I’ve just finished series three of the acclaimed Netflix drama Ozark. Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) are a married couple forced to relocate to the Ozarks in Missouri when financial advisor Marty’s clandestine role as a money launderer for a Mexican drug cartel goes awry.
This brilliant drama isn’t a million miles away from Breaking Bad - respectable white collar family/sympathetic characters sinking deeper into a morass of brutally violent crime. It also exposes the corrupt local politics beyond the white picket fences and star-spangled banners draped above porches. It is particularly notable for strong female characters. The drug baron Omar Navarro (Felix Solis) growls laconically, ending phone conversations when he deigns he’s wasted enough time with the minion at the other end, but Wendy, Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) and especially Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) are complex 3D characters, flawed but compelling.
Is his unhinged behaviour more outlandish than the cartel thugs enacting extreme violence on complete strangers? Obviously not, but the stigma attached to mental illness means his instability still manages to stand out amongst all the crazed activity.
But the performance that particularly caught my eye was Tom Pelphrey’s portrayal of Ben, Wendy’s brother, a guy whose erratic behavior clearly indicates a deeper malaise. Without giving away spoilers, it transpires he is bipolar, a condition that will have far-reaching consequences.
Pelphrey's depiction of someone struggling with the extreme highs and desperate lows of this condition is sympathetic and unflinching. Is his unhinged behavior more outlandish than the cartel thugs or local mobsters enacting extreme violence on complete strangers? Obviously not, but the stigma attached to mental illness means his instability still manages to stand out amongst the crazed actions by individuals driven by nothing more than avarice and the pursuit of way more wealth than they’d ever be able to spend in their often perilously short lifetimes.
As Pelphrey has stated in interview: “This is not about a portrayal of bipolar disorder, because it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. He is in an insane situation where there are literally life-and-death consequences ― people are doing the most horrible things.”
You can see why any scriptwriter would be drawn to this natural situation, rife as it is for conflict. Here it is refreshing to see mental health used in a storyline, not to sensationalise unharnessed behaviour, but to present a disturbing but all-too-common reality for so many people. We see how a loving family member can be transformed into someone completely different depending on the subtle chemical imbalances provoked by ignoring medication. Although Ben is a peripheral character who only crops up in Series 3 by the time the main storylines are in full flow, Pelphrey’s riveting performance instantly arrests attention, and is deserving of every plaudit he receives.