Season one of Ozark suggested itself to be a spiritual cousin of Breaking Bad. A morally flexible lead trying to manage a family dynamic while also doing non-ordinary dad stuff. Like laundering money for a drug cartel. The key difference in Jason Bateman’s patriarch vs. Bryan Cranston’s, is Bateman’s Marty Byrde wasn’t seduced by his access to ill-gotten-booty. He had no desire to become the one who knocks. Marty Byrde only wants to be the one who got away.
The first season was well-received, and for good reason. The stark photography of Ben Kutchins, the Appalachian milieu, the taught, pulpy screenplays, and perhaps most significantly, the tremendous acting of the cast. Bateman was wonderful as a man you could always see thinking his way out of trouble. To the point where you all but could hear the gears grinding. The great Laura Linney as his wayward wife, Wendy, was just as strong. The bitterness between them due to her infidelity, on top of the impossible situation they are in thanks to Marty’s extracurricular activities, was uncomfortably palpable.
A show like this is often defined by its anti-hero as well as its villain. In Ozark’s case, the villains are crawling out of every crevice of its harsh natural surroundings. Esai Morales as the front man from the cartel was so chilling that even though you knew he was not going to kill Bateman in episode one after discovering Marty’s partners have been skimming, when he trains his gun on him execution style, you almost forget that Marty Byrde can’t die just yet. When Byrde pulls up stakes from his Chicago home with Wendy, son, and daughter in tow, following him to Missouri in a desperate effort to clean the cartel’s money and keep themselves alive end up being just the beginning of his worries.
There’s the Langmore clan to deal with. A poor trailer brood lead from prison by the terrifying Cade (played with blunt force by Trevor Long) and managed by the ever-industrious Ruth (The extraordinary Julia Garner). The Langmores may be low rent criminals, but upon Ruth’s discovery of Marty’s operation, they create first class problems for the Byrdes.
Then there’s Jacob and Darlene Snell (Peter Mullan and Lisa Emery) whose own local drug-dealing operation isn’t eager to accept the Byrdes and their cartel money.
Finally, there’s the hellhound on their trail in the form of FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner), who may be more terrifying and disturbing then all of the Byrdes’ other adversaries combined.
Season one ended with a tenuous deal brokered between the three parties by Marty. He pulls Ruth into his operation. Gets enough money cleaned for the cartel to hold off the threat of extinction…for now. He even gets the Snells to agree to work with the cartel. At least until Darlene kills the cartel’s envoy for disrespecting her home and lineage.
As we meet back up with the Byrdes, Marty is once again dancing as fast as he can. Trying to hold the deal together while disposing of the envoy’s body, dealing with Cade’s release and heavy-handed takeover of the Langmores, the utter unpredictability of the Snells, the cartel’s expectations, the effort to open a casino to run the money through, and, oh yeah, a manic street preacher who got wound up in their plans during season one, and came out homeless, wifeless, and bull horning sermons from a local corner with newborn in tow while holding a massive grudge against the Byrdes who he believes (not incorrectly) have put him there.
Which is like, you know, a lot of stuff.
All of which the show juggles remarkably well. Even making room for the fabulous Janet McTeer as the cartel’s lawyer. McTeer is really something else. With rapier efficiency, she puts the power in power suits. Her scenes with Linney, which consist mostly of her explaining to Wendy how deep the water is that they are swimming in, are little masterpieces of emphasis. Every word out of McTeer’s mouth carries multiple levels of meaning. So much so that when Linney tells her she understands, McTeer makes it clear that she only thinks she does. There’s only one professional criminal in their conversations. McTeer never lets you forget who that is.
Still, this season belongs in particular to Wendy and Ruth. While Bateman is the driving force behind the show, his generosity to the other actors in that regard is immense. Laura Linney has long been one of our best actors. So, it’s no surprise that she delivers a terrific performance here. As I mentioned before, there are many parallels between Ozark and Breaking Bad. The fascinating thing about season 2 of Ozark is that it upsets our expectations. One might think that Bateman’s Marty Byrde is the one on the path to becoming this show’s Heisenberg. One would be wrong. It’s not Marty who begins to get a taste for the life of crime, it’s Wendy. And when she makes it clear to Marty that he’s not really in charge, that she’s manipulating him instead of the other way around, well, take note of the expression on Bateman’s face. There’s a decent chance it mirrors your own.
As good as Linney is though, it’s Julia Garner as Ruth who is the revelation. Tiny and uneducated with tight blonde ringlets that would make Shirley Temple spit the animal crackers back into her soup, Ruth is easy to underestimate. Everyone who does, including her own father, pays a price. Garner plays Ruth tough as nails, even when she’s about to break down – breathing fire through her tears. It’s remarkable to think of her as the naïve young mark in The Americans. Her work here is miles upon miles away from that performance. It’s the kind of acting that’s so authentic it makes you uncomfortable. If she doesn’t end up with a full mantle of awards over the next twenty years, Hollywood casting agents will only have themselves to blame.
It’s fascinating to watch the formerly adversarial relationship between Marty and Ruth become, if not exactly warm, find a level of respect, and even affection. What I didn’t realize until the end of season two is they are two sides of the same coin. He may be well-heeled with a fancy college degree and she may be the hillbilly with a 10th grade education living in a trailer on a mountain, but they both are trying to accomplish the same thing. To keep their ambitions in check and their respective families together. Even when they can’t rely on their own blood to get into formation.
I was quite taken with season one of Ozark. It’s smart, dark, and riveting. Season 2 doubles down on all of that. While also making you care more about people who barely have two redeeming qualities to rub together between them.
The best thing about a great Netflix series and the worst thing are one and the same. You get to devour it and let it stream through your blood like a hit of H off a countertop. The trouble is, it’s over so fast and the next fix is a whole year away.
I’m already watching the clock.