent execution of his partner’s father and his partner, in stride. Instead of becoming the fourth victim of the night he convinces the drug lord to let him move to the Ozarks and continue to launder narcotics money by investing in unsuspecting businesses.
Marty Byrde concocts this plan on his knees with a gun to his head.
But it’s not a desperate plea. Jason Bateman is too good at this role to make you believe anything other than Marty Byrde had this plan in his back pocket for years to use in this exact situation. In reality he never heard of the Ozarks until his partner showed him a travel brochure earlier that afternoon.
And Marty is, by any measure, a bastard. He has no remaining affection for his wife, Wendy, after finding out she is sleeping with another man. But in an interesting and appreciated twist, Wendy knows Marty’s dirty deeds. In fact, she signed off on his initial decision to start laundering money for the cartel.
I loved this, and it made me start to see Ozark in the style of House of Cards. Marty and Wendy do not have a romantic marriage. Maybe they once did, but his affair and the strains of money laundering squelched it. They are Frank and Claire Underwood now. It’s easy to envision Marty and Wendy as what Frank and Claire would have become if they children to worry about.
They also solve problems the same way the Underwoods did. Which is to say they don’t solve them at all. Instead of fixing whatever is wrong they patch over it with a new problem that itself will get “solved” with yet another problem. Marty launders money and Wendy manipulates politics but their real skill is managing this Ponzi scheme of problems they build around them. That was one of my favourite things about House of Cards and it’s my favourite thing about Ozark. The train goes off the track and keeps tumbling down the hill, picking up speed until it hits the ground with the force of a shot to the head. *wink wink*
Wendy is no slouch in the bastard department either. She spends zero time wallowing in having her life uprooted and gets right to work keeping her family alive. She turns on both of her children and her brother at different points in the story. Laura Linney deserves the awards.
I suppose of the Underwoods had children they would be a lot like Charlotte and Jonah Byrde. Angry. Rebellious. Whip smart. Resigned to the destiny their parents’ poor choices fated on them.
The rest of the show is just sharp. Hollywood is often guilty of reducing “rural” characters to being dumb as rocks so the “smarter” characters can coach them up or save them. Not Ozark. It gives its rednecks credit for the lives they’ve led and makes them the ability to control their own storylines. Introducing Jacob Snell first before revealing his wife, Darlene, as the true queen of their local drug empire is a fantastic misdirection. There is no such sleight of hand with introducing Ruth Langmore. You know from her first scene to be on guard anytime she cocks her shotgun at you. They’re women, they’re strong and along with Wendy Byrde they push the story forward just as often as the male characters. Good for Ozark.
I’ve heard people compare Ozark to Breaking Bad. I sort of see it. Marty gives in to the temptation to use his brilliance at a very pedestrian skill for a life of crime; Wendy decides to go bad when it means keeping her family safe. But I think the comparison misunderstands Breaking Bad more than it understands Ozark.
To me, Breaking Bad was the story of what a proud father would do to provide for his family if fear was not an option, and it explored that question through Walt’s relationship with Jesse. Every aspect of its story was downstream from those two characters coming together. I don’t feel the same foundation with Ozark. Heisenberg was absolutely fearless, but the Byrdes live under the constant specter of what happens to their family if they fail. (I think this article makes a solid point about Wendy being more like Walt than Marty, but she’s not the protagonist of her own story until life forces her to be.) And while it’s true the events of Ozark are downstream from Marty and Wendy’s joint decision for him to begin working with the cartel, they do it initially out of simple greed. It’s a conscious decision less forced on them than Walt’s decision to go into business with Jesse Pinkman after realizing what losing him would mean for his family. To the extent anyone is really forced to become a drug kingpin, I suppose.
The Queen’s Gambit
If you fictionalized the real-life story of Tiger Woods I think it would come out looking like The Queen’s Gambit.
That’s what I kept thinking watching Elizabeth Harmon’s addiction lay in wait to derail her meteoric chess career. From the first moment 8-year-old Beth sat down at the chess board with basement-dwelling janitor Mr. Shaibel, she was destined to be the greatest in the world. She beat everyone older than her, better than her and especially everyone who underestimated her. She devoured the art and science of the game to become invincible.
But like Tiger, Beth teetered on the edge of ruin for too long to avoid falling. The same obsessive personality that made her a chess prodigy made her an addict. It nearly cost her everything.
All of that comes together because Anna Taylor-Joy is perfectly cast. It’s tremendous to see an actor and a role unite this well. My interest in the show waned as Beth’s arc became clear, so this is what kept me on the couch past the halfway point. She deservedly won a shelf full of awards.
One last note: I would watch the spin-off with Beth’s friend Jolene.