An Ozarker Considers Netflix's 'Ozark'

Steve Wiegenstein

The local crime boss tells a lengthy parable about the difference between a hillbilly and a redneck; the upshot being that the hillbilly is craftier and more bound to a set of principles than a redneck.


Cast: Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Sofia Hublitz
Network: Netflix

Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Author: Anthony Harkins
Publication date: 2005-09

I first encountered the phrase “hillbilly gothic” on a library website, of all places, one of those “if you liked X you might like Y” guides. At first I was amazed that the term existed; then I was amazed at the number of novels the library had found to fill the category. Upon reflection, I shouldn’t have been.

The Ozarks have been fixed in the popular imagination as an alternately quaint and horrifying landscape ever since The Shepherd of the Hills, the 1907 novel that landed author Harold Bell Wright in history as the first American writer to sell a million copies of a novel. Now little remembered, The Shepherd of the Hills incorporated madness, feigned suicide, oaths of vengeance, and vigilante violence into an Ozark landscape described as beneficent and soul-restoring -- a curious notion given the amount of mayhem and attempted mayhem that takes place there. Thus begin the alternating -- or simultaneous -- portrayals of the hillbilly as rugged individualist and violent degenerate, as detailed admirably in Anthony Harkins’ Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon. Harkins’ book discusses both the Appalachian and Ozark versions of this stereotype, and in general the Appalachian comes across as more dangerous, drawing on the many representation of the Hatfield-McCoy tale, while the Ozarker appears more benign (think Ma and Pa Kettle and the Beverly Hillbillies).

Until recently. The past decade has seen an upsurge in portrayals of Ozarkers as brutal and inbred to a garish degree. A 1995 episode of The X-Files, entitled “Our Town” with delicious irony, depicted a fictional Arkansas town as a hotbed of brain-eating cannibals. The 2009 low-budget horror movie Albino Farm followed standard horror tropes: four college students conducting research for a school project stumble upon a Small Town with a Secret, and the secret is a doozy: an entire community of inbred, deformed people who terrorize and murder the students. Filmed in Marionville, Missouri, the movie ratchets up the violent hillbilly stereotype to absurd levels, but follows the familiar “don’t go in the woods” storyline of sexual violence, madness, and horrific murder.

Even a work with the literary pedigree of Winter’s Bone is not entirely without gothic elements. Ree Dolly, who is identified as being 17 years old in the story, must battle an array of adversaries headed by her terrifying kinsman Thump Milton and his clan of meth-cookers. Although the setting in both book and film is portrayed realistically, with psychological insight and accurate description of the landscape, the criminal clannishness and gruesome violence, which culminates when Ree, needing to prove to the authorities that her father has been killed (in order to prevent the forfeiture of his bond and loss of her farm), must lift his corpse from its underwater hiding place while some of Thump’s clan-women cut off his hands with a chainsaw. The act provides her with the necessary evidence of his death but resonates with the pop-culture picture of the Ozarks as an ingrown, primitively violent region.

As a native of the Ozarks I’ve grown accustomed to having people hum the “Dueling Banjos” theme when they hear where I’m from. I don’t even bother to remind them that Deliverance takes place in the Appalachians, not the Ozarks, since that seems like quibbling over something that is ultimately not the point. So with that cultural background and framework of experience, I watched the trailer for the Netflix series Ozark with apprehension. Would it be another garish Ozark horrorshow with toothless killers, cackling grannies, and a landscape of madness and terror? Or might it portray the Ozarks, and Ozarkers, with some variation and nuance, even given the boundaries of the crime thriller genre?

Some of both, as it turns out. There are indeed conflicted and original characters in Ozark, although the originality is of the “with a twist” variety: one of the dumb hillbilly brothers is a closeted gay man! The lemonade-fetching wife is a skilled killer! It’s not deep-diving originality, but one appreciates the effort regardless. But in essence, all the familiar hillbilly tropes are present: a thieving, Snopesian family with a murderous paterfamilias, an even more murderous family that poses a greater but as-yet-uncertain threat, corrupt law enforcement, and an underlying sense of buried rural secrets that will surface to haunt all. Balanced against these familiar elements are a female resort owner who is intelligent, lusty but not perverse, and resiliently principled; members of the hillbilly family who are intelligent, even bookish, and morally conflicted; and a storyline in which the city folks who venture into the region are not immediately placed at odds with the locals, but are accepted and resisted in widely varying degrees.

A few scenes of Ozark were actually shot in the Ozarks, with most of the production taking place in Georgia for tax reasons. The casual viewer would likely not notice anything amiss in the location change, but Ozarkers would. The characters’ accents are southeastern (think Tennessee or Georgia). Two characters take a morning fly-fishing trip, when the Lake of the Ozarks has no trout streams within 50 miles, and that one is on a different river. Most notably, the lake is portrayed as it was a generation ago, not as it is today. In the '70s and before, the Lake of the Ozarks was dominated by a couple of large resorts, with long stretches of mom-and-pop motels, tourist trap attractions, and hillbilly-themed entertainment, much as we see in the series. Today, however, the lake is a corporatized paradise of condo complexes and outlet malls. The family of hillfolk that figures so prominently in Ozark, in their compound of single-wides, would have been bought out long ago by a real estate investment trust.

Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Skylar Gaertner, and Sofia Hublitz

The character of Jacob Snell (Peter Mullen), the local crime boss, reveals the strengths and limitations of Ozark. In an odd monologue in an early episode, Jacob tells a lengthy parable about the difference between a hillbilly and a redneck, with the upshot of the story being that the hillbilly is craftier and more bound to a set of principles than a redneck. This ostensible distinction leads to a killing in a later episode. In fact, the term “hillbilly” has long been contentious in the Ozarks, with most Ozarkers interpreting it as a slur, while some have adopted the practice of defusing it by embrace.

But distinguishing between a hillbilly and a redneck in such a specific and intense way is an unrealistic invention. While “redneck” does indeed connote a type of aggressive stupidity missing from “hillbilly”, the two terms are both negative. “Hillbilly” has largely fallen out of use except among those who have a stake in the word; “redneck” remains a more common word describing backward rural folk.

On the other hand, Jacob and his wife Darlene are portrayed as having an abiding resistance toward the lake itself because their families were bottomland farmers whose acreage was flooded by its creation; their forced relocation to high ground embittered and criminalized them. A non-Ozarker might find such motivation unlikely. But the Ozarks countryside is a location where the forced relocation of unwilling populations has been a recurrent event. The creation of the military bases at Fort Leonard Wood and Camp Crowder, and the building of many recreational/flood control lakes (the Lake of the Ozarks, Table Rock, Taneycomo, Clearwater, Wappapello, and Truman lakes in Missouri alone, and a comparable number in Arkansas) all required the relocation of families, and sometimes entire towns, leaving psychic scars that have lasted for generations. So the Snells’ extreme reaction to threats on their land, especially flooding on their land, would resonate with Ozarkers.

In sum, Ozark resists the worst of the easy Ozark portrayals that have cast the region as a hillbilly horror haven through the years, but ultimately traffics in them as well. It does not recuperate the Ozarks from that stereotyped image, but perhaps such a task is too much to ask of a television series that is, in the end, a crime/thriller drama. Ozark’s use of the Ozarks as an exotic, largely imaginary setting rather than an essential and richly peopled landscape missed an opportunity; but there’s always Season 2.

Steve Wiegenstein is the author of three novels set in the Missouri Ozarks. His most recent is The Language of Trees, published in September by Blank Slate Press.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.