With Rosh Hashanah upon us, we can hope for a prosperous new year and a fresh new entry in the Book of Life. Alas, no such fate likely awaits the fictional Byrde and Langmore families of the hit Netflix series “Ozark.” Murder, drug running, money laundering and multiple betrayals are not generally the kinds of thing that lead to good spiritual karma, Jewish or otherwise.
On the other hand, with some blend of faith and ingenuity, perhaps even those who seem to have hit bottom aren’t entirely lost, say the folks who have come to know these Ozarkians better than most.
“I tend to be a person who thinks there’s a way back. There’s always a way back,” “Ozark” show runner, executive producer and writer Chris Mundy told a Zoom audience during an American Jewish University (AJU) Zoom discussion titled “What Does Ozark Teach Us About Sin and Repentance?” on Sept. 13.
As part of AJU’s Jewish Road Map to the Emmys series, more than 1,000 viewers tuned in to hear Mundy and Jewish actress Julia Garner (who plays Ruth Langmore) discuss their show, its characters and its themes, particularly as they relate to ideas of faith. The series follows the Byrde family, whose flight from Chicago to a lakeside community in rural Missouri to launder drug money for a Mexican cartel results in all manner of mayhem.
“Ozark,” which will begin shooting its fourth season in November, is nominated for 18 Emmy Awards, which will be announced in a virtual presentation on Sept. 20. Mundy is up for two, for writing and as part of the team for Outstanding Drama Series. Garner will try to win her second straight Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.
And whatever awards glory awaits the series on Emmy night, the men and women of “Ozark” somehow soldier on. Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, AJU’s chief innovation officer and the panel’s moderator, immediately picked up on that glimpse of hope referenced by Mundy and considered it in the larger context of whether Jews believe good people make bad choices.
“There’s a difference between what you do and who you are authentically,” Hirsch said. “Judaism really struggles with what does it mean when we do bad things? Does that mean that the totality of us is bad or does that mean we have the possibility to also do good things?”
The idea came around during the audience question-and-answer phase when a viewer noted that the Jewish idea of “a sin begets a sin” is prominent in “Ozark.” “So, once you’re in it, you just keep repeating it,” Hirsch said.
“As my grandma always said, if you follow the Ten Commandments and have good values, you’re a good Jew. One day when I have kids, there’s only two things I ask for: that they’ll be healthy and that they’ll be mensches.” — Julia Garner
Assessing her character, Garner said she strives not to pass judgment. The New York-born actress believes she has little in common with Ruth Langmore, but she does understand part of what drives the character.
“I think a lot of times she doesn’t feel acknowledged, and that’s a horrible feeling,” Garner said. “I can understand her emotions because I guess we share the same emotions because I’m playing her. When she’s ashamed, then I feel ashamed, for whatever reason.”
Although they occasionally wrestle with questions of faith, none of the central characters of “Ozark” are Jewish. Garner, whose mother is Israeli, has visited Israel several times and said that, in sharp contrast to her Ozark character, she tries to live a life based on principles.
“As my grandma always said, if you follow the Ten Commandments and have good values, you’re a good Jew,” she said. “One day when I have kids, there’s only two things I ask for: that they’ll be healthy and that they’ll be mensches.”
Displaying mensch-like tendencies of her own, Garner has been one of the cast den mothers, looking after some of the younger male actors by cooking them food or helping them do their laundry. Garner half-jokingly asked Mundy, who is not Jewish, whether he believed that Ruth Langmore was, in her own way, a mensch.
“I don’t think she is, but I think she’s getting closer,” Mundy replied. “I think she wants so badly to belong. In Season Three, a lot of that relationship with Ben was really to illuminate in Ruth that she could trust that she was worthy of being loved. I think if she could get over that hump, everything would start to break for her in a certain way emotionally.”
In discussing the progression of the series over its three seasons, Mundy noted that “Ozark’s” creators — and especially star and producer Jason Bateman — were at great pains to establish that, even with Bateman at its center, the series was not a comedy. Season Two was even darker than the first, and Mundy wanted to the third season to be “just 20% lighter.”
In Season Four, Mundy said that the Byrdes will be testing the theory that “the only way forward is through” and figuring out what they ultimately want. Ruth also will be faced with a crossroads of whether she can extricate herself from the Byrdes and discover whether working with Darlene Snell and her cousin Wyatt will bring her fulfillment.
“Those are thematically the things we’re going to be playing with,” Mundy said.
The recap turned Hirsch back to the question of sin and redemption. “You sin when you don’t stand for something,” she said. “You sin when you don’t be who you are because God doesn’t want you to be anyone else. And wrestling with those questions is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing this holiday season.”
All three seasons of “Ozark” are streaming on Netflix.