A single alluring thought of Midwestern wealth and wide-open spaces may have saved the life of Marty Byrde, along with the lives of his wife, Wendy, and their two children.
‘‘More coastline than the state of California,” says Marty, quoting from a Missouri tourism guide. It’s the first line in a diversion that takes Marty out of a conversation about the method of his death and into a 10-episode television series about murder, mayhem, and life on the edge in central southern Missouri.
Marty, played by Jason Bateman in the Netflix crime drama “Ozark,” got crossways with the Mexican drug runner that he and his business partner, Bruce, had been laundering money for. If Marty didn’t think fast, he’d be dissolved in a barrel of acid, just like his partner was a minute before. So Marty sells the drug dealer on the idea of investing their ill-gotten gains in lake front property.
Even though he was first to see opportunity in the 1,150 miles of shoreline in the Lake of the Ozarks, created in 1932 by St. Louis-based Union Electric’s electricity-generating Bagnell Dam, Bateman’s partner, Bruce, never made it to episode two. Still, in reflective moments, Bruce pops up in Marty’s memories.
Marty and Bruce had run out of ways to spend money in Chicago. They needed a new angle. One thing is certain, on Missouri’s most famous lake (also known as “the Dragon” because on maps, that’s what it resembles) there are plenty of twists and turns for a conspiracy-laden thriller like “Ozark.”
Ameren UE, United Electric’s successor, still controls the lake. It’s their dam. Ameren gives out dock permits to property owners around the Lake. No permit, no dock. And if someone builds anything without a permit at an elevation that might be flooded during high water, Ameren can make them tear it down. Presumably, Ameren would also be against money laundering on the lake without a permit, but “Ozark” isn’t actually filmed there.
Other than aerial footage at the beginning of each “Ozark” episode—there are more episodes on the way in season two—most of “Ozark” was filmed on a lake in Georgia.
So why hire a stand-in lake instead of the real thing? Can the 5 million people who visit the Lake of the Ozarks each year possibly be wrong? Apparently, producer Jason Bateman thinks so, even though his character, Marty Byrde, disagrees. That’s too bad, because the whole economy on the lake is about wringing out commerce in the relatively short boating season from Memorial Day to Labor Day. A little film making would have punched up the local bottom line. Fishing from March to October helps beyond the usual timetable, but fishermen don’t spend money like drunken sailors, or young speedo- and bikini-clad vacationers looking for fun in the sun, good food, and alcohol.
But the lake also serves as retirement home for a lot of grandmas and grandpas whose families come every summer to ride the pontoon boat and swim off the dock. “Ozark’s” off center acknowledgement of that comes when Marty and Wendy buy a home from a grandfatherly owner named Buddy, on his condition that he stays there with them in a guest room until the inevitable conclusion of his terminal illness.
But Buddy isn’t your average grandpa. For one thing, he insists on nude sunning and swimming in clear view of the house, Wendy, and the kids. And when the Mexican drug lord named Dell sends one of his henchmen to watch the Byrdes and his money, Buddy blows him away with a scatter gun. Then Buddy and Marty dispose of the body by cremating it in the mortuary Marty just bought with Dell’s drug money.
The Georgia lake isn’t a very good stand in for the Lake of the Ozarks. In the Netflix scenes, everyone is floating around on this glassy smooth water. But at the real Ozarks, if the kids want to ski, you have to be out by 7:30, because by 10 all the testosterone boats are churning things up. They’ve tried to limit boat sizes, but big money likes big boats, and big money always wins.
Home owners are getting more irate. And home owners support all the communities and counties more than some guy from Denver that actually tore up my boat dock and seawall last year on Labor Day. He has a 60-foot boat. He flies in on his private plane, the pilot of which also pilots his boat. He has his 20 or so groupies, they bar hop for a couple of days and then go home. Usually when they depart, they leave behind maybe a couple hundred grand to pay for damage to property of people like me. The water patrol says they can’t do anything about it. The Denver boater creates his damaging waves on purpose. It’s called plowing, maintaining the speed of the boat without planing it out so that it creates a huge wake.
No mention of Lake of the Ozarks is complete without a reference to the Party Cove, where revelers lash their boats together into islands of debauchery, or maybe just beer barges, that the New York Times once called “the oldest established permanent floating bacchanal in the country.”
FYI, there is also a PG-13 Party Cove at the Indian Creek branch where families can hook up.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the lake is its food. There are plenty of entrepreneurial food hot spots both on the water and off. People who go to the lake don’t want Mcburgery Whoppers. They’re looking for music and fun at places like J.J.’s Copper Pot, Shrimp Daddy’s, Jolly Roger’s, the Bath House with its poolside bar beside the water, and many, many more. Marty of “Ozark” acknowledges that too, when he buys a marina/restaurant/bar—and a strip bar.
For the record, I’ve never seen a strip bar at the lake, but Google assures me there are some.
As winter and those glassy waters finally arrive, everything on the lake shuts down, shrinking back to essential services. Hardware stores, grocery stores, banks, drug stores, the Wal-Mart in Osage Beach all stay open, as do real estate agents, who are seemingly everywhere in service to the hottest rural housing market in Missouri. But most of the touristy bars and restaurants close up, with the nitty-gritty exceptions of those favored by locals.
The lake economy goes to sleep for eight months—a little longer than hibernating year round resident armadillos, squirrels, raccoons, and the occasional Ozarks Black Bear
That’s why Marty might finally meet his Waterloo, when winter comes to Ozark. With the area no longer awash in cash, money-laundering business may prove to be harder.
Richard Oswald, a fifth-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union, lives in Langdon, Missouri.