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"Ozark" and "Breaking Bad" via the Endings of "Dark Knight" and "Watchmen"
Looking back at some 80s comics as a way to talk about some 21st century stories
I wrote this a while ago and it’s been sitting in my Drafts for maybe a year. I think the “Ozark” finale is far enough in the past that I feel better about posting it now. FWIW, I think that all of the works referenced in this post are excellent and worth your time. “Ozark” didn’t enter into the zeitgeist the way “Breaking Bad” did, but there are at least as many moments from “Ozark” that have stuck with me.
I am going to keep this post spoiler-free in specifics for the TV shows, but the way I talk about the endings will of necessity reveal something about them, so if you don’t want to hear about the endings to Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” “Breaking Bad,” or “Ozark,” maybe bookmark this for when you’re done with them and then come back.
I don’t know who I’m writing this for, other than me. Most of my friends haven’t seen “Ozark,” and I’m not sure most “Ozark” watchers will have read two graphic novels from the 1980s. But it’s been on my mind, so I’m writing it.
You guys already know how much I think about endings, whether of my own stories or of others. I recently watched the end of “Ozark,” a dark series that feels like it was pitched as “‘Breaking Bad’ with hillbillies” (not “rednecks,” as one of the characters makes clear): Mild-mannered suburban guy turns to drugs as a way to make money; chaos ensues. Beyond the premise similarities, both series feature some excellent writing and acting, and both showcased a star better known for comedy. Both have been heavily praised critically throughout their run.
The “Ozark” finale appears to be unpopular with fans and critics alike, and I can’t argue that the final season felt rushed in spots. They had a lot of balls in the air, somehow added more, and still managed to land most of them (a couple storylines just fade away). The fan response, if I had to guess, is pretty easy to explain for reasons that can’t be gone into without spoilers; the critics’ responses that I’ve read vary from “it didn’t have a message” to “I didn’t like the message it had.”
For what it’s worth, I liked it, minor quibbles aside. I think it has a message, and that message is an important one about corruption and how it can destroy you even if you think your motives are pure. As framed in the show (about rich people dealing with major drug cartels), it’s maybe not super-relevant to most viewers, but if you abstract it out, I think it is a worthwhile thing to keep in mind. And as I was thinking about this ending and the finale of “Breaking Bad,” I thought about a pair of comics that came out in the mid-1980s.
We, my friends and I, talked about Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” maybe more than any other creative work over a four-year span in the late 80s. Both came out in 1986 (“Watchmen” ended in 1987) and garnered critical acclaim and huge fan followings for their excellent writing and artwork. They were not the first to portray a gritty, violent, realistic superhero world, but they super-charged that genre (Frank Miller would go on to write “Sin City” and Alan Moore followed up with “V for Vendetta,” both spiritual successors to their previous work that lacked the depth of their smash successes).
Both “Dark Knight” and “Watchmen” feature protagonists wrestling with how to save the world and themselves (“Watchmen” features arguably half a dozen protagonists, but I’m going to focus on Ozymandias here). A major theme of “Dark Knight” is how far Batman goes when the systems that are supposed to protect Gotham break down. He becomes a vigilante, which in Miller’s more realistic Gotham is not always a good thing; when Commissioner Gordon retires, the new commissioner puts out a warrant for his arrest for his vigilante activities. Finally, the President orders Superman to bring Batman in, leading to a climactic fight in which Batman appears to die. He doesn’t; he goes underground so that he can keep doing his work, more quietly and without arousing the ire of the powers that be.
This story doesn’t necessarily fit in with the other three on the corruption theme, because Miller posits (believably) a government and police force as obstacles to peace, and we’re pretty much on Batman’s side throughout. He’s portrayed as the only reason Gotham hasn’t fallen into the same chaos as other major U.S. cities. But Batman does at least realize that the path he’s chosen is not the most constructive one, that he will never get what he wants, and so he has to sacrifice himself (even if only symbolically) so that he can be free of that path and choose a better one in which he can work more quietly, without disrupting the status quo.
“Watchmen” is a much more complex story. In addition to the multiple protagonists, there’s a story-within-a-story, “Tales from the Black Freighter,” about a merchant whose ship is set upon by the titular pirate ship. He alone survives, and, sure that the freighter is headed for his home, makes his way back there with desperate urgency. When he gets to his home, he assumes the pirates must have beaten him there, and he murders what he thinks are collaborators, only to find that the pirates have not attacked his home at all. They have been waiting offshore for him to commit murder in what he thinks of as a good cause, and, despairing, he swims out to join them, his soul now corrupted. This is particularly relevant in the story of Ozymandias, who has set in motion a plan to murder hundreds of thousands of people to—he thinks, and he’s the smartest man in the world—save hundreds of millions. Unlike the merchant in “Black Freighter,” Ozymandias never fully accepts his own corruption (toward the end, he confesses that “At night I dream about swimming toward a hideous…no, never mind. It’s not significant.”); he believes that his was the only way. Moore undercuts that belief with the final scene of the comic, in which a journal detailing Ozymandias’s plan is discovered in the “crank file” of a right-wing news rag. Will they print it? Will anyone believe them? We’re left to sit with those questions, but the unease is the point. How fragile is this peace that Ozymandias corrupted himself for? If it comes crumbling down, was it worth it?
The resonances of these two endings sat with me (and many others). Miller’s is dark, but out of the darkness comes hope. Moore’s ends on a generally hopeful note—the world is saved, though the cost of that salvation is not erased—but into that hope comes uncertainty and a threat.
Taken together, they say very much the same thing: once you’ve gone down a path of corruption, there’s no coming back from it. If you want to put things right, you have to sacrifice yourself. If you stubbornly cling to your belief that the good you do counterbalances the bad, there’s always going to be something to undermine that good.
So anyway, that’s what I’m thinking about as I consider “Ozark” and its final episode.
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