Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) has been slithering his way out of life-or-death situations since the very first episode of Ozark. By Season 4, he is so used to over-promising for his life that he barely reacts to even the most high-stakes situations. Bateman plays Marty not as even-keeled, but as seemingly empty, his motivations all but imperceptible. He never cracks more than a tight-lipped, perfunctory smile. But then again, neither does anyone else in this final season.
Ozark is a crime series that’s almost procedural in its machinations, tidily redistributing its characters’ debts and allegiances over and over again as if on a schedule. Its engaging first season gave way to a shoddily written second. But the show’s third season was its best, thanks to a surprisingly devastating turn by Tom Pelphrey as Wendy Bird’s bipolar brother, Ben. Netflix is splitting Season 4 of Ozark into two parts, each with seven episodes. The first batch is a chore to get through but pays some dividends in the end.
Everyone in the series seems more miserable than ever. Marty and Wendy (Laura Linney) now head up a money-laundering empire on behalf of cartel leader Omar Navarro (Felix Solis). Season 4 opens with Navarro making an impossible request of the Byrdes, as he so often does. The couple spends the rest of these first episodes trying to pull strings with the FBI and launching a shady foundation in hopes of meeting Navarro’s demands.
The Byrdes once spoke of an endgame, of getting out of the business, but now they just seem to be on autopilot. Daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) seem to have no extracurriculars to put on their college applications besides money laundering. The whole family is also more disillusioned than ever in the wake of Ben’s death.
If one person seems to be genuinely at peace with his life, it’s Wyatt (Charlie Tahan), the teenager who inexplicably shacked up with violent sexagenarian heroin farmer Darlene (Lisa Emery) last season. Their relationship, like so many other parts of the series, seems to be happening for no other reason than because writers willed it to. More often than not, Ozark’s double-crosses and shady dealings read like bullet points on a list the writers are running through, with no intrigue or connective tissue between them.
The biggest plot twists happen via terse phone calls, usually with characters who have changed their minds for no apparent reason. Too many characters, from pregnant FBI agent Maya (Jessica Frances Dukes) to scrappy businesswoman Ruth (Julia Garner), seem to be constantly shuffled around by writers like pieces on a chessboard. Or perhaps a Monopoly board, since this game has gone on way too long.
Ruth has always been the light at the end of Ozark’s blue-gray tunnel. When the show devolves into scene after scene of arguments, business meetings, and executions, Ruth stands apart. She’s a pint-sized, angry, ever-savvy young woman who wants everyone around her to be doing a better job than they are. She also genuinely cares about her family and wants to build something they can be proud of.
While Wendy has grown ice-cold and Marty has all but become a robot, Ruth is still hot-blooded and prone to taking things personally. She doesn’t escape the writers’ tendency to use allegiance shifts in place of actual, discernable plot, but she’s poised to take center stage as Ozark heads into its endgame. Garner continues to be a cast standout, communicating more in the set of her jaw or the crossing of her arms than other actors do in their entire performances.
Ozark has long been compared, not necessarily positively, to Breaking Bad. But you know what its endless game of criminal musical chairs reminds me of? Glee. Granted, the two shows are nothing alike in tone or content, but the once-ubiquitous teen musical had a tendency to make its characters break up, make up, form alliances, and make new enemies multiple times per episode. It was as if its writers were easily distractable kids playing with dolls.
This type of whiplash-inducing storytelling is initially exhilarating but eventually exhausting. The end result, unfortunately, is viewers’ emotional disengagement. Ozark isn’t quite at that level yet, as each season has had one redeeming element to carry it through to the next, but it’s close.
In this case, the redeeming elements of part one of Season 4 — aside from Ruth — are its first episode’s opening scene and its finale’s last scene. These seven episodes feel a bit like stalling to get to the actual climax of the show, which these game-changing bookends hint at. That ending, due later this year, looks a lot more compelling than what Season 4’s first half has to offer.
Ozark Season 4, Part 1 premieres in full on Netflix on January 21st.
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