‘Ozark’ and middle-class life under pressure; Dr. Freud in ‘Vienna Blood’
Ozark, Season 3. | Courtesy of Netflix

The third season of the Netflix popular and critical hit Ozark has the show going ever darker. It’s beginning to make Breaking Bad seem like a sit-com.

In the first season, there seemed to be a way out for the accountant Marty Byrde, participating in money laundering for a Mexican drug cartel and having to make up for funds the partner in his firm embezzled from the cartel. The Byrde family is forced to flee their comfortable Chicago home to the Ozarks with their two teenage kids. Here, Laura Linney, Marty’s wife Wendy, who had worked in politics, displays an unerring sense of comedy in scenes in which she and Jason Bateman’s Marty proclaim their upstanding wish to better the Missouri community they are holed up in while all the time simply setting up bogus businesses to “clean” drug money. Bateman’s stoic nonplussed deadpan is a marvel in itself. He’s a Bob Newhart for the neoliberal age, keeping his cool in a world that grows ever more insane around him.

American family shattered

This cutthroat world that Marty and Wendy inhabit was exhibited off-screen as well when the show’s production company, Media Rights Capital, was accused of forcing a publication which it owns, The Hollywood Reporter, to report favorably on the company, with the editor resigning possibly due to this pressure.

Season Two had Wendy forsaking the comedy and moving deeper into the business, opposing an equally unethical FBI agent and in the end participating in a murder. Season three, just released on Netflix, has the two in the middle of a cartel war and warring themselves. Marty still believes that their troubles are situational and momentary and if he launders the right amount of money they will get out from under the cartel’s thumb. Wendy, though, strikes out on her own, using her political muscle and becomes more ruthless in her quest to make herself essential to the cartel chief whom she courts over the phone. This season ends in the couple’s, and particularly Wendy’s, participation in the murder of an intimate. Marty, in the end, concedes Wendy is right, that the only way out is to become further entangled.

Is this just a crafty “twisty” tale of chicanery? If so, why is the show so wildly popular with critics, nominated for several Emmys, and audiences, quickly renewed each season by the streaming service based on its (carefully guarded) ratings?

The explanation may lie in invoking Raymond Williams’s phrase “structure of feeling.” By this term, Williams meant sometimes barely expressed or even subconscious feelings in art and cultural practices that registered a deep insight into the emotions that lay just under the surface of life. Ozark expresses the emotional tension of the American, and indeed the global, middle class, under increasing pressure to maintain its position in the face of an onslaught by corporate capital which is affecting this class as well as the working class below.

There is a racist projection of the ruthless Mexican drug overlord as controlling their lives. However, if we substitute a corporate overlord for the drug kingpin, the show is a description of a middle class that, in order to hold onto their lifestyle, must be constantly at the beck and call of a domineering boss or corporate culture that demands ever more time away from the family and demands the family become ever more corporatized itself. Wendy and Marty must be constantly on their toes—the corporate term is “adaptive”—to maneuver around each new demand of their boss as more and more middle-class jobs are being eliminated by automation and as that class must learn more and work harder to maintain its position. Otherwise, they will be killed or, in more middle-class terms, will fall into the working-class poverty of those who surround them in the Ozarks, which is a kind of death for this class.

Even their kids are affected. The pressure to launder money, i.e., keep up their middle-class lifestyle, robs their teenage daughter Charlotte of the last years of her adolescence. Meanwhile, the just-becoming-a teen Jonah is introduced to the violence that surrounds the family, learns bitcoin investing to stockpile money in reserve to save the family, and pilots a drone which he uses for spying, participating in the surveillance economy which he will need to be a part of if he is to maintain his position.

Marty and Wendy must make smarter, and more ruthless, decisions each season to survive, and in season three these pressures force them to compete against each other. There is no port in a storm for an American middle class that moment by moment is starting to feel the relentless stress that is a product of its constant battle to hold its ground and its somewhat extravagant lifestyle. It’s the same stress the global working class is under each day simply in order to survive. Ozark tells us the two positions are starting to converge into one giant disenfranchised class.

An obsessed Freud

Dr. Freud and the Freudians

Two recent series, both publicly supported, have as their subject the birth of psychoanalysis within the conservative confines of the Hapsburg dynasty in turn-of-the-(last)-century Vienna. The BBC’s Vienna Blood (available to stream on PBS, the U.S. public television website), based on the detective novels of Frank Tallis, has an acolyte of Freud, Dr. Max Liebermann, joining forces with a bulldog working-class police inspector. Together this unlikely pair delve into the unconscious and the prejudices of an anti-Semitic empire somewhat being attacked from within by Freud’s discoveries of the sexual and violent side of both human nature and the empire itself.

Vienna Blood does settle comfortably though into the rational detective mode with clear-cut villains and evildoers while striking a blow against the militarism of a society structured around rigid social distinctions.

More troubling by far is Austrian National TV’s or ORF’s Freud, now streaming on Netflix, with Netflix also a partner in the production. This series is set earlier in the history of psychoanalysis in the late 1880s and is on the surface a kind of Young Sherlock Holmes, that is, a coming-of-age Freud obsessed with hypnosis, and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a coke-sniffing Freud who is manic, driven, and on the verge of discovering the unconscious. The series is also a kind of origin story, a “How Freud became Freud,” and in that sense, it does not escape the superhero template in revealing how our hero developed his powers and his first use of them.

But much about this series does not fall into this comfortable framework. Volkslieder, or people’s songs, moments abound—Brechtian ditties in a tavern that comment on the action while being outside it. The series also delights in an outpouring of all kinds of human waste as a hysteric spews spittle and blood overflows in a series of brutal murders, in what Freud would later call abnegation, a spewing out or rejection in this case of bodily fluids. This emphasis on bodily excretions also suggests the Austrian Actionist movement of the 1960s that was about exhibiting the excesses of the human body as a way of disrupting social order. Hypnosis is here made strange and practiced as a conjuring art of which Freud himself partakes. It is used not to illuminate but to manipulate the unconscious.

Freud battles the brutality of a medical establishment that does not link mind and body, and the series shows him eventually surpassing the cruelty of his mentors. In a parallel plot, the police inspector Alfred Kiss, his sometimes unwitting ally, equally contests the savagery of the Austrian military in its murderous rampage against its foes and its cover-up of all wrongdoing.

Freud in ‘Vienna Blood’

The series has its problems, though. The Hungarians, the subjugated villains, are treated as an unearthly “other,” savage anarchists out only for revenge. This Freud, for all his disputing of the might of the empire in his own field, when the chips are down, comes to the rescue of the emperor and helps reestablish imperial order.

Both series skirt the potentially most shocking and damning aspect of the young Freud’s discoveries, the incest he found, through an examination of his female patients, lurking at the heart of the Viennese upper-middle-class bourgeois order. But Freud himself also suppressed this discovery, choosing instead to explore it as fantasy, and so the practice continues to be hidden, not only in series about Freud but in reality as well.


Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe’s latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and the Rise of the Streaming Services. He has taught at the Sorbonne and is currently teaching in the Master’s Program at the École Supérieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the British daily Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an associate editor.