If there is anything I have learned from watching AMC and Netflix over the years, it is that I never want to work for a drug cartel, no matter how much a potential boss might offer to pay me. My commitment to this life motto has been reaffirmed recently while binge-watching Netflix’s Ozark, a show about Marty Byrde, who lives in the Ozarks while laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel.
Employment in a cartel, while certainly profitable, does not offer the kind of benefits I need, especially in regards to health insurance. Managers in this field care little about the health of their employees, and are sometimes downright hostile to the notion of protecting the well-being of their staff. And job security is questionable — just ask Marty, who must constantly scrabble to retain employment, even though in any other line of work his heroic efforts on behalf of his company would earn him a healthy bonus and a promotion. But in the world of cartels, one’s boss might decide to terminate the employment contract at any moment. Furthermore, severance packages, while available, are quite likely to fall short of what one might hope for.
I first began to doubt the wisdom of drug cartel employment years ago, when I decided to watch the premier episode of Breaking Bad, which aired on AMC after Mad Men. Though I immediately felt sympathy for Walter White — a chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-mogul — I had grave misgivings about his judgment right from the start. Once he hooked up with a Mexican drug cartel, it was all downhill for Walter. His job as a teacher was much more stable and offered the added reward that can only come from knowing you are changing the future, one student at a time. Besides that, having been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Walter was in dire need of the very best in medical care, and we all know that teachers get really good medical coverage. But Walter threw all that away for a little less than one-hundred million, tax free, and things did not end well for him.
Walter’s attorney Saul Goodman, a victim of a congenital ethics-challenge disorder, fared better in his association with cartels. But eventually, after Walter went down, Saul had to swap his law career for an hourly-wage position as manager of a mall Cinnabon, where he still works as far as I know. And though Saul gets to make cinnamon rolls in a temperature-controlled environment, his CV will always tell the story of a man who went wrong somewhere.
So, if Marty had possessed the foresight to watch Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, he probably never would have embarked on his profession as a money launderer for a Mexican drug cartel. But Marty did not possess foresight, and so he put his entire family at risk, as well as the lives of a host of other people, for a sum of money never even specified by his employer. This is something I would never do. I want to know, ahead of time, exactly how much I can expect to make for my labor. (Regrettably, for an English major the answer is usually not much.)
In addition to unclear contractual agreements, Marty has had to put up with a host of other indignities from his employer, including having his toenails ripped out during an impromptu debriefing meeting, without any anesthetic whatsoever. I would have demanded my final paycheck and turned in my resignation after that, but perhaps Marty was already in a little too deep to quit so abruptly.
Still, the dangers of a Mexican drug cartel pale in comparison to what one might endure after signing on with a heroin distributor in the Ozark Mountains, which is of course exactly what the hapless Marty did at the end of Season 1. Those Ozark guys pass out faux Bibles filled with heroin packets with one hand while stabbing people in the jugular with the other. And don’t call any of them a redneck—you might up with your head blown off. Even though they seem nice on the outside, inviting people over for lemonade and throwing big family parties, they will not hesitate to rip your baby prematurely from your womb if the circumstances call for such drastic measures, as they sometimes do. I would never work for someone who could stab me in the back like that.
In any case, I don’t see myself as a meth manufacturer, a legal advisor to a drug kingpin, or a drug-money launderer. I never even took chemistry in college. I am no good at lying—my eyes always give me away, I’ve been told. And I can see my tax preparer, who has a thorough and in-depth knowledge of my bookkeeping methods, already blanching at the thought of me taking on someone else’s finances. In any case, I’d never pass the interview. I’d mess up during the group questions. Where do you see yourself five seasons from now? the smooth, handsome drug dealer, third from the left, would inevitably ask me.
And I would pause for too long, thinking about all of the possibilities.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.