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Ozark’s Wendy Byrde - Beyond the Mob Wife

Ozark’s Wendy Byrde, played by Laura Linney, is a “mob wife” for the post-#MeToo era. Her husband, Marty (Jason Bateman), may have been the one first hired to launder money for the Mexican Navarro drug cartel, but over time Wendy outshines him in her strategic cunning, drive, and lust for power. Crucially, her “thirst for more” feels symbolic of a deeper, universal female dissatisfaction. Here’s our Take on how Wendy reflects our present moment, and how we can learn from this antiheroine’s political brilliance to seize a bigger life for ourselves.


TRANSCRIPT

Wendy: “Always better to be the person holding the gun than the person running from the gunman.” - Ozark 2x10

Wendy Byrde: Ozark’s Queenpin

Wendy Byrde is a “mob wife” for the post-#metoo era. Her husband, Marty, may have been the one first hired to launder money for the Mexican Navarro drug cartel, but over time Ozark’s resident housewife-turned-badass reveals herself to be the star criminal mastermind in the family. If we look at the evolution of criminal wives onscreen, Wendy is a step forward for all that she’s not: she’s not just a victim, a complicit supporting player, a cartoonishly villainous femme fatale, or a reflection on her husband’s descent into darkness. Wendy outshines her spouse in strategic cunning, drive, and lust for power. She’s arguably the smartest and most ambitious character in the show. And crucially, Wendy’s “thirst for more” feels symbolic of a deeper, universal female dissatisfaction — one which might make her story resonate with and awaken something in viewers who also feel they’re lacking an outlet for their own hidden power.

Here’s our Take on how Wendy — the criminal wife who surpasses her man — reflects our present moment, and how we can learn from this antiheroine’s political brilliance to take back our power and seize a bigger life for ourselves.

Wendy: “Quite frankly, I don’t give a shit if you like it or not, cause I feel pretty good about it.” - Ozark 1x04

No More Nice Wife

Before they move to the Ozarks, Wendy is an affluent, well-educated housewife who’s so bored and depressed that she barely feels alive, and a lot of what she says and does feels forced.

In the flashback episode “Kaleidoscope,” we see Wendy was never happy with the life of a full-time mom and housewife. She displays strikingly different levels of engagement in her home and work spheres — a genuine spark when she’s talking about politics, compared with a desperate, exaggerated sweetness as she tries to play the ideal ‘mommy’ to young Charlotte. Wendy sees herself as much too smart, too much of a professional asset, not to return to the workplace after becoming a mother, yet she finds this world is now closed to her. Wendy has to redefine how she sees herself, which leads to a breakdown. She rebounds from this depression by throwing herself into seeking unattainable perfection and total control in her home life. And when that eludes her, she gets used to gritting her teeth and smiling to maintain at least the image of perfection. After he starts money laundering, Marty shuts off from Wendy and the kids. Her lonely attempt to play the perfect happy housewife leaves her feeling so numb, this culminates in her affair, which she begins ostensibly just to feel something.

After the Byrdes have to suddenly move to the Ozarks and fight for their lives, Wendy makes an intense effort to maintain a sense of normalcy for the family, captured in the extreme lengths she goes to to track down the specific flavor of ice cream Charlotte has casually requested. Yet in the same episode, when Wendy is confronted with actual problems, that unhinged, tense person is replaced by someone who’s cool-headed and in control. Just as she’s finally gotten Charlotte’s pistachio ice cream home to her kitchen, vultures descend on a dead animal the Langmore boys have left on her lawn as a message. Leaving the ice cream to melt on the counter, she speeds to the Langmore house to lay down the law. So later, when Charlotte doesn’t show the slightest appreciation for the hell Wendy went through for that ice cream, Wendy no longer even seems concerned. She’s satisfied because she’s asserted her power in a much more important way to protect her daughter that day.

Multiple scenes in Wendy’s early characterization express this split in her personality — between the languishing stay-at-home-mom who’s privately despairing under a tightly wound smile, and the self-possessed businesswoman who, no matter how dire the threat, is unflappable.

As the Byrdes settle into their new life of escalating criminal involvement in the Ozarks, Wendy sheds her former conventional-mom persona, making increasingly dangerous, gutsy moves. But what we’re seeing here is not Wendy changing, but Wendy showing her true colors. At the beginning of Season Three, when she impulsively breaks into the family’s former Chicago home to cause chaos and feel the thrill of unnecessary risk, we might recall her telling Marty she did these exact things as a youth.

As she gets deeper into her life of crime, Wendy is accessing a part of herself she has buried. She’s finding herself, for the first time since having her children — maybe even longer. After essentially having been told that the legitimate routes in the career she loves aren’t open to her anymore, she’s, at last, regaining a sense of self-worth in the only world where she can be free to realize herself and feel alive.

Petty: “—and whether you’ve accepted it or not, you’re a criminal, Wendy.” - Ozark 2x05

As Wendy gains power through her new criminal life, she also becomes a different kind of mother than we’re used to seeing onscreen. She crosses traditional boundaries in her home life until her kids essentially become her new colleagues. And while this may be twisted — a far cry from our preconceptions of family ideals — eventually her new relationship with her children emerges as more honest, and therefore, more solid. At the beginning of the series, she’s vying unsuccessfully for her kids’ approval while trying to shield them with lies. Yet after she allows her kids into all the dirty truths, Charlotte and Jonah not only become more mature, competent individuals; they also become rocks for the family, who empathize with and help their parents.

Increasingly, Wendy’s desire to be the perfect mother, or to live up to some idealized image of the perfect family, takes a back seat to following the deeper natural instincts that drive her as an individual. In Season Three, when Agent Miller tells Wendy to do what’s best for her family, Wendy’s hard demeanor and response remind us that this woman has spent many years putting her family above everything else, to the degree of erasing herself. And she knows that it doesn’t work to live totally for others.

Ultimately, when it comes down to it, Wendy is even willing to sacrifice the life of her own brother to preserve the new life she’s built for herself while keeping her nuclear family safe. As deeply distraught as Wendy is over her role in her brother’s death — and as clear as it is that she genuinely loves him — she still manages to return to being a professional after. This is where it becomes apparent that the great love of Wendy’s life is not her husband, children, or family, but the place where she gets to put her shrewd mind into action: work.

Marty: “—and you’re the wife of the top money launderer for the second largest drug cartel in Mexico. Go!” - Ozark 1x01

Evolution Of The Mob Wife

The movie gangster wife or girlfriend is frequently reduced to being simply the sweet, pretty victim, of a man who’s either a brutal psychopath or a sinner who can’t quit the game. The early onscreen mob wife tends to be used as a plot device without agency, an outlet for male anger or a symbol to illustrate how evil he’s become.

On the other end of the spectrum, gangster molls in film noir could be purely wicked femme fatales — exciting and ambitious yet largely one-dimensional Lady Macbeths, whose legacy can be seen in modern iterations like House of Cards’ Claire Underwood and A Most Violent Year’s Anna Morales.

Over time, films complicated this picture with criminal wives who were combinations of complicit, rebellious, high-minded, and trapped. In the ‘70s, Kay in The Godfather represented a stronger, moralizing obstacle to mafia boss Michael Corleone, one who does manage to defy him, yet in the end, is still unable to escape. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Elvira in Scarface and Sharon Stone’s Ginger in Casino embody the “kept” mob wife, a fiercely independent and charismatic woman who chafes against but eventually unravels under her controlling husband’s oppression. Goodfellas’ Karen is drawn to mobster Henry Hill because of the status and power his life of crime provides, so when she is later badly victimized by her husband, she’s still, to a degree, culpable.

And starting in 1999, The Sopranos’ Carmela Soprano (the template for the modern mob wife on TV) likewise knew exactly who her mafioso husband Tony was when she got involved with him. But the show explores the ways that Carmela compartmentalizes and papers over this awareness while enjoying the materialistic spoils of Tony’s ill-gotten success. This woman protects her self-image by viewing herself as a devout Catholic, loving mother, and long-suffering wife, but when push comes to shove, she, too, engages in mafioso-style bribery, bullying, and force to get her way.

Most recently, Skyler White from Breaking Bad begins by embodying the mob-wife-as moral-obstacle to her husband Walt’s criminal ambitions, before becoming his hostage, his accomplice, and ultimately ending up his deeply damaged victim.

As another story about an intelligent family man who gets deeply involved in the drug trade, Ozark can’t help but draw comparisons with Breaking Bad, and at first Wendy — another smart blonde mother of two — might seem like an update to Skyler, correcting aspects of that character’s writing that let some viewers feel justified in cheering Walt on against his “nag” wife. But ultimately Wendy isn’t really a Sklyer — she’s more like her story’s Walter White. Like Walt, she’s the one in her story who feels overlooked by her world, who knows deep down that she’s an unappreciated genius, who wants a bigger life, and who — the more she tastes of this dangerous existence, the more she likes it.

In the same flashback where we witness Wendy getting forced into her track as a stay-at-home mom, we learn that Wendy actually approved of Marty’s initial decision to get involved with the cartel. While she’s expected to be automatically opposed (like many of her onscreen criminal wife predecessors would be), all along, Wendy has been the one who’s saying yes to risk — because she wants more.

Traditionally, the onscreen criminal wife’s first priority is to keep her family out of danger. But as Wendy’s power-hunger drives her to get more deeply involved with the Navarro cartel, she’s also making the decision to put her family into more danger. As Marty increasingly looks for a way out, Wendy separates herself from him, building a direct business relationship with the cartel boss himself, Navarro.

So over the seasons, it becomes abundantly clear that it isn’t Marty but Wendy who’s determining the show’s arc and driving the destiny of the Byrde family. In this honest, unflinching look at female criminality (not just through Wendy, but also in Darlene, Ruth, and Helen), Ozark replaces the male character as the assumed driver in any story about crime with his more conniving, manipulative female counterpart, whose motivations are also fleshed out with a complexity that’s traditionally been reserved only for the male Antihero.

And this is important because no longer is the crime wife just responding or reacting to her husband — a commentary on what he does. The women in Ozark are the characters we’re fascinated by — the ones who keep us wondering how far they’re willing to go. As Ozark progresses, we’re presented with a new structure for the mob family: one with the wife on top.

Wendy: “It’s a good idea. And I did it for our family. What did you do today?” - Ozark 1x04

Wendy’s Political Genius

While Marty’s “numbers guy” intelligence is like that of a computer and he’s shut off from his emotions, Wendy’s genius is that of a master manipulator who sees into people’s motivations and plays their desires and temperaments against them. In short: she’s the perfect politician.

Ben: “I always thought you shoulda stayed in politics. You coulda been a big deal.”

Wendy: “I can still be a big deal.” - Ozark 3x09

Campaign Insider’s David Rosen identifies six political personality types and of these, Wendy most resembles the Machiavellian. As Rosen describes, “Machiavellian personalities are master manipulators. They walk into a room and immediately begin sizing people up to identify their interests and exploit their personality weaknesses for personal and political gain. Winning is everything; the rest is negotiable.”

Wendy: “It’s just a game, right? The ends justify the means.” - Ozark 2x02

Also like a master politician, Wendy uses her innocent smile and her perfect-wife-and-mother facade as a front. Ironically, as she stops trying to be the perfect wife and mom, Wendy gets better at playing that shiny-looking persona for a public. Meanwhile, her actions become more and more chilling and cold-blooded. Where Marty falters, Wendy remains calculating, unemotional, and remorseless.

Her politician’s resolve means that she can hide her feelings even when she’s internally furious, or distraught and panicked. She’ll never let the cracks show to outsiders. Wendy’s intelligence is rewarding to watch because we get to participate in it. So often with ‘smart’ characters onscreen, we’re either told a lot about their genius without really seeing it in action or we watch them pull off superheroic intellectual feats but aren’t really given a view into how their minds are working. On Ozark, we get to see how Wendy’s mind operates, and be impressed by it.

She’s incredibly emotionally astute, genuinely interested in what drives other people, and forges connections by uncovering their needs. She does her research on who she’s talking to so she can better manipulate them. Like any brilliant politician, she can effortlessly deflect. But she’s also honest when it benefits. She’ll happily become vulnerable if it works as part of a wider plan. People become invested in Wendy. Strikingly, though, they tend to end up disillusioned with her after they inevitably glimpse the real Wendy — not the persona she shape-shifted into to win them, but a woman who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants — which is (as for many a politician) always more power.

Like a combination of Walter White and Lady Macbeth, Wendy is the character we watch pushing moral boundaries, at risk of going over an edge she can’t recover from and struggling with the spiritual consequences of her choices. And it’s refreshing to see a formidable woman leading us in these dark inquiries. Wendy sends a message to bored housewives everywhere, that it’s never too late to turn your life around — whether that’s for good or evil.

Wendy: “Because this is who I am. And this is who I wanna be.” - Ozark 2x09


Sources

Coady, C.A.J. “The Problem of Dirty Hands.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/dirty-hands/.


Rosen, David. “The 6 Political Personality Types.” Campaigns & Elections, 6 Oct. 2013. https://www.campaignsandelections.com/campaign-insider/the-6-political-personality-types.