The storytelling tradition of watching otherwise normal, ordinary people get carried away in the chaos of crime is as old as time. We desire these stories as they exploit our fascination with seeing people fall from grace, leaving us in doubt as to where this life will lead them and whether there is any hope that they will come out pure on the other. page. This is the basic question that comes to mind in the final season of the Netflix series Ozark. Over four seasons we have seen Jason Bateman‘s Martin ‘Marty’ Burden drags his family further into a world of crime that leaves them with still few ways to escape. What began as a desperate way to survive the certain death has now become a cold but thriving business built on blood. With every decision and betrayal, we have seen the Byrde family become unredeemed in their insane cruelty while still holding on to a fading chance of salvation. This past season, all they have to do is make a deal more and they will be ready. At least that’s what they’re telling themselves to sleep at night after all they’ve done.
When one unfolds what the end of this show would look like after it premiered more than four years ago now, one could see that the foundation was laid for this central focus. From the ominous opening moments where the whole show began, we heard Marty’s monologue about the way he had built his existence around money as power. It was such that he measured himself as a man, a speech that would become a judgmental accusation against all that he would soon expose his family to in the pursuit of this hunger for wealth. This cutting cynical undercurrent has been echoing around in the background of the show ever since, an unanswered question lingered while we waited for the inevitable shoe to fall. When Ozark is committed to this issue and the lineage of the Byrde family, it is as engrossing as it has ever been. It cuts through the noise and reveals a dedication to the story’s willingness to find out how the family’s growing business of brutality is heading for destruction.
Unfortunately, it has a lot of noise to cut through that holds the show back from reaching its full potential. Characters get mixed up, new and old, and throw narrative wrenches into the story in a misunderstood way to create additional drama. This often does the opposite, leaving us in doubt as to where any of these various subplots and inventions are headed. Too many times, they go nowhere and end up dragging the final season down into cycles of everydayness that feel pointless. There has always been an ongoing joke that Ozark is basically about the highest effort one could ever experience. There are moments when this unintentionally reaches absurd heights as characters get caught up in so many different tasks that the prevailing emotion is not suspense but irritation. Keeping it all together is the power of the performances that push through this narrative slam to get to the core of what makes the show as compelling as it is.
Nowhere is this felt more than in Julia Garnerhis sensational performance as the troubled Ruth Langmore, the lively and vulgar beating heart of the series. After losing everything after being caught up in Marty’s plans, we begin the last episode of the series as she struggles with an unimaginable death. Garner captures this with a sense of both vulnerability and determination, revealing how Ruth is more completely crushed than ever before, while still being required to take revenge, no matter what it costs. By mixing the tragedy through flashbacks with today’s suspense, this first episode is more patient, yet purposeful in a way that the rest of the show could and should have modeled. There is no profit around it as we spend most of our time with Ruth, completely wrapped up in her devastation and growing rage. Her emotions are etched into every aspect of her expression, heard in every cry and shout. It’s remarkable work from Garner, which makes it quite likely she could be in for another Emmy. She builds for an inevitable but intense outbreak of violence, and sets in motion the steady downturn for the rest of the season. One could wish that Garner’s presence was more central, as it would have lifted the rest of the show even more, though it’s still worth praising for what we got.
Next to Garner, one is also incredible Laura Linney as Wendy Byrde. In addition to taking on instructional tasks, she continues to prove to be a saving grace for the show as she convincingly shifts from being cold and calculating to independent in an instant. Ever since she sacrificed someone close to her, Wendy has shown that she is capable of doing anything and hurting anyone to get what she wants. Linney brings this beautifully to life, and infuses every scene she gets with a menacing ethos that is fascinating. When she has scenes with Bateman, which is also fantastic in both a measured but reserved way, this is felt even more. In a particular scene where the two discuss the depths of depravity that their lives have become, she enjoys each line with an eerie sense of lightness. It’s a shame that much of her subsequent story is centered around an appearance outside the left field of a character from her past that is becoming more and more uninteresting. Still, Linney gives a transcendent performance that gets under the skin as she becomes the driving force behind the family’s frightening fall.
It is in the threatening atmosphere and feeling of fear that Ozark is best in his final season. It continues in the same visual aesthetic as darker blues, though this fits in nicely with the show, especially when amplified by the rise of its creeping score that makes use of pulsating string instruments in important moments. Still, the lack of focus left me wanting one last season as nuanced and sharp as Rather call Saul has been. Both shows are more similar than they are different, built around people with the potential to become good, who still end up going down a darker path when they could find a better way but don’t want to. One is just done a little better and reveals the flaws in the other that gets pretty messy.
When Ozark is focused on its strengths, it is as good as it has ever been. When caught by the weeds in an often sultry plot and alien stories, this momentarily dulls the experience. What shines through is the way the series ends, laying all its cards on the table while revealing the rottenness that is taking over the Byrde family. Key moments and cuts determine how this comes about, and make it clear that tragedy is an inevitability for anyone who comes in contact with them. One moment in particular goes from a scene of torture to the preparations for a fundraiser that puts them in clear conversation with each other as they are interconnected. It establishes how Marty and Wendy, under all the shiny veneer they have built for themselves in a polite society, are as evil as the people they originally ran from.
Of course, there was a time when they could have justified their actions as necessary to protect their family. Such an explanation just does not cut it anymore. As the Byrdes family perform more and more horrific acts that they can wave away as just part of the business, we see the two as who they really are: monsters. They just happen to have a smile on their face while running a fancy foundation, which makes it even worse as they are not deviants but people who are all too familiar. Even when they are not doing the actions themselves, they let them happen for their own selfish motives while continuing their hunger for more power. It’s no longer about their children, who they increasingly do not even pretend to believe as props for their heartlessness. It’s about them, and for the first time in Ozark, one can finally say that they deserve each other. Marty and Wendy are increasingly no longer hiding behind a false sense of goodness. Instead, they have fully embraced their grotesque nature with a shamelessness that is as sick as it is prominent in how it reveals our own capacity for evil in a world that rewards it.
Ozark Season 4, Part 2, will be available to stream from Friday, April 29 on Netflix.
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