‘Ozark’ Keeps Upping the Stakes

In the first half of Season 4, the Netflix show lurches toward its inevitably tragic conclusion

The first half of the fourth and final season of Ozark recently dropped.  So much has happened in these seven episodes; too much to account for in this brief article.  Ozark is a saga about an ambitious crime family, the Byrdes, who come from Chicago and hide in plain sight in rural Missouri where they launder money for a Mexican drug cartel.  It’s like Breaking Bad but instead of being about the highs and lows of manufacturing drugs and selling them, it’s all about how the revenue generated from drug trafficking escapes detection and appears legitimate.

At first, the Byrdes’ descent into crime is just a stopgap: something to do to satisfy the drug cartel who holds their lives in its hands. Despite their desire to return to their old life in Chicago–which, frankly, wasn’t all that joyful–each choice they make extends their visit and envelops them like quicksand.  Each move they make to appease the criminals among them is like the scratching of a mosquito bite that they hope will stop the itching.  By season four, it seems that they’re somewhat resigned to this life of crime and, despite some heartbreaks along the way, they’re kind of enjoying themselves and the power and discreet wealth they’ve accumulated.  Their insatiable hunger for wealth and power hides behind a smokescreen of joyless but cheerful banality.  But their own deaths and betrayal by their own children lurks around the corner.

What distinguishes Ozarks as a crime drama is that it’s about gentrification, modernization and globalization. While Tony Soprano and Walter White are very much products of their environments and build their criminal enterprises in their backyards, Marty, a Chicago resident moves to the Ozarks to launder money for a Mexican drug cartel. While there’s plenty of local crime already being committed by the good country folk of the Ozarks (The Snells grow opium poppies, the Langmores rob motel rooms) it’s all old school brick and mortar/agricultural crime. Everyone’s got their hand out in a charming Dickensian way.

There’s even a scene in season one where they launder money by literally putting in the dryer. You know how politicians keep promising to bring back the coal industry because it sounds like a good idea but it’s not? Ozark crimes are so 20th century…like the coal industry.

Marty Byrde brings 21st century crime to the Ozarks.  He’s like that guy who opens up a Walmart in some sleepy rural paradise and everyone in the town hates him for it but eventually no one can resist the siren call of a multi-pack of 12 pairs of tube socks for $4.99.  The laundering of money that Marty once did in a series of complicated analog movements, investing in cash only businesses and trips to Macau and the Cayman Islands, he now performs behind a desk thanks to a software Marty has developed and taught his son to use.

People used to turn the opium poppies that the Snells grow into heroin to sell to junkies. First the Byrdes saw to it that Mexican drug cartels distribute this heroin. Then they sold it to a Sackler-like big pharma company in need of PR rehabilitation that uses it as the main ingredient for a highly addictive pain reliever that they market as an antidote to other highly addictive pain relievers.  Who’s the mastermind behind this rehabilitation?  Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney), Marty’s wife!

The Byrde children (Charlotte and Jonah) are part of the action too. Marty and Wendy not only informed  of the family business very early on in the series but also asked them to help out, unlike other TV crime families like the Sopranos and the Whites who try valiantly but unsuccessfully to keep their kids from knowing too much about where their family’s money comes from).  Meanwhile Marty’s wife Wendy (Laura Linney) doesn’t just adapt gamely to the fact that her husband is supporting the family through crime, she’s totally onboard. In fact, this newfound life of crime draws on all sorts of skills she both possesses and some she never realized she had before.

In the first season, Wendy is unemployed.  A housewife. She was an important politico in the Chicago area.  She worked for Obama.  But, having taken some time off to have kids, she found herself left behind by an industry that favors tech-savvy youth over veterans with experience.  In the Ozarks, she’s Pamela Harriman with a $150 million war chest to offer politicians whose influence she needs. And she’s ruthless.  She’s essentially killed her brother. Linney gives a layered and subtle performance. She’s a sophisticated supermom who effortlessly keeps up with the world around her and hardly seems to be capable of all the ruthless ambition she, in fact, possesses.

The breakout performance of Ozark is Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore.  Ruth is a 19-year-old woman from a local family of petty thieves. After Ruth attempts to rob the Byrdes, Marty recognizes, beneath her ruthlessness, a talented woman who possesses an unusual amount of intelligence, ambition, awareness and common sense. She is also very devoted to her family. He takes her under his wing and she, in turn, serves as a liaison between himself and the Ozark community.  Their relationship is strangely sweet as he entrusts her with various positions within his crime syndicate; someone no one else has done before as Ruth has quite a reputation in town. The more responsibility he gives her, the more she rises to the occasion.

During season four, however, the relationship between Marty and Ruth has frayed. Ruth is going out on her own by partnering with Darlene Snell, a local poppy grower who resents the Byrdes for coming in and ruining her business. Wendy and Darlene Snell have a delicious antagonism that rivals that of Seinfeld and Newman.  They just hate each other. At one point Darlene has a heart attack and Wendy hesitates before calling 911…but then ultimately–it seems–saves Darlene’s life so she can continue to torture her.

Ruth has also taken Jonah, Wendy and Marty’s 14 year old son, under her wing. Jonah has plenty of reasons to betray his family. He’s seen his family getting deeper and deeper into the crime world. He’s starting to suspect that they’re using the funeral home they acquired (especially the crematorium in the basement) is  for sinister purposes and he knows that his mother killed his beloved uncle. His response to this is perverse. He’s now laundering money like his father and he seems to have a knack for it.  But he’s doing it for the Snells.

An interesting, but perhaps unintentional, detail that makes this even more chilling is that because of Covid, filming on Ozark’s fourth season delayed by two years. Jonah is supposed to be fourteen years old but Skylar Gaertner, the actor who plays him is now 18 years old….and looks dramatically older than he did in season three even though–as far as the story is concerned–only three weeks have passed since those events.

Season four, the end is near. We know from a flash forward that the Byrds are heading back to Chicago and are getting along with each other….but have all been in a random car accident that doesn’t seem survivable. Since we still haven’t seen the second half of the season, we don’t know what circumstances have led the Byrdes back to Chicago or who of them, if any, have survived the car accident. Ozark, as always, leaves us wanting more.


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