Netflix’s Ozark was pulpy fun in its first seasons, but early on it suffered from a déjà vu problem. Too often, it felt like a serious version of Jason Bateman’s previous work in Arrested Development or a sweaty Breaking Bad retread, one that had hit the road and migrated eastward from the high desert of the Southwest to the rugged hills of the Bible Belt.
Like Walter White, Ozark’s Marty Byrde is an intelligent but selfish patriarch who drags his family into the moral muck of the illegal drug trade while trying to convince himself — and everyone else —that the ends justify the bloody means.
But by Ozark’s just-released final season, the show had evolved into something more than a neo-noir about a once ordinary upper-middle-class family that became key players in a Mexican drug cartel. As the Byrde clan grows in wealth and political stature, the familial drama takes a backseat to the societal kind — one that critiques the insidious ways that capitalism and political power work in America and the self-interested choices that elites make to keep climbing the ladder.
In fact, after watching that gut punch of a series finale, I’m convinced that the show was secretly a fictionalised version of the rise of the Democratic Party’s royal family — the Clintons.
The Clintons Rebooted
That’s not to say that Ozark is like the novel Primary Colors, the 1996 roman à clef more than loosely based on Bill Clinton’s bullshit-heavy 1992 presidential campaign. The Byrdes’ story is more reminiscent of the Clintons’ early years — the sordid stuff from their days in Arkansas that has all but evaporated from the American consciousness.
Some of the commonalities are biographical. Bill and Hillary Clinton moved to the southern part of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, Arkansas, after graduating from Yale Law School in the mid-’70s. The Byrdes are white-collar Democrats who hail from Chicago, where Hillary was born.
Wendy is depicted as growing up in a religious, working-class family in a small town in North Carolina, where an alcoholic and abusive father scarred her. Likewise, Bill Clinton’s mother lived with modest means in a small town in Arkansas and married Roger Clinton, a car dealer, an abusive alcoholic. Both Bill Clinton and Wendy Byrde are striving meritocrats that have fled their humble beginnings on their ascension to American greatness.
Hell, it’s theoretically possible that Wendy crossed paths with the Clintons in Ozark‘s imaginary world. In Chicago, she was a former political operative for several Illinois state politicians and worked for Barack Obama’s second state legislature campaign. Marty Byrde worked as a financial consultant. His firm’s involvement in a Mexican drug lord’s finances prompts the power couple and their two teenage children to move to the remote Lake Ozark area of Missouri.
As Ozark progresses, the Byrdes’ plan to build a criminal empire involves gobbling up more local businesses and real estate to launder dirty money — ranging from a funeral home, a strip club, too, and ultimately a riverboat casino. At first, the Byrdes’ motivations are about self-preservation, considering that the cartel threatens to kill them if they stop laundering.
But Wendy’s involvement in the cartel’s work changes their calculations. She has personal political ambitions to become a king or a kingmaker — in Missouri and beyond — despite their ill-gotten gains. The cartel money opens doors, and she begins meddling in regional politics to secure more deals and make sure the authorities either don’t know where the bodies of those who’ve crossed the cartel are buried or are paid enough not to care.
In season four, she even starts a foundation as a framework to build her political reach. As the Clintons know, foundations are a tool of tax evasion and a way for rich people to morally launder their greed and misdeeds.
“This is America. No one cares where your fortune comes from,” she tells her son, Jonah. “In two election cycles, it’s going to be some myth at some cocktail party.”
State of Scandal
Wendy Byrde might as well have been referring to our collective amnesia about the Clintons.
Many of us only have a vague notion of their scandals. You might remember many times when “gate” was attached as a suffix — Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewatergate — but mostly just know about Monica Lewinsky and the various sex scandals. What’s forgotten is how the Clintons were breaking bad in the southern region of the Ozarks a generation ago in ways strikingly similar to their TV counterparts.
Like the Byrdes, they quickly got involved in local politics and financial chicanery. In 1978, Hillary, a corporate lawyer who served on the boards of two big Arkansas companies, Walmart and TCBY (The Country’s Best Yogurt), invested $1,000 in cattle futures that quickly rocketed to the moon to the tune of $100,000, all while Tyson Foods benefited from Bill’s turn as governor.
And then there’s Whitewater, the morass of a land deal that a 1992 Washington Post headline described as “COUPLE’S ‘MOST CONFUSING’ DEAL INVOLVED REAL ESTATE IN OZARKS.” In 1978, the Clintons and their friends James and Susan McDougal bought land in the Ozarks for $203,000 of borrowed money and divided the land into forty-two lots to sell as pricey vacation home sites. “If Reaganomics works at all, Whitewater could become the Western Hemisphere’s Mecca,” Hillary wrote to James McDougal in 1981.
But just like Reaganomics, Whitewater flopped big time. Yet the McDougals ended up taking the fall for all of the shady financial dealings behind it. The Clintons came out of the Whitewater controversy relatively unscathed.
What about the drugs, you ask?
In 1986, federal drug charges of cocaine dealing were filed against Arkansas investment bankers and Roger Clinton, Bill’s infamous brother. One of them was a bond dealer and racehorse owner named Dan Lasater, who was a friend of the Clintons, one who Bill called a “substantial supporter of mine.” Lasatar had loaned Roger $8,000 to cover his cocaine debts to Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel.
Then there’s Barry Seal, the drug smuggler turned DEA informant, who allegedly had ties to Lasater and flew weapons from Mena, Arkansas, to the contras in Nicaragua and brought back millions of dollars of cocaine and heroin. According to multiple sources, including two books written by journalists, it was a conspiracy that the CIA, Oliver North, and Clinton were all involved with.
Eyewitness testimony from a former member of then governor Clinton’s Arkansas security detail confirmed it. He claimed that he had participated in secret flights originating from Mena in 1984, during which M-16 guns were exchanged with the Nicaraguan contras for cocaine, and that Clinton himself was involved.
Much of the mainstream press dismissed reports about Mena as part of what the Clintons called “a vast right-wing conspiracy,” but it was a group of progressive students at the University of Arkansas that formed the Arkansas Committee to examine the Mena operation. Later, a probe by IRS and Arkansas State Police investigators into Mena got covered up, according to William Duncan, who’d worked to bring the matter to light.
Ironically enough, even the 2017 movie about Mena and Seal’s smuggling adventures starring Tom Cruise was censored. But in 2020, the FBI unsealed (heavily redacted) documents that confirmed that Seal used the Mena airport for “smuggling activity” from late 1980 until March 1984.
It’s no wonder that the Clinton administration’s deputy secretary of the Treasury, Roger Altman, wrote in his diary, “HRC doesn’t want [the independent counsel] poking into 20 years of public life in Arkansas.”
Those twenty years are full of sex, drugs, and corruption. All that’s missing from Ozark is the first part of the equation. If only HBO had picked it up.
Ryan Zickgraf is an Alabama-based journalist and is the editor of Third Rail Mag.
Featured image: Netflix
This article was first published on Jacobin.