BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 19 NOV 18

Does Hollywood Understand the Conservative US?

A recent spate of TV shows set in Missouri show the state as a cultural imaginary on the fault line of US political debate

BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 19 NOV 18

In an early episode from the second season of the Netflix series Ozark (2017–ongoing), Jacob and Darlene Snell – rural poppy farmers and homesteaders played by Peter Mullan and Lisa Emery – brush off the killing of a cartel lieutenant with a gift of artisanal honey, a terse offer of contrition and an observation to their panicked business partner, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), that ‘things happen, you apologize, and you move on.’ (The show is named after the mountain range that stretches across four states of the lower midwestern US.) The Snells represent a world of familial and martial honour that subsume the more mercurial calculations of profit and loss, life and death that are Byrde’s lodestar. They are also the chaotic antagonists in a show built on the conceit that an upper middle-class Chicagoan has been using his asset management business to launder money for a far-reaching Mexican drug operation. Its first season, which aired in 2017, was well timed, riding ahead of HBO’s Ozark-set dramas Sharp Objects and the forthcoming third season of True Detective, and a post-2016 fascination with the US interior and its newly potent voting blocks. Byrde and his family, who are the core of Ozark’s grim fish-out-of-water story, head south, to the shores of the sprawling lake of the same name in central Missouri to hide from the cartel’s proxies after a deal gone bad, and to dig themselves out of debt by setting up new ‘clean’ businesses, red-state style.

Ozark, 2017–ongoing, film still. Courtesy: Netflix 

The cultural dissonances that make Byrde’s race against the clock suggest profound rifts in the body politic and lend complexity (in many instances) to figures who often populate broader discourse as one-dimensional stereotypes. The Jean-Marc Vallée-led adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2006 novel Sharp Objects is less subtle on this score but it, too, charts the fault lines of geography and class so central to social and electoral realignments throughout the Midwest. Like its source material, Sharp Objects mines the psychic terrain of trauma and repression through the procedural work of its compromised protagonist, the cub reporter Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), who is dispatched by her St. Louis-based newspaper to cover what will be revealed as a string of child killings in her home town. Camille’s editor hopes for a vivid human-interest angle from someone who knows the town of Wind Gap first-hand. Located in the ‘bootheel’ of the state, spitting distance from Tennessee, she describes it as a place that most folks try to escape, with a steady population of 2000, where ‘the only real industry is hog butchering, so you got your old money and your trash.’ Vallée took pains to shoot only depopulated streets, seeking to create the effect of a ‘ghost town.’ Both this and Ozark partake in gothic pastoralism, and both are shot in dark blues and greys, suggesting not redemption or possibility, but an aching melancholia at the core of a bygone world that somehow persists.

For its part, Missouri was much in US news over the past several months, as home to one of several Senate races that pitted a Democratic incumbent against a Republican challenger in a state that Donald Trump had decisively carried. The race between Claire McCaskill – a Missouri-raised and educated political veteran with 12 years in the upper chamber – and Josh Hawley, the youthful attorney general, Yale alumnus and former Supreme Court clerk, was supposed to be a nail-biter. McCaskill was polling slightly ahead until early November but, in the end, it wasn’t even close; Hawley carried the vote by some six percentage points. This solidifies the conservative hold on the state. While Missouri is anchored on either side by the border-spanning urban cores of St. Louis and Kansas City, those places increasingly feel worlds away from the more agrarian and post-industrial hinterlands, the wide swath of country where McCaskill was routed. It is worth noting that Missouri was once seen as a kind of cultural median, a quintessentially average place of ‘middle American values’ and pursuits; this is the state that produced the plain-spoken, eminently decent President Harry S Truman, whose desk famously bore a placard reading ‘the buck stops here’.

Sharp Objects, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

That may have once been true, during the post-WWII decades when the US was built on something of a centre-right consensus, and there was less daylight between the major parties. But gone are the days in which Missouri represented a statistical mean. It’s now a bellwether for precisely the opposite reason, as an object lesson in the cleavages between city and country, between the affluent and the dispossessed, and between a progressive vision and a restorative one. The divisions in this state are not merely ideological, they are temporal, generational. To this end, both McCaskill and Hawley pilloried the other for being part of an out of step elite. Both tacked to the right, trawling for the rural vote, a bloc that Henry Olsen wrote in The Washington Post is the only path forward for the Republicans. Post-mortems concurred that nationally, Democrats carried the cities and suburbs, but appear doomed in the hinterland – there are two parallel countries within the United States now, a landscape of which Missouri is a perfect synecdoche.

Both Ozark and Sharp Objects investigate this divide, dropping urbanites into the terra incognita of rural Missouri – a telling choice given that neither show, nor the 2017 film Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri were shot in the state where it is putatively set (opting instead for Georgia, California and North Carolina). In place of more autochthonous realism, Missouri is conjured for all of its spatial and psychological liminality. Just as, in the wake of the 2016 election, many pundits argued in favour of the Democratic Party re-connecting with rural voters, other documentary-type projects such as Sarah Silverman’s I Love You America (2017–ongoing) – or to an extent, Sacha Baron Cohen’s incendiary, Punk’d-style Who is America? (2018) – attempted a quasi-ethnographic mission to see life between the coasts. Similarly, the once-pathbreaking ’90s sitcom Roseanne was revivified to reflect working class life in 2018 and, it seems, as a form of opportunistic network buckraking. In spite of its titular star’s removal after a racist tweet, the series carries on as The Conners (2018–ongoing), which charts semi-rural life in downstate Illinois, across the Mississippi River from Missouri.

Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017, policeman and civilian talking
Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The characters in the Conners contend with the precariousness of post-union labour, the rise of the gig economy, the erosion of middle-class security, the ‘failure to launch’ of millennial children and the ravages of the opioid epidemic. It does so with a saccharine, if sympathetic eye to the lived experience of a US that is, in many ways, underrepresented on television. This is not to say that US television is not still, by the numbers, a conservative medium, but that meaningful depictions of ‘red state’ life are in short supply. Both Ozark and Sharp Objects do better on this score, the former using the Byrdes to map a socially complex terrain that troubles the binary of city slicker and hillbilly; the latter operating in the more Freudian textures of memory, and the more literary gestures of telling bigger stories through intimate moments. It shares this metonymic approach with Three Billboards, and both are small-town procedurals where unsolved crimes beat like a tell-tale heart, sounding the post-industrial melancholia and traumatic cultural dislocations that seem to corrode both towns at their very foundations.

Sharp Objects’s Camille Preaker’s journey is ultimately more inward looking than socio-political and uses a homecoming to collapse the divide between past abuses and present misdeeds. It is, to an extent, a haunted-house story, one driven by Preaker’s self-medicating sleuth, and an actual detective who has washed up in Wind Gap from the other metropolis, Kansas City. Sharp Objects lingers in communal spaces, such as the local bar where resurgent homophobia persists in barely-coded asides, or the eerily empty town square, where a corpse is hidden in plain sight. It also matters that the haunted house itself is a heterotopic space, the manor on the hill that exemplifies the town’s hierarchies and stands beyond them. Camille’s stepfather Alan quite literally disappears into a comically elaborate hi-fi and headphone rig, a perfect emblem of a sequestered elite who looks away as his community goes under, and the women of his family are locked in a cycle of violence.

Ozark, 2017–ongoing, film still. Courtesy: Netflix 

By contrast, Ozark is something of a class-conscious picaresque that manages to reveal the tragedy on both sides of the income divide. Marty and Wendy Byrde’s (Laura Linney) Chicago lives are revealed from the opening of the first season as outwardly sophisticated but morally bankrupt. And on relocating to Missouri, it is they, not their new neighbours that do the corrupting. Marty’s affiliation with a local innkeeper causes her to lose everything and, it seems, self-medicate with narcotics; and in pursuit of the river boat casino around which Season 2 is realized, Wendy dusts off her Chicago-machine political skills, and displays a ruthlessness with regional operators and rainmakers that shocks even the most cynical among them.

Their children find a modicum of normalcy engaging the lake and its denizens even as one of the show’s most chilling scenes depicts the daughter, Charlotte, on the boat of a rich jock from the city. It is there, among the frat boys and the brewskis that Ozark takes one of its most violent and unsettling turns, even as the murderous impulses of the Snells are cast with a kind of reverence – at least they are based on something like an ethical code, passed from generation to generation. Indeed, this season’s most compelling characters are Ruth and Wyatt Langmore, two trailer-bound cousins who are telegraphed early on as wily tricksters but who also animate the wages of structural poverty and the prison industrial complex. Ruth is a savvy and caring soul led astray by the patriarchs in her life while Wyatt is a sensitive musician who only hopes to run away to university. They are Ozark’s alleged troublemakers, but they illustrate an ecosystem in which the talented are trapped rather than nurtured. For them, unlike the affluent Camille Preaker, whose family owns the local slaughterhouse, escape to St. Louis does not seem to be on the cards.

Sharp Objects, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

Ultimately, Ozark and Sharp Objects update a Faulknerian template for the economic and political realignments of the present. To this extent they perpetuate some stereotypes while upending others. They both depict new US typologies while alluding to the structures through which they are constituted. Both are unrelentingly bleak, horror stories that do their work in different timbres of genre and scope. And neither effectively deal with questions of race — a conversation that is inescapable as US elections are ever more overtly staged in terms of nationalism. We should not forget that it was the killing of Michael Brown in the then-unsung St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri that catalysed a new engagement with questions of civil rights that underscore both Black Lives Matter and other, bitterly contested midterm elections, in places like Georgia and Florida. Three Billboards makes inroads here, notably through its allusion to police brutality and its patently racist character Jason Dixon, whom Sam Rockwell poignantly brings to life. There is plenty of fire and brimstone in Three Billboards, but it is ultimately a redemption story. Not so for its serial contemporaries, which deftly examine the new United States and offer a sobering prognosis.

Main image: Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. Courtesy: Netflix

Ian Bourland is a critic and associate professor of art history at Georgetown University, USA. He writes widely on art, pop culture and aesthetics, and has published two books, Bloodflowers (Duke University Press, 2019) and Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, 2019).