Category Archives: social class

Ozark’s “Careless People”: Allegory of Race and Class

***Spoiler Alert***

This post is intended for people who have viewed the full series, including the final episode, of Ozark.

Many people have acknowledged that Ozark is a well-acted derivative of Breaking Bad. But an analogy just as important, if not more so, is that Ozark is a 2010s-2020s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1910s-1920s The Great Gatsby.

Marty and Wendy Byrde are essentially Tom and Daisy Buchanan, although Wendy is often more like Tom, and Marty, more like Daisy. None the less, Marty and Wendy fit well narrator Nick Carraway’s description of the Buchanans:

I couldn’t forgive [Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….

The Great Gatsby

The Byrdes leave a staggering trail of carnage, larger but similar to the bodies in the wake of the Buchanans. Both couples survive mostly unscathed—at least still wealthy and alive.

If we include the Breaking Bad comparison, the two series’ creators made some important and different decisions about Marty and Walter White—the main white male center of the “vast carelessness”—and some profoundly important different decisions about the parallel characters of Jesse and Ruth—both sympathetic characters who suffer some of the greatest consequences of the carelessness.

Ozark and Breaking Bad ultimately offer some excellent aspects of contemporary series, and nearly equal elements that are problematic. Notably, the shows center whiteness against Mexicans as murders and drug lords—with the whiteness often seeking viewer empathy.

The back story of Walter White—and the annoying messaging that being reduced to a high school teacher is proof Walter has been cheated by the universe—folds into his cancer diagnosis; this feels much reduced in the scene where Marty is on his knees about to be murdered, only to start the momentum toward nothing ever really touching Marty Byrde, unlike Walter’s fate.

Bryan Cranston and Jason Bateman go a long way to help the writers skirt past the ugliest of truths beneath these men scorching the earth for the good of their family. They are, in fact, the worst sort of “careless people,” selfish and calculating.

Breaking Bad, like Better Call Saul, are far better written and filmed than Ozark, even as these series are carried by incredible acting, possibly even better in Ozark than its obvious inspiration.

On balance, Break Bad is the better series, but in its last episode, Ozark makes a case for itself because of the decisions around Ruth, in contrast to her parallel, Jesse, from Break Bad.

Like the Buchanans, the Byrdes are outsiders, and although Jesse is a local like Ruth, Ruth’s parallels in Gatsby are the Wilsons, low- to working-class characters. And like Myrtle and George Wilson, Ruth as redneck young woman, is sacrificed beside her not-yet-finished empty pool with a corpse buried beneath. The imagery of her death is intensified as we hear her telling Wyatt he doesn’t know how to be rich—paralleled by Myrtle’s pathetic efforts to play rich in Gatsby.

Ozark seems to argue that the class barrier trumps race and gender. It certainly dramatizes that class trumps character and intelligence and work ethic.

Hard working and smart—Ruth and Wyatt cannot survive the carelessness of the Byrde’s. (BY TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX)

Ruth splayed on her dirt yard—reminiscent of Myrtle mutilated in the road by Daisy driving Gatsby’s gold Rolls Royce—comes after mid-final-episode the Byrde’s suffering a dramatic car accident, one shown in an earlier episode, one no one could simply walk away from.

For me, the car wreck had no emotional weight, even as Marty and his children crawl free, miraculously unharmed, even as Wendy appears unconscious (dead?) until Marty rouses her. The family soon after arrives at their house in a taxi, Wendy noting they survived only somewhat battered and bruised.

But it is Wendy’s comment to Novarro’s priest that reveals the narrative purpose of the accident—not to tease the audience with one or more Byrde deaths but to show that the entire series is an extended allegory about the Teflon promises of whiteness and wealth.

As Wendy boasts to the priest as she takes him by the shoulders, they will survive, and they do.

The series ends black screen, a gun shot, the Byrde’s winning (a more honest and cynical ending than Breaking Bad), murderously (again) after Marty softly nods to his teen son, Jonah, who fires the shot.

Like Walter White, for Marty, and now Jonah, “what he had done was, to him, entirely justified.”

Many plot lines and characters force viewers to repeatedly interrogate that very concept; Walter and Marty live by the ends justifying the means.

Yet, none confront that central question more vividly than the tensions between Wendy and Ruth about the killing of Wendy’s brother, Ben.

The last episode highlights the emptiness pervading Ozark with Ruth caving to Wendy about culpability for Ben’s murder, prompted by Wendy committing herself in yet another grand manipulation (suggesting viewers should feel empathy for Wendy since, as the scene depicts, she shares with Ruth the consequences of an abusive father).

Ozark and Breaking Bad left me wondering how I am supposed to feel about the characters.

It is there I focus on Ruth and Jesse, the characters with the most lingering sympathetic qualities in spite of their very human flaws, and frailties. I think we can (and should) find more sincerity in the struggles of Jesse and Ruth against the backdrop of the posing and ruthlessness of Walter and Marty.

Like Gatsby, Ozark is a deeply cynical work about the American Dream. This American nightmare is more like what John Gardner lamented:

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

“Amber (Get) Waves (Your) of (Plastic) Grain (Uncle Same)” in On Writers and Writing, John Gardner (1994)

The Byrdes shit all over the Ozarks, and we are left with one final wry smile from Marty and, yes, the gun shot.

“[L]et other people clean up the mess they had made”…

Privilege as a Barrier to Learning

I am deeply skeptical about two things—criticism of “young people today” as if this younger generation is somehow significantly less capable than older generations and student evaluations of teaching (SETs).

So nothing would be worse, in my opinion, than launching into a “young people today” screed based on SETs. Therefore, what follows is intended as an evidence-based observation toward understanding, not a criticism, grounded in both recent SETs and my 20 years teaching at a selective liberal arts university (after teaching 18 years at a rural high school).

My almost four decades of teaching have been in two contexts with significant social class differences. My high school students were mostly working class and poor; my university students are quite privileged in terms of social class but also in terms of the quality of education they received before entering high education (many are from private school backgrounds).

Across both populations, I often am perceived (at first) as extremely demanding, and even harsh (or “mean”).

My high school students, many working class as I was (and I also attended the school where I taught), within a few weeks tended to flip in their opinion of my courses and even me. Many years later, I have very warm relationships with many of those students; and even those who still openly express that they aren’t fans of me as a person confirm that they appreciate the work I did as a teacher.

Achieving that level of connection and warmth with my university students has been rare to mostly absent. My university students, overwhelmingly privileged in many ways, are quite unlike me, having grown up working class and receiving my BA, MEd, and EdD from state universities.

I just reviewed my fall 2021 SETs, and despite efforts to address the negativity (and even antagonism) in my spring 2021 SETs, I once again read a significant amount of negative, angry, and harsh responses to my courses.

A few things are going on, I think. First, I believe the Covid-era has in many ways inflated student stress, which is reflected in the increase of negative comments (a point I am making not to criticize students, but to acknowledge the larger forces at work and how SET data are rarely about teacher quality).

Second, while I reject the credibility and validity of SETs (as reflected in research on the practice), I do think the data say less about teacher quality and more about the students themselves.

Now, putting those two points together allows me to draw some important conclusions about privilege as a barrier to learning.

Before I explore that thought, let me offer a few caveats.

Socioeconomic status is the strongest correlation to measurable student achievement; therefore, wealthy and white students disproportionately are labeled as “good” or “excellent” students.

However, if you dig deeper in that data, you discover that eduction is not the “great equalizer” but a marker for privilege; privilege itself actually trumps having more and so-called better education (extensive research supports that claim); for one example, see the following data:

People born into socioeconomic and/or race privilege tend to navigate and achieve advanced education degrees, but the privilege itself is the primary driver of their “success” (attaining high-paying jobs), not the education.

My university students often have backgrounds in selective private schools, and almost all of them have completed high school as top students (many having made As throughout their schooling).

When I examine the types of things students are critical of and even angry about, I am increasingly concerned that privilege is a barrier to learning even as these students successfully navigate college and continue to earn high grades.

Here are the types of things privileged students are critical of in my courses recently (again, I am not criticizing these students but offering this as a way to describe and understand why they are struggling):

  • Privileged students are disproportionately offended by feedback and requirements for revision*. Living in privilege that contributes to years of praise and success have created students who are very thin-skinned and frail. As I have examined before, many students perceive all feedback as negative. Many of these students want to submit work once and have it immediately praised, and assigned an A. Being show ways to revise and improve, being asked to revise—these approaches trigger students of privilege.
  • Privileged students have a “banking” concept of teaching and learning (that Paulo Freire criticized). In other words, my privileged students view my job as dispensing for them knowledge as capital; I, however, reject the “banking” concept of teaching and see the role of teacher as facilitator. Privileged students tend to resist having their autonomy as learners increased, viewing a teacher-as-facilitator as negligent or even lazy (not doing their job).
  • Privileged students are very skeptical of and often paralyzed by de-grading practices. Grades for privileged students have been positive experiences that confirm their belief that they are “good” students who have earned those grades. People in privilege often interpret success as mostly a reflection of their effort—and not their privilege. Removing grades removes their safety blanket. (One student from last fall claimed they were reduced to crying often in my course due to my non-grading practices.)
  • Privileged students prefer knowledge-based courses to process-and-product-based courses. Although certainly not exclusively so, privileged students seem to view knowledge as “objective” and process/product as “subjective”; therefore, the latter creates anxiety in them that they will not be successful (not make an A).
  • Privileged students perceive “being smart” as something you achieve and not a journey. Since they have often been told they are smart, they can misinterpret “smart” as their being “finished”; being challenged to learn more or, especially, to re-think their learning is perceived as an attack on their Selves.
  • Privileged students are hyper-sensitive to decorum, formality, and tone. While I recognize some of this point is grounded in my personality, I am increasingly aware that some of the tone tension between my students and me is class-based. I despise formality and do my work at a very high level of efficiency; my emails and my written feedback are terse and direct. Privileged students tend to interpret that style as mean, harsh, and discouraging. This issue with tone overlaps, I think, with my efforts to shift responsibility away from me doing work for students and toward students taking agency over their own learning (many students dislike my use of highlighting when I return written work, for example). As one of the most unexpected examples from my fall SETs, a student recommended I start using “Hi” to start my emails.
  • Privileged students cling desperately to playing school and performing as students. Tests, grades, assignment rubrics and grade scales/weights, lectures, etc., are the environment where they have flourished; anything that deviates from these traditional practices creates anxiety—and skepticism about the teacher.
  • Privileged students (like their conservative parents) fear radical ideas and change. This is basic human nature; when the world works for you, you fear change to that system. I am a critical educator and scholar so my approach to ideas and the world are perceived as not just radical, but threatening to their way of life.

In the grand scheme of my career as a teacher, I realize the folly in SETs because, once again, my fall SETs included dramatically contradictory responses side-by-side—praise for my feedback and willingness to help students learn followed by claims that my feedback is “vague” and “mean,” ultimately discouraging the student to learn.

Again, the feedback says far more about the students than my work as a teacher.

None the less, I believe I have turned a corner in my understanding of the complex nature of privilege in the teaching/learning dynamic.

Yes, on balance, of course, privilege is an incredible advantage, but like being labeled gifted, privilege can also be a barrier to learning—and being happy.