Many people have compared Netflix’s dark crime drama Ozark to the seminal AMC series Breaking Bad. Both shows are about ambitious criminals forced into increasingly desperate situations as they try to separate their illicit enterprises from their family life.
While Breaking Bad’s Walter White (Bryan Cranston) produced and distributed meth, Ozark’s Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) and his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) launder money for drug cartels.
As with Breaking Bad, Marty’s money laundering is central to the series, but only insofar as it’s a wellspring of conflict with which he and his family must contend. Just as Breaking Bad wasn’t really about the ins and outs of meth production, Ozark isn’t trying to offer a detailed look behind the scenes at a money-laundering operation. However, that doesn’t mean that the show doesn’t strive for accuracy in the way it depicts the crime.
Even though the characters are the true heart and soul of Ozark, when it came to creating the world and conflicts they find themselves in, the writers and producers of Ozark did their due diligence to hammer down the fine details of exactly how to launder money.
The producers of Ozark brought in experts to learn how to launder money
When the Ozark creative team set out to figure out how the Byrdes’ money-laundering operation was going to function, they did the most sensible thing: They went to the experts. We should clarify in this case that “the experts” are law enforcement officials, not the types of criminals after which the Byrdes are modeled.
According to Chris Mundy, one of the series’ executive producers, the Ozark team brought into the writer’s room an FBI agent who works on financial crimes. To make sure they had all the pertinent information, a hedge fund manager was also brought in to answer questions about how to move large sums of money (via Drama Quarterly).
Having these experts on hand no doubt helped the writers craft authentic storylines for their characters. However, just because they had time to pick the brains of those in the know doesn’t mean they necessarily applied the knowledge correctly. So, exactly how accurate are Marty and Wendy’s (mostly) successful money laundering schemes?
What the professionals think about how accurate Ozark is
Even with help from professionals to get everything just right, when trying to weave details of an intricate money-laundering scheme with the personal stories the show tells, some things are bound to slip through the cracks. In a blog post, Beam Solutions, a company that develops software to identify and prevent money laundering, broke down what the show got right — and wrong — in its depiction of the crime.
On the positive side, Beam Solutions’ team notes that Marty’s purchase of the run -own Blue Cat Lodge wouldn’t immediately draw any red flags for fraud. They describe how it works on Ozark: “Now that Marty owns the Blue Cat Lodge, he has many opportunities to launder money. For example, he pays for 25 air conditioners but only installs four. The air conditioner vendor is owned by the drug cartel, so it cleans its dirty money through the seemingly legitimate transaction.”
One place the Beam Solutions team found fault with Ozark’s depiction of money laundering was the fact that the volume of Marty’s purchases never get flagged by his bank. They explain, “Marty takes a struggling business and begins funneling large amounts of money through it. While the change in volume of both withdrawals and deposits could be explained by a new owner trying to shake things up, this would generate the scrutiny of the bank and would make things much more difficult for Marty.” Once the banks start looking under the hood, there would be ample opportunity for someone to catch on to what was actually going on at the Blue Cat Lodge.
Beam Solutions’ verdict on the accuracy of Ozark? “Both plausible and very creative.” The team writes in the blog post, “Marty uses cash businesses, including the Blue Cat Lodge and a strip club, as a means to legitimize the cartel’s drug money. However, we would expect a lot of these transactions to be flagged and reported to FinCEN. If the banks in the Ozark universe were using compliance software that’s even a fraction as powerful as Beam, the suspicious activity reports would be pouring in.”
Jason Bateman isn’t too concerned about the fine details on Ozark
Though a veneer of accuracy is important to immerse the audience in the world of Ozark, according to star and frequent director of the show, Jason Bateman, getting every single detail just right isn’t the goal. The show’s purpose isn’t to teach the audience about money laundering, but rather to show them enough so that they understand how the business affects the Byrdes and everyone around them.
In an interview with journalist Jake Hamilton, Bateman was asked about whether or not they had gotten any feedback from those with knowledge of such crimes. He replied, “No one’s really said ‘You guys are nailing it,’ but that’s kind of by design. There was an effort in the writer’s room to really not bore the audience with… sort of the mechanics of all that stuff.”
Bateman went on to add that the goal was to show “what the burden is that we’re trying to manage.” He continued, “It’s really more about how these people are trying to assess the danger, and the smarts of the locals — it’s more about those kinds of relationships.”
Considering Ozark has only grown in popularity since it premiered, and has been renewed for season 4 by Netflix, they are clearly achieving those goals.