Unbearably tense and obliquely poignant event television
If the premise of Netflix’s hit crime drama, ozark, seemed simple – a mild-mannered financial adviser moves into rural Missouri to launder $500 million in Mexican drug cartel money – so the execution was anything but. The story of the Byrdes, Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney), has taken them from victim to perpetrator, and back again, multiple times. “A middle-class family hanging on for dear life” may have been the talk of the elevator, but that elevator now has more blood spilled than its Overlook Hotel counterpart.
As things pick up speed, the final chapter of the ozark saga, new supremo Javi (Alfonso Herrera Rodriguez) has just murdered local heroin producer Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) and her young husband, Wyatt Langmore (Charlie Tahan). It’s this last murder that will prove most consequential, lighting up the blue tactile paper for a story of revenge and its repercussions. Wyatt’s cousin (and Marty’s charge) Ruth (Invent Anna(Julia Garner) sets off for Chicago, seemingly ready to wage all-out war in pursuit of a little justice for one of the few people in the world whose company she could endure. “Sorry,” Javi had said, pointing his gun at Wyatt, “whoever you are.” This single act of mindless psychopathy – an attempt to iron out the final details – sends the whole thing crashing down. Marty warns Ruth against an attack on Javi: “Everything we worked for is collapsing.” “Welcome to my fucking world,” she said impassively.
Like the story of ozark unfolded, the two central families – the Byrdes and the Langmores – became increasingly entangled. The Byrdes wanted to get rich; the Langmores wanted to get out of poverty. In the end, neither may be right, but it’s clear the Lake of the Ozarks natives paid a much heavier price. You can call it plot armor or just plain old socio-economic bias in favor of white-collar workers, but the Byrde family unit is – for now – intact. Ruth, on the other hand, has no one. “They’re building a whole life that should be ours,” she whispers to the ghost of her murdered cousin, as the Byrdes plot a return to the big city.
Marty, meanwhile, continues to struggle. Flying by the seat of his pants has been his default mode ever since he first unfolded that pamphlet for the Ozarks retreat. The toll of running North America’s largest laundromat hangs over him, as do the intractable strains over his marriage. If he understood for a long time that he could not trust Wendy, she still has the ability to surprise him. “Why did you choose everyone over your family?” she asks him. “You’re so desperate to be the good guy.” But time and the growing death toll thwart Marty’s attempts to be a better man. As he returns south of the border, the Byrdes’ options become increasingly scarce. The fate that awaited him when he offered to launder half a billion dollars in five years is catching up with him. Reviewing the performances of a show in its fourth and final season is a bit like awarding the Booker Prize to the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Pritzker to Stonehenge. Nonetheless, Bateman and Linney capture their characters’ moral ambiguity with controlled precision, while Garner has become the show’s most accomplished performer – and its dramatic heart.
At its creation, ozark has often been compared, unfavorably, to breaking Bad. It’s hard to believe there wasn’t a degree of cynicism in its commissioning, but over the seasons the show has developed its own distinctive stamp. The murky waters of the Midwest are somehow less grueling than the beating sun of New Mexico. The creative sensibility is also more blockbuster: realism in character development is preferred over realism in plot devices. It all turns into a pressure cooker of a final season, where the cumulative bad choices of generations of Byrdes and Langmores weigh on the narrative, like Walter White’s lung analysis. Maybe in years to come ozark will be looked back without reference to Breaking Bad, but not yet. If Marty and Ruth feel like Walter and Jesse, then they too deserve a blaze of glory to hang out in. The result is an unbearably tense, obliquely poignant ending, and one of the best event TV shows we’ve seen on any streaming service.