One of the best TV series of recent years was surely Breaking Bad, the story of a man’s transformation from husband, father and high-school chemistry teacher into a major figure in the illegal drug world.
In Breaking Bad, Walter White was an everyman faced with a seemingly impossible situation, and the fascination of the story was to watch him desperately find a path out of it. Viewers were invited at each step along the way to consider for themselves what they’d do. How far would you go?
The stereotype of the high-school teacher set up Walter White as a good guy. We forgave him, or at least we understood his motivation, even as he transformed into a monster. The new Netflix series, Ozark, uses a stereotype too, but to establish its protagonist, Marty Byrde, as a bit of a prick. Marty is a financial planner.
Ozark begins with someone – we learn later it’s Marty – lugging a pair of eskies full of cash to a car, loading them into the boot and driving away, and stashing the cash in a secret location. A narrator’s voice (also Marty) outlines how financially precarious is the position of most of the adult US population: 25 per cent of the population has no savings whatsoever; and less than 15 per cent of the population is able to self-fund just one year of retirement.
Cut to the inside of an office, where Marty is being interviewed by a couple as a potential adviser. They profess their financial ignorance and talk about their goals and dreams while Marty watches a video on his PC of a couple having sex in a hotel room (we learn their identities later, too). Marty’s colleague enters the office and hustles the clients. They sign up – cheque or credit card is the only decision they get to make – and we’re off and running.
As the season progresses, we – and Marty’s kids – also get an insight into the mechanics and logistics of money laundering that might have been helpful viewing for a few people at the Commonwealth Bank. But we digress.
Ozark sets a mood and it employs every negative stereotype of financial planners imaginable: avaricious, immoral, self-absorbed, entitled and duplicitous, and more concerned with how they’re going to make a buck for themselves than how they might help clients.
A stereotype, maybe; but what are we to make of the fact that this image of the financial planner has now passed into popular culture? Stereotypes are massively difficult to shift. But they also take quite a long time to stick in the first place, and a stereotype only sticks after a cohort has to behave in a particular way for quite a long time. It looks like financial planning might have done just that.
Explaining the gravity of the situation to his wife at one point, Marty says: “People who drive trucks full of cash onto scales to weigh it because there’s too much to count, they don’t exactly have a code of ethics that they adhere to.” And nor, according to the producers of this show at least, do financial advisers.
This is a troubling development. When your occupation become shorthand for a particular mode of behaviour and morality, just as surely as “used-car salesman”, or “drug-cartel boss” or “tabloid journalist”, then something, sometime, has gone terribly wrong.
In the opening scenes of Ozark Marty tells us “money is not peace of mind”.
“Money is not happiness. Money is, at its essence, [the] measure of a man’s choices,” he says. In other words, choices matter. They amount to something.
The sum of the financial planning industry’s choices, to date, has led to this position. And it’s the sum of the choices from here on that will determine how swiftly – or whether at all – an established stereotype can be successfully challenged, let alone overturned.
Ozark is screening on Netflix now.