I love Jason Bateman and Laura Linney as much as the next consumer of entertainment, but someone has to stop, kill, or elect their “Ozark” characters Marty and Wendy Byrde to higher office. And they have to do it today.
The money laundering Byrdes have been on the run for three seasons now, after leaving 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 a refreshingly delicious mix of cartel thriller and “Green Acres” – the Byrdes lurking not so much amidst the unlikely charms of the Lake of the Ozarks as they infect it, bringing in Big City high finance and cartel violence to the local mix of petty criminals, local heroin dealers and (very few) innocent bystanders.
The fact that the FBI agent following them was an almost 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 show’s) success. .
As the series has gone on, Navarro has become more demanding and, if we’re being honest, much less terrifying. Like no cartel boss ever, he takes an increasingly personal interest in Marty and Wendy, calling in to chat with them from time to time, and when, in the Season 3 finale, he kills his Cold-blooded and brilliant lawyer/fixer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer) and “promoted” the Byrdes, it was hard not to think “what the hell”.
The first episode of Season 4 is titled “The Beginning of the End,” which may be an optimistic exaggeration. After killing Helen, Navarro asked the Byrdes to break him out of his own cartel and lead him to a “normal” life in the United States. Not since Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly tasked Anne Hathaway’s Andy with sourcing the next unpublished “Harry Potter” book for the twins has there been such an impossible and absurd cinematic request.
Especially considering that Navarro’s first step in achieving this was to kill his cold-blooded and brilliant lawyer played by Janet McTeer! A drug lord who is a complete jerk can still be dangerous, but he’s far less interesting.
Plus, no series in television history has ever been improved by getting rid of McTeer.
In some ways, “Ozark” is a modern money-laundering tale of the 12 Labors of Hercules, though while Marty and Wendy have a miraculous ability to get out of traffic jams, those traffic jams are often of their own making. Marty is a problem solver who has never seen 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, of course, is what drives the narrative: their incredible race against an endless series of obstacles and the growing gap between how Marty and Wendy see them. Marty just wants out of his “debt” to Navarro; Wendy thinks they can create a possibly legitimate economic and political empire.
You know, the old trope “five years from now, the Corleone family will be completely legit.” Cue projectile of bloody death.
The problem is that it’s become hard to care which worldview triumphs or the Byrdes’ story ends, as long as that’s the case. Which Netflix has made even harder by splitting the final season into two chunks, the second of which will drop later this year.
Moment after moment, “Ozark” still captivates; Lisa Emery’s shotgun, Darlene Snell, is the kind of character who embodies exactly what TV can do that movies can’t, and it’s hard to look away when Linney takes Wendy from dimpled to demonic in one half a second or when Garner does just about anything. But when each scene is over, it evaporates in the perpetual whirlwind of increasingly unsustainable plot points.
The show has always relied on the power of its lead performers to draw viewers to the many potholes that any story involving “ordinary” people getting tangled up with a cartel is inevitable, 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 job, now is the time to let them go.
Bateman’s ability to mask the incessant cogs of Marty’s mind with a countenance as calm as the best kindergarten teacher in the world has waned, while Linney risks going all-out Lady Macbeth. Garner’s Ruth is the only character who appears to be an actual human being who experiences events as they happen. (And she continues to have the best lines: “I kind of thought of Helen as a big f—machine, like a threshing machine or something,” she says in the first episode. that she could be killed.” )
Little Byrdes, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), were lost to any version of reality long ago — like with “The Americans,” any real sympathy for the children raised in such a dangerous and violent 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 a public concern. The apparent flash-forward that opens Season 4 suggests that the Byrdes’ story won’t end well. Disturbing, but not nearly as disturbing as the fact that creators Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams felt they had to open with such a gimmick. Even they seem to be aware that audiences, tired of one life or death after another, need to remember that the Byrdes aren’t really superheroes.
Or, to be more precise, supervillains. “Ozark” started out as a story about some sort of ordinary family caught in a series of very unfortunate events, but now it’s about a family that is often behind those events. In other words, it’s hard not to want all adults to go to jail. (See also: “Succession.”)
The best thing about “Ozark” has always been its willingness to examine the many ways, large and small, that people delude themselves in order to survive. Somewhere in the third season, however, the show itself started to feel a little deceived, or maybe just plain unclear, about its own intentions.
After investing so much time and attention, it seems impossible not to follow the series to its conclusion. Perhaps its final episodes, available later this year, will offer clarity of purpose buried under the mountains of exposition.
Or not. Either way, the story will be told, Garner just might win his third Emmy, and we can all move on.