And yet, here I am, delving into the tangled history of Netflix’s Ozark, which premieres its last seven episodes tonight.
I have been a fan of the program since its premiere in 2017, when Jason Bateman delivered a powerful and poignant portrayal of a man under duress: Marty Byrde, a Mexican drug cartel finance manager and secret money launderer, is forced to relocate his family to the Ozarks after his business partner tries to defraud their boss and is killed in the process.
But now that we’re nearing the end of that voyage, Ozark is more likely to be remembered as a brilliant thrill ride – a riveting collection of showcase scenes for a talented cast – than as a series with a clear message.
That’s a shame, because the difference between good and outstanding for this series can be measured in how it’s evolved from an engaging character study into a series of growing and increasingly ludicrous threats to a family plunging into a criminal underworld. Something along the lines of “Breaking Bad: The Family Edition.”
Marty’s initial goal was to launder $500 million in five years, demonstrating that he was important to the cartel and unaffected by his partner’s skimming. When the episode initially aired, his children had no idea what their father did for a career, and his wife Wendy, played by a tough-as-nails Laura Linney, was more concerned with keeping the family together.
Four seasons can make such a difference.
A criminal family with a long history
The Byrde family is fully immersed in a complicated scheme to free cartel leader Omar Navarro from federal custody, neutralize his smart, ruthless nephew Javier, establish themselves as powerhouse (completely legitimate) philanthropists, and repair a rift between Wendy and the kids caused by the show’s final episodes, which air today.
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There’s more to come: Ruth Langmore, played by Julia Garner, is distraught over the murder of her cousin Wyatt by Javier, vowing vengeance on him and the Byrdes. Ruth Langmore began as Marty’s occasional assistant before falling in love with Ben and splitting with the Byrdes over his death.
Even on a show known for giving fans a lot, it’s a lot.
I’ve seen the series finale because Netflix distributed every episode of the last batch to critics ahead of time. To be honest, it didn’t appeal to me as much as I had hoped. Ozark, like many other shows with multiple plotlines in action, can feel rushed in its closing episodes as it rushes through events to reach the finish line.
This is especially true for Ozark, because the frantic pace of lethal hurdles thrown at the Byrdes is a big part of its allure. Wendy and Marty recover from seeing Navarro’s lawyer shot in the head (washing her brains and blood out of their hair) in just one episode from earlier in the season, only to meet Javier, who heads to the Ozarks and kills the local sheriff, just as a private investigator arrives looking for Navarro’s now-missing attorney.
When the forward motion of a series is one of its main draws, any move toward a finale can feel anticlimactic.
The fast-paced nature of Ozark also prevents you from pondering how ridiculous the plotlines have grown. Consider the following plot from the last batch of episodes: Wendy admits herself into a mental hospital to prevent her children from moving in with her father.
However, she has previously stated that the family is just days away from hosting a major gala to launch their philanthropic foundation, and they can’t afford to frighten big donors with any hint of controversy. So why is she ready to risk the fact that the foundation’s organizer checked herself into a mental institution right before a major event?
In another scene, Marty threatens to tell a cartel bigwig something about Ruth that will get her killed unless she intervenes to persuade their children not to leave with Wendy’s father – which is a bit of a spoiler. Marty pays Ruth another visit after she takes action, and the two laugh over their strange past – even though Ruth still blames the Byrdes for her cousin’s murder and Wendy for having her father slain.
That’s part of what makes Ozark so difficult to take at times. Characters frequently act in unexpected ways, primarily to propel the plot forward or to bring two characters together in a powerful scene.
It’s also a by-product of storytelling in the Netflix era, where producers want viewers to watch numerous episodes in a single sitting, necessitating a continual stream of discoveries and twists spread out over a long period of time to keep things going.
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The story ‘Ozark’ tells it all.
In the series’ conclusion, there are a number of significant deaths (again, saying who would be a spoiler). And it’s true that Ozark’s high death toll has transformed viewing the show into a game of predicting who’ll get murdered next – even what happened after the family was involved in a major automobile accident, which was a flash forward that began the current season.
However, the deaths serve to focus the show’s attention on the family. Ozark shares a lot of similarities with Breaking Bad, but one area where it differs is in how criminality affects a family. Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, justifies his transformation from high school science teacher to meth-making mastermind on AMC’s legendary hit drama by claiming he was doing it to protect his family – until he was forced to admit his actions atomized his family and he was doing it all to validate himself.
Ozark is telling a different story. Here, I think criminality ultimately unites the Byrdes – you’ll see how, when you watch the final episode – sending a message about how some people can succeed in the face of rampant wrongdoing that feels depressingly true to our times.
The show’s handling of characters of color also bothers me. Regardless of the fact that all of the Latino characters are deadly cartel members — particularly Alfonso Herrera’s captivating portrayal of a gorgeous, smooth-talking psychopath — In Tony Dalton’s attractive, smooth-talking psychopath cartel head Lalo Salamanca on Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, Javier reflects a growing character stereotype I’ve also seen in Tony Dalton’s handsome, smooth-talking psychopath cartel leader Lalo Salamanca. In this latest batch of episodes, the show’s few Black characters are largely ignored, restricting the diversity of people we encounter in unusual ways.
Finally, right up to the final scene – which, to be honest, feels like a flashback to The Sopranos ending – I cared about these characters. Regardless of all the reasons I had to ignore what was going on, I wanted to see who lived, who died, and how their stories ended.
That’s a credit to the cast, which includes Linney, who is becoming increasingly strong as the Byrde family’s most cutthroat member, and Garner, whose revelations of Ruth’s sensitive heart beneath her spitfire exterior have been particularly gripping this season. (A special mention goes to Richard Thomas, who is best known for playing wholesome John-Boy Walton on the ’70s-era family drama The Waltons, and who excels here as Wendy’s hypocritical and manipulative husband.
Let’s not forget about all the great actors who played characters who got whacked along the way, from Esai Morales’ cartel underboss Del Rio to Janet McTeer’s doomed lawyer Helen Pierce and Tom Pelphrey’s woefully underappreciated turn as Ben, a character with bipolar disorder who saw the true horror of the Byrde family business clearer than any of them.
Even when the program didn’t quite match the standard of outstanding television, these performers and the deliciously delightful circumstances in which they were placed kept me watching every second of every Ozark episode.
It’s also why I’ll miss the show, which managed to make a family’s plunge into ruthlessness funny, interesting, and informative all at the same time.
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