I like Jason Bateman and Laura Linney as much as the next entertainment consumer, but someone needs to arrest, kill or elect to higher office their “Ozark” characters, Marty and Wendy Byrde. And they need to do it today.
The money-laundering Byrdes have been in flight for three seasons now, having left Chicago for the Lake of the Ozarks in an attempt to outrun law enforcement while fulfilling a deal Marty made with wrathful drug lord Omar Navarro (Felix Solis). The first season was refreshing and delightful mix of cartel thriller and “Green Acres” — the Byrdes did not so much hide amid the unlikely charms of Lake of the Ozarks as infect it, bringing Big City high finance and cartel violence to the local mix of petty criminals, homegrown heroin dealers and (very rare) innocent bystanders.
That the FBI agent tracking them was a near-Lynchian mess of perseverance and personal demons certainly helped the Byrdes survive the first season, as did Marty’s realization that local firecracker Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) was key to their (and the series’) success.
As the series rolled on, Navarro became more demanding and, if we’re being honest, much less terrifying. Like no cartel chief ever, he increasingly took a personal interest in Marty and Wendy, calling to chat with them now and then, and when, in the Season 3 finale, he killed his cold-blooded and brilliant attorney/fixer, Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer) and “promoted” the Byrdes, it was difficult not to think “what the actual hell.”
The first episode of Season 4 is titled “The Beginning of the End,” which may be an optimistic overstatement. After killing Helen, Navarro instructed the Byrdes to get him out of his own cartel and into a “normal” life in the States. Not since Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly tasked Anne Hathaway’s Andy with procuring the next, unpublished, “Harry Potter” book for the twins has there been a cinematic request so impossible and absurd.
Especially considering that Navarro’s first step in accomplishing this was to kill off his cold-blooded and brilliant attorney played by Janet McTeer! A drug lord who is a complete idiot can still be dangerous, but he’s far less interesting.
Also, no series in the history of television has ever been made better by getting rid of McTeer.
In some ways, “Ozark” is a modern money-laundering retelling of the 12 labors of Hercules, though if Marty and Wendy have a miraculous ability to get themselves out of jams, those jams are often of their own making. Marty is a problem-solver who never saw a situation he couldn’t talk himself out of; Wendy is increasingly a proponent of the “go big or go home” school of empowerment and self-destruction.
That is, of course, what fuels the narrative: Their amazing race against an unending series of obstacles and the widening gap between how Marty and Wendy view them. Marty just wants to get out from under his “debt” to Navarro; Wendy thinks they can create an eventually legitimate, economic and political empire.
You know, the old “in five years, the Corleone family is going to be completely legitimate” trope. Cue bullet spray of bloody death.
The problem is it’s become difficult to care whose worldview triumphs or how the Byrdes’ story ends, as long as it does. Which Netflix has made even more challenging by splitting up the final season into two chunks, the second of which will drop later this year.
Moment by moment, “Ozark” still captivates; Lisa Emery’s shotgun-totin’ Darlene Snell is the kind of character that personifies exactly what television can do that films can’t, and it’s tough to look away when Linney is taking Wendy from dimples to demonic in half a second or when Garner is doing pretty much anything at all. But when each scene is over, it evaporates in the perpetual churn of increasingly insupportable plot points.
The show has always relied on the power of its main performers to pull viewers over the many potholes any story that involves “ordinary” people becoming entangled with a cartel is bound to have, and Bateman, Linney and Garner have worked wonders, separately and together. But at this point, “Ozark” feels a bit like a hostage situation — the stars have done their jobs, now it’s time to let them go.
Bateman’s ability to mask the ever-spinning wheels of Marty’s mind with a mien as calm as the world’s best kindergarten teacher has worn thin, while Linney is in danger of going full-on Lady Macbeth. Garner’s Ruth is the only character who seems to be an actual human being experiencing events as they happen. (And she continues to have the best lines: “I kind of thought of Helen like some big f— machine, like a thresher or something,” she says in the first episode. “I didn’t think she could be killed.”)
The little Byrdes, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), were lost to any version of reality long ago — as with “The Americans,” any real sympathy for children raised in a such an unsafe, violent household had to be manipulated to the point of extinction or no one would watch the show.
Which is fine, as long as the fate of the family remains an audience concern. The apparent flash-forward that opens Season 4 suggests that the Byrdes’ story will not end well. Troubling, but not as worrisome as the fact that creators Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams felt they had to open with such a gimmick at all. Even they appear to be aware that audiences, grown weary of one life-or-death scrape after another, have to be reminded that the Byrdes are not actually superheroes.
Or, to be more accurate, supervillains. “Ozark” started out as a story about a sort of, kind of regular family caught up in a very unfortunate series of events, but now it is about a family that often instigates those events. In other words, it’s difficult not to want all the adults to go to jail. (See also: “Succession.”)
The best thing about “Ozark” has always been its willingness to examine the many ways, big and small, people delude themselves in order to survive. Somewhere in the third season, however, the show itself began to felt a bit deluded, or perhaps just unclear, about its own intentions.
Having invested this much time and attention, it seems impossible not to follow the series to its conclusion. Maybe its final episodes, available later this year, will offer a clarity of purpose buried beneath the mountains of exposition.
Or not. Either way, the story will be told, Garner may well win her third Emmy and we can all move on.