It’s time for a confession: I’ve been on board with Ozark since season one, episode one, but there was always something nagging me about the show. It’s not that I didn’t find it routinely excellent – I did. It’s more that it always seemed just a little short of greatness.
Why? I think it’s a couple of things. First, the concept is somewhat derivative of Breaking Bad – seemingly respectable family man goes full on into a life of crime with drug cartels and side dealers while trying to keep his domestic unit together. I’ve always been somewhat dismissive of this criticism, but if I’m being honest, there is something to it – even if the rural location and the specifics of the family dynamic are not exactly the same.
The second issue revolves around pacing. I’ve never found a single episode of Ozark boring, but there were times when certain story-lines felt repetitive (particularly Darlene and Jacob in season two).
That being said, there has been so much to like about Ozark. Julia Garner as Ruth has been giving one of the most original performances on television. It was great to see the Emmys reward her. Jason Bateman is one of our more undervalued actors. Take note of how you can always see him thinking his way through a situation. He’s alive and active in every scene whether he’s speaking a line or strategizing a way through the latest impossible predicament he’s in. It also must be said that no one does dismissive as well as Bateman. Any time someone engages him with a problem that does not make his list of priorities (poor Sam whining over laundering money at the casino through intentional gambling losses), he evokes this barely concealed derision that all but screams, “Don’t you people know what I’m dealing with here?!”
And then there’s the way season two closed with Laura Linney going full Lady Macbeth. Linney has long been one of our finest actors, and in the back half of season two, her long held contempt for Marty making her life a supporting act comes forward as she decides that it is her turn to take the lead. As they take the family photo in front of their riverboat casino during the final episode of the second season, the look on Bateman’s face is in direct contrast to Linney’s. He’s been had… by his own wife. He wanted out, and his wife engineered a way to go further in. The smile on her face in that photo is real. “It’s my turn,” Wendy Byrde seems to be saying.
Which is where we begin season three, with a power struggle between Marty and Wendy that is both covert (as they both amusingly bribe their marital counselor) and overt (the arguments between the two this season are even more blistering). Wendy’s desire to steer the family into a deeper relationship with cartel leader Omar Navarro by opening a second casino is ambitious and Machiavellian. It also comes with great consequences.
In season three, there is damage everywhere. The Byrdes nearly split up, Darlene eventually steals away Ruth, and Wendy finds that playing games with a cartel lawyer named Helen (an extraordinary Janet McTeer) may just put her out of her depth.
Of course, nothing is as heartbreaking in season three as the fate of Wendy’s bipolar brother, Ben. Inserting an unstable family member into the mix could have been disastrous, and when Ben shows up on Marty and Wendy’s doorstep with his Carolina twang, I tried not to flinch. I thought they might make Ben too colorful, or, at minimum, he’d be a distraction.
Instead, Ben’s story becomes – in stealth-like fashion – the heart of the season. As he stops taking his meds to allow himself to get closer to Ruth, Ben starts to unravel to the point where he becomes a liability to the Byrdes’ criminal operation. Thus begins a road trip with Wendy and Ben for the purpose of getting this wayward brother out of town and out of their hair. Only it becomes clear that Ben won’t stop making desperate and awful decisions – relocation isn’t a solution. Which leaves Wendy with the horrendous decision of having to choose Ben or her family (who are already compromised by Ben’s behavior).
And so, Wendy makes a call. The kind you can’t take back. The kind all the grocery store vodka in the world can’t wash away.
The aftermath of her decision is even more harrowing. Her son, Jacob, who idolizes Ben comes to find out Wendy is the one who dropped a dime on her own brother. Ruth confronts Wendy about the death of Ben, and Wendy not only drops any pretense or cover up but she also blames Ruth for not looking out for Ben’s mental state.
All of this is going on while Helen is trying to backdoor the Byrdes, scoop up their casinos, and have Navarro shuffle the Byrdes off this mortal coil.
Does that sound like a lot of season? It sure the hell is. And I haven’t even touched on Marty’s efforts to try and turn an FBI agent or Darlene playing house with Wyatt, or Darlene relieving a Kansas City mobster of his frick and frack with a shotgun.
The amazing thing about Ozark season three is it all works. The season roars by and nearly every episode has multiple moments of unbearable tension. Ozark started out as a crime story melodrama that may have felt a little too familiar to reach a level of true greatness. But what you realize in the final scene of season three as Wendy and Marty share a blood and brain-stained embrace with the most dangerous person in their lives (which is really saying something), is that the key to the shows elevation was to simply turn everything up to 11.
I guess now we wait another year to see if the Ozark dial goes to 12. What I do know in this moment is that Ozark is most certainly one of the best shows on television, and if it can sustain this level of quality, that distinction won’t just be a current one, but an all-time one.