A Season in Hell: Orpheus Descends into Ozark’s Inferno

A Season in Hell: Orpheus Descends into Ozark’s Inferno

“I am not like the others; I will not fall in line like the others,” cries Ozark’s Ben Davis as he taxis closer to his doom.  A stranger to the show, its characters, and its viewers, Ben was decidedly not like the “others,”…both to his credit and his misfortune.  The world he had entered was slyly bucolic—the lush green idyll of Osage, Missouri–a getaway for tourists seeking refuge from the city.  Its occupants, however, both native and non, had made this Arcadia an Inferno. Locals like Darlene Snell, a heroin grower, blows one man’s penis off, blows a drug lord’s head off for calling her a redneck, kills 67 heroin users to pay back a competitor, and poisons her own husband with ground cherry pits before she, herself, is murdered by the drug lord’s replacement.  Ruth Langmore, the conscience of the show, electrocutes and murders her two uncles with a wired dock ladder for threatening her partner. The strange snakes in Ozark’s garden are its truest monsters…its true defilers, wreckers, and destroyers. Aptly, and deceptively, named the Byrdes, this nice family from Chicago arrives in Osage in all their banal normality, veiling the vicious murderers they bring on their tail and the future corpses and shattered lives they will leave in their wake. Lovely Charlotte will abet their parent’s crimes; gentle Jonah will facilitate their noxious schemes; father Marty will dispatch the vexing without care; and wife Wendy will tear apart all sounding her fragile alarm, including Ben…with savagery troubling even to herself

     Ben had no chance to be troubled; the savagery was as beyond his ken as it was brutally final. She was his cherished sister, but he was her bete noire–source of unsettlement in her manically controlled life and target of her angst, deflected guilt, and poorly suppressed rage. Homicidal and a money-launderer for a drug cartel, Wendy had great opportunity to crush and kill. She retained, however, a particular animus for Ben, explained by neither her nor the show. Before his arrival, she had railed against his mental illness, damning it to others as destructive and weak. After finally dispatching him, she continued her rancor, publicly smearing him as a wayward drug addict, a drain on her entire family.  With Ben now gone, her spleen shows her fear of him is not. Once her childhood touchstone, she had fled him and his revelations in abject terror. With her Ozark empire striving, and her cartel partners placated, Ben had returned to threaten it all. If Osage was her Hades, Ben was its Orpheus, a muse of a higher plane, ensouling the damned with his higher vision. He was also its Myshkin, a strange messiah upending the corrupt plans and thoughts of his newfound neighbors in Hell.  As vicarious Christ-figure, Ben changed those neighbors, infecting them with his “madness,” turning them towards Ozark’s devils long after his death

     “I’ve never been a fan of the routine,” Ben proclaims as he nears that death from the back of his taxi, “I’ve never been a person other people can force into one thing.”  He had immediately proven that when first entering the show.  A substitute math teacher at a junior high school, Ben noticed a girl crying at her desk, staring at a picture on her phone. Approaching her, Ben gently asks, “Hey, can I take a look at this?”  Startled by the revealing photo, he is even greater stirred by the class’ nonchalance. Confronting them with the picture, he is met only by quiet, soft snickers, and disdain, his empathy as amusing and sad to them as their chosen victim of the day. Aghast and unsettled, Ben gives in to rage:

     Hey! You got a human being sitting right here!  Anybody think of that before they hit send?! Give me your phones…now! Now…phone! Give me your fucking phones! Phone, phone, phone! In the bucket, phone! Sociopaths…goddamn emotional fucking terrorists  (as he hurls their phones in the wood chipper and beats its custodian)

The children watch from the window, fascinated by the man who had destroyed their phones and was now beating the gardener.  He was strange when he first came and stranger after arriving. He didn’t know the weird girl stupid enough to sext herself, but he cared about her tears and even raged at the cool kids for it.  They weren’t transformed by his actions; other unpopular kids would err and would rightly suffer for it. Ben had, however, shown them a new way; empathy was not imperative, but it was now an option.  The things he felt, the spheres he accessed, were now also theirs…their ways held fast, but their world had changed.

     A now hunted Orpheus, Ben descends further into the abyss, fleeing into Osage and his sister’s “care.”  The shadowy lake resort was no crueler than the world he fled; both fed on and destroyed the defenseless and weak.  Osage’s cruelty, however, had hardened and grown, expanding in complexity while rooting inside its carriers’ minds. Its dwellers had grown as cold-blooded as their hands and lands had grown blood-soaked…their eyes blind to others’ pain and their own inner nihilism and decay. For many, that decay had set.  Wendy and Marty ruined so many lives so quickly that predation became banal instinct, a habit given little effort and less thought. For Darlene, her shotgun became her fifth limb; it’s use now as connected to small slights as it was to grand schemes. The ones still unmoored–the ones open to Ben’s sway–are Osage’s children, particularly his niece Charlotte, nephew Jonah, and Osage’s wild Dryad Ruth. Suffering Stockholm syndrome and identifying with her callous parents, Claudia was resistant to her strange, long-haired uncle.  Odd and alien to his own family, Jonah was more open to Ben’s effect.  Brilliant and detached like his father; Jonah’s focus had stumbled and libido had stalled; his ties to nature perverting into dreams of murderous starlings and animal corpses splayed out for vultures. Healing these ties, Ben unites Jonah to nature’s purity, taking him to Osage’s caves and their mud, water, and beauty.  His senses cleansed, Jonah turns away from the dead and to the living, steering his RC drone towards the girl who will kiss him and Ruth whom he and Ben will save…like Ben’s students, his vision is shifted, his spirit re-tuned

      Thinking of Ruth, as his taxi ride to Wendy and his death rolls on, Ben states, “When they’re saying, ‘this is normal, what you have walked into is normal, what we’ve built here is normal and your reaction to it is wrong,’ that’s not normal.” To Ben, Wendy and Marty’s treatment of Ruth, and their schemes entrapping her, were not normal. She was Ben’s Eurydice, his pure love assailed by vipers, tethered to their underworld and venomous plots. She was also Tatiana to his Myshkin, a force of nature abused, exploited, and reduced to cold specie. In his personal version of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Ben first saves Ruth inadvertently while working to reach Jonah. The two followed her, in mischief and erotic play, with their drone and expose a cartel hit on the Byrdes partners, barely extricating Ruth from the slaughter. Ruth’s peril with the Byrdes, and Ben’s concern for it, would only grow. When Marty points the suspicious cartel and their lawyer Helen to Ruth, she is traumatically waterboarded. When the FBI points the KC mob boss’s son to Ruth, blaming her for his friends’ death, he brutally beats her to near death…to little emotional (and no active response) from the Byrdes.  Ruth’s lover and aspiring savior, Ben is enraged.  To the Byrdes, the cartel, Helen, and the KC mob, Ruth’s treatment—along with the murders of Marty’s partner, Wendy’s lover, and Ruth’s father—was normal…rational actions of the real world, including Osage.  As Ben said, such callous acceptance is not normal, and he would not accept it as such. He had promised Ruth, “I am not going anywhere until you’re safe.”  Education and enlightenment will not be enough. Ruth is entangled in Osage’s vines and violations, caught in its magnates’ villainy. To free her, he must not just remove her; he must expose her captors and their ways

   As an Orpheus, Ben naturally confronts the Byrdes on the lake, the sphere of HIS values, not theirs. As a Christ-like Myshkin, he poetically faces them on their sordid casino, the site of their moneylending and source of their crimes. Like the epilepsy-riddled Myshkin, Ben is also hampered, his untreated Bi-Polar condition softening his judgment as it emboldens his passion. Entering the casino’s gates, surrounding himself with the well-dressed and hypocritical, Ben’s heightened state recoils, his senses as distressed as his ideals. Striding onto the casino ballroom, he is once again the strange invading outsider, if this time more addled and unrelenting:

 Ben: We need to talk…what happened to Marty’s partner in Chicago?…Did you make that partner disappear, too, or did the real shit start when you got here to the Ozarks?

Wendy: This is not the place

Ben: What this? This is a fucking fake! It’s a lie. How long before you think everybody here realizes that

Wendy: You’re having an episode. I need you just to take a deep breath

Ben: Do not!…Do not…Do not fucking do that to me! Don’t you fucking condescend me like I’m sick and you’re well!…Let’s talk about Ruth’s Dad!

Wendy: I need you to keep your voice down

Ben: I will not keep my fucking voice down! (Marty approaches and Ben strikes him down)

As in his Carolina school room, Ben was the stranger with strange ways: the one closer to nature, but unnatural to those surrounding him. Wendy, however, was prepared for him. She knew of Ben’s “weakness” and had manipulated and twisted it many times. She had even wrongly committed him and would do so now again, her animus and convenience justifying what justice could not.  Ben’s accusations and claims will linger with some but he will temporarily rot in a Hell within a Hell, a perdition both alien and terrifyingly familiar.

     Once freed from the state hospital, Ben reclines in his taxi, waiting to see Wendy and the help she will give him; pondering his state, he says:

     But he can’t feel the click anymore…the key…can’t get it all put together again. But there are days, I would imagine…there are days when, when it’s like…when it’s close, when it’s like this close to “oh…I remember; I remember what my mind was before the thing that that happened that ruined my mind”

Ben knows he is not well, and his paradoxical ken is no comfort. He cannot use his heightened awareness if it is skewed by his degraded state.  Enraged after Ruth gets him out, he is also further committed to saving the innocents around him.  The students at the school faced alienation and hardened hearts; Helen’s daughter, however, faced death and damnation. Bursting in Helen’s yard in manic righteousness, upending her and Erin’s table, Ben rages:

     You wanna know what a piece of shit your mother is, Erin? That she’s a fucking lawyer, well she aint! She’s a fucking monster!  My sister is a monster. Her husband is a monster. You know what they really do?  Who they really work for, Erin?  They launder DRUG money, DRUG money, Erin for the Navarro drug cartel.  (upending a table, Ben turns to Helen) You’re not even a fucking lawyer!  You’re a fucking cartel operative. You sell heroin. You have people killed.  You have people tortured. You tortured Ruth!

The same madness frightening Erin confirms Ben’s words true.  A teenager of deceitful parents and dissolute peers, she knows guile and the meaning of its absence. Helen sees this and her hold on Erin fading. Ben’s “damage” is done, and his goal achieved, but he must still be erased…and Helen, the cartel, and Wendy will ensure that

    While Ben’s last few days echoed John the Baptist’s, the wild doomed truth-teller, he still leaves the world a Christ figure, a messianic paschal lamb spiritualizing those he touched. For Ruth, that mark is carnal, as it was when Ben was alive; she watches his dead body burn and steals and cries over his ashes. It is also personal. To manipulate Ruth and punish Ben, Wendy told Ruth of his illness, exaggerating it for fearful and dividing effect. Wendy humiliated Ben, and she believed her; Wendy did nothing about Frank Jr beating her and Ben gave his life for it. Ruth would no longer be receiving the pain and Wendy—and all those around her—was now in her sights. Same with Jonah; the odd quiet son now finding vigor and awareness in grief and loss, fury in lieu of tacit acceptance. Confronting his mother, following Ben’s death, he demands:

     What are you going to do about Helen!?…She killed your brother!…So, we’re just supposed to forget about Ben!?

     Marty: Well, let’s try to get back to normal

     Johah: Normal?!  Ben’s dead!  Yeah, he’s dead and you guys are gonna keep working with the person who killed him!…I hate you! No there’s nothing normal about anything we do!…(turns to Claudia) and why aren’t you saying anything?!

No longer the weird child avoiding the living and picking at the dead–as morphed into his uncle as he is moved by him—Jonah enters Helen’s lair, caressing a shotgun, seeking the justice his corrupt parents would not. Helen smartly tells him Wendy was part of it, convincingly so. Confused and new to violence, Jonah cannot complete his task…for now.  Ben’s “blessing,” however, was complete; Jonah’s eyes were opened and his arms untied. His resistance to murder and machinations, to reckoning with his family, will fade as his ties to Ben will not

     “Every place I go, there I am,” Ben laments in a grocery store parking lot, responding to Wendy’s question as she plans for his death. One more time, his own demons finished what external devils began.  The girl from that school seems so distant, as do her tormenters. Jonah had been “absolutely his favorite,” but he must be aghast at his casino rant, so put off by his craziness, his abnormal rage.  There was hope for Ruth, though.  With Helen exposed, she was safer, and she knew him better than all.  As he now sits in the restaurant booth across from his sister, and she asks him what he wants in five years, he thinks of Ruth and him…with dogs, and goats, and peace. When Wendy leaves and doesn’t return, he steps outside to nothing. “This must be Wendy,” he thinks as strange steps approach him, quieting his torment and easing his pain