By Arthur Aghajanian
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it has its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”
— Matthew 7:24-26
I don’t watch much television, despite the profusion of content on streaming networks nowadays. I’m just not enthusiastic enough about most of what’s offered, and I’ll rarely schedule TV time into my day. But I have found that every so often, a search for worthwhile programming can lead to the discovery of a series that’s truly binge-worthy. Netflix’s crime drama Ozark was that kind of show for me. It stars Jason Bateman and Laura Linney as Marty and Wendy Byrde, a married couple who move with their kids to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri to become money launderers. As they navigate a dangerous world of criminal activity, they face obstacles in the form of villainous characters, internal family conflicts, and tense moral dilemmas. The show is captivating in the way it weaves together a series of escalating challenges that the Byrdes must overcome through their ingenuity and resourcefulness. Yet they are perpetually caught in a downward spiral of bad decisions, fueled by the weight of external pressures and their own character flaws that compound into increasingly complicated predicaments. Though they always manage to find a way out of the mess they’ve made, they leave a trail of ruined lives in their wake.
Ozark presents a dark world in which God is absent and the consequences of greed are inescapable. We first experience the ugly side of capitalism through Marty’s eyes as a financial adviser who gets caught up in money laundering for a drug cartel, eventually implicating Wendy and the kids. From one episode to the next, the Byrdes continue to rely on their own efforts—through intricate schemes, to save themselves from the repercussions of their immoral deeds. Ultimately, there is no redemption for the Byrdes. They seek the illusory promise of happiness through the pursuit of wealth and power. Though they continually hope for the opportunity to escape their life of crime, they are always drawn back by the inner demons that hold them captive.
The sense of foreboding that helps make Ozark such a successful thriller is quickly established after the beginning of each episode. We hear ominous music as the show’s title card slowly materializes on a black screen. Three elements in off-white appear in quick succession, beginning with a large letter “O.” This is followed by two lines crossing inside the letter’s empty center to make four quadrants, each then filled with a unique symbol. These symbols are formed to spell out the remaining letters in “Ozark” and depict objects that appear at key points in the plot. Season one, episode one, included symbols of a man on his knees with hands tied, a building from the Chicago skyline, a gun, and a dead body. The final episode of the fourth and last season featured a broken window, a coffee pot, a bow tie, and a barbecue.
The many references to Christianity throughout Ozark prompt us to see the dividing lines in the center of the “O” as a cross. From this we might interpret the symbols as substitutions for the four evangelists and think of the show’s title cards as a reworking of Christian icons. Now it’s the story of the Byrdes instead of Jesus that’s refracted through differing perspectives. Here too, the lives of supporting characters are forever changed by an unexpected arrival—the Byrdes’ migration from Chicago to the lake. But where the Gospels are good news, Ozark is a tragedy about the corrosive influence of capitalism. Taken as a whole, the show’s title cards would seem to signify the peril that awaits those who worship the gods of wealth and power.
Stories Behind the Design
These graphics also serve as logos for the show. As they foreshadow each episode’s plot, they present a diverse range of variations on the core design. Reminiscent of the corporate logo, they are adapted to diverse contexts. Of course, beyond identifying goods and services, logos are designed to capture the essence of a brand and used to signify identity. Insofar as we have become conditioned to project desire into the logo, seeking fulfillment through acquiring what it represents, the logo has become embedded in our everyday lives. Whether in the products we use, the ubiquitous ads that bombard us daily, or the social media we consume, logos are a primary feature of the capitalist realm we inhabit.
Brands, as represented by their logos, have become an integral part of our personal narratives, often identifying significant moments in the stories we tell about ourselves. I can imagine how I might chart noteworthy events from my own life by attaching a logo to each memory. I recall the Adidas trefoil on the only pair of high-top sneakers I owned as a kid, and the unusual, single golden arch of my hometown McDonald’s. I think of the Target bullseye when I remember all the times my wife and I did back-to-school shopping with our kids when they were little. These logos become signifiers for the experiences we associate with them, helping to manufacture a consumer identity.
So, consumer culture influences the stories of our own lives. But why use logos to represent plot points in a show that doesn’t address consumerism directly? Ozark’s title cards chart a narrative whose backdrop itself—the Lake of the Ozarks, serves as a metaphor for capitalism. Initially built for hydroelectric power, the lake soon became a tourist spot. Unlike other flood-control lakes, most of its shoreline is privately owned. The show’s titles remind us that the logo is a visual representation of the capitalist ethos that pervades every space in modern America. Ozark’s setting is the realm of capitalism itself, and what happens at the lake is a direct consequence of its very foundation, shaping the course of actions and outcomes.
Ozark’s imaginative graphics are also cousins to the logos of our everyday lives. They reference the modern forms of capitalism out of which both the show’s stories and our own personal narratives emerge. Given Ozark’s themes, we can interpret its title cards, which serve as narrative punctuation, as symbols that represent the excesses of free market capitalism. They call our attention to critical moments in the lives of a family driven by the corruptive influence of the economic system we all share as Americans. These unusual logos also suggest that conventional logos are not as transparent as we assume them to be.
For both the Byrdes and us, capitalism’s neoliberal philosophy has become the natural order. Logos stand as the quintessential symbols of capitalism. They are the gleaming signposts that lure us into a cycle of consumption and desire that can never be fully satisfied. Each of Ozark’s episodes reflects the illusions and deceptive values of capitalism pushed to its limits. Marty and Wendy don’t have to hoard commodities for us to be able to recognize in their story our own habits of consumption. The show’s logos refer to an economic order that holds out the promise of fulfillment through the acquisition of money and influence over others. Like the show’s characters, the consumer is ensnared by the desire for more. But in the ordinary world this is sublimated into the commodity. And the consumer longs to participate in its power and mystique.
The show’s title cards prompt a reimagining of the logo—a symbol of capitalism, as an image that metaphorically contains stories of material desire, a driving force in global economics. The primary difference between Ozark’s graphics and corporate logos is the former’s transparency in hinting at the way lives are circumscribed by market forces.
As logos infused with narrative significations, Ozark’s title cards mirror the intricate weaving of our own stories into the fabric of consumer culture. Thus, we can read these graphics as literal representations of our identification with the commodity—the way it engulfs and directs our own actions.
Blurring the Line Between Commerce and Faith
Yet Ozark’s title cards also parody the religious icon, replacing images of the sacred with ominous symbols that outline a tale of life in the grip of an unrestrained capitalism. The reference to Christian iconography in the show’s titles also points to the way in which corporations often try to appeal to our deepest values and beliefs in order to sell products. In the world of Ozark, human relationships are sacrificed to appease the market as God. Many of the show’s characters share a belief system that worships this god as it prioritizes profits over people. Seen this way, each episode’s opening title is a warning about the dangers of idolatry.
The allusions to Christian iconography reinforce the idea that neoliberalism has become a religion of its own. It is a religion of economics, wherein the laws of the market provide a framework for understanding the world, along with a sense of purpose and meaning. This is reflected in the show’s portrayal of a family tangled in financial machinations. Although they are not visibly motivated by the allure of consumer goods, Marty and Wendy’s actions are guided by the same neoliberal forces that underlie the veneration of the market and a sense of personal fulfillment through consumption. Ozark’s titles are the icons of a profane religion. They are the doppelgangers of the designer logo, weaving together symbols that accent the show’s narrative of lives corrupted by money. What’s more, by referencing Christian icons, the titles remind us of the ways neoliberalism appropriates religious metaphors (i.e., the invisible hand, market fundamentalism, the gospel of prosperity, economic salvation) and treats the market as sacred.
Neoliberalism reinforces the idea that our worth is determined by our economic status and consumption habits. The successful logo, like the religious icon, represents something greater than itself and evokes a sense of longing and hope. It is a representation of the desire for wholeness. It presents the product or service as the missing piece of the consumer’s life picture. This desire for completeness, fueled by a culture of individualism, is characteristic of neoliberal societies. But as Ozark teaches, brokenness cannot be overcome through materialism, because the false gods of wealth and power offer no redemption. They entice their worshippers with the belief that obeying the market’s laws promises self-realization.
Consider the fact that logos not only represent the commodity, but also act as visual shorthand for the values, lifestyle, and aspirations that the commodity promises to fulfill. Through the logo, the consumer seeks to align themselves with the meanings and narratives embedded within the brand. Consumer culture is not just about buying and selling products, but also about the creation and maintenance of a particular way of life that is shaped by the logic of neoliberalism. Ozark serves as a critique of the way neoliberalism implements and organizes capitalism, acting as a belief system that extends the free market into virtually every aspect of society. Indeed, neoliberalism’s atomization and deregulation, and its support of a faith in unfettered markets, is appropriately expressed in the cut-throat environment of Ozark, where profit justifies blackmail, extortion, and even murder.
By making logos and forming them using symbols that represent a narrative, Ozark’s Jason Bateman and graphic artist Neil Kellerhouse, who worked together on the images, end up highlighting how the logos of our everyday lives are linked to personal narratives about the pursuit of wholeness. In the formal aspects of their design, in which symbols relating to a family’s life are embedded within a graphic system reflecting the commodity, the title cards reference the omnipresence of consumer culture.
The show also underscores how neoliberalism concentrates wealth in the hands of a few and leaves most of the lake’s residents stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty and desperation. As viewers we sympathize with the plight of these characters and recognize how their circumstances drive them to take extreme risks and make morally questionable decisions.
The absence of God in Ozark is filled by an evil that fuels the pursuit of power. This theological perspective is supported by the show’s continuous references to Christianity. And yet Ozark infuses religious symbols with malevolent purposes: a church is built to launder money, hymnals are used to distribute heroin, a slow-witted local is manipulated into baptism in a motel pool, and the infant baptism of the son of a cartel boss becomes the stage for a massacre. The sacred images of religion have been co-opted by the culture of consumption, serving as mere vessels for insatiable greed and the relentless quest for power. The perversion of these symbols emphasizes how, in this land, the market is God, its values worshiped above all else.
Unmasking the Illusions
Ozark provides a cautionary tale about the costs of yielding to the desire for fulfillment on the terms of the global marketplace. In consumer society, the search for wholeness is often guided by the images that shape our sense of self-worth. The show portrays characters driven by the excitement and danger of their desires, which are underpinned by the pursuit of power through wealth. Its title cards serve as a warning about the dangers this involves, inviting viewers to decode the same values that are embedded in corporate branding. By developing a critical mindset about the ways commodity culture entices us into servitude to the needs of the marketplace we can become more aware of our own idolatry. We can begin questioning where we place our hopes and empower ourselves to resist the seductions of consumerism.
Religious icons are images that are made to take us deeper into ourselves to encounter the divine within our being. In consumer society however, images are made to promote our human desires. But with the proper tools, we can decode them to uncover the ideology of the market. Understanding and critically engaging with the ways our economic order commodifies our lives can help keep us from succumbing to the false illusion of materialism, that we are fundamentally lacking in some way and can only be made whole through the market and the glorifying of the commodity. It is this fetishism that leads to a distortion of social relations, where our interactions are mediated and dominated by consumption.
We must guard against an idolatrous heart that tends to create idols everywhere when God is not first in our lives. Ozark dramatically illustrates how self-aggrandizement leads to suffering. Its title cards warn us of the treacherous pitfalls that await those who set up idols and embrace membership in the economic religion of the market.
Arthur Aghajanian is a Christian contemplative, essayist, and educator. His work explores visual culture through a spiritual lens. His essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including Ekstasis, Tiferet Journal, Saint Austin Review, The Curator, and many others. He holds an M.F.A. from Otis College of Art and Design. Visit him at https://www.imageandfaith.com/
© 2023 Arthur Aghajanian