*SPOILERS TO FOLLOW*
It didn’t take long to see anticipation for the series’ finale turn to divisiveness. In our modern age of social media, when a beloved show doesn’t give the audience the ending it wants (The Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones), the word gets out fast.
And so it is for Netflix’s much beloved Ozark as well. As the camera cut to black and a single gunshot is heard, I could feel it in my bones… some people are not going to like this. To which I can say: I understand, but wholly disagree with, any sentiment that finds the closing moments of Ozark to be, well, wrong.
For the many viewers who found the ending dissatisfying, I think much of the consternation falls at the feet of the outcome for Ruth (Julia Garner, in a performance remarkable right up to the bitter end). I’m sure most fans wanted Ruth to escape her hillbilly crime family beginnings and ride straight(-ish) off into the sunset—running the Missouri Belle, shooting barbed wired bon mots from her foul mouth, and otherwise generally being a badass boss.
But that was not to be. And you know what? It makes sense. Throughout the show, one of the key themes has been that anyone who gets close to the Byrdes either ends up dead or ruined—even poor Sam, who does get out, but is too stupid to know how much he’s lost, let alone who is to blame for it.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a henchman for the cartel, a lawyer for the cartel, or head of the cartel—if you associate with the Byrds, you will end up with a bullet inside of you. As we see in the case of Wendy’s wayward brother Ben, you can even be a beloved family member and still get burned by the Byrds. If you are on the outside of the immediate nuclear family of Marty, Wendy, Charlotte, and Jonah—well, a bullet is likely to find you, too. (Ozark’s choice to show, in full view, how Ben’s life came to a close effectively doubles down on that heartache.)
What is fascinating about this final stretch of episodes, just made available on Netflix on 4/29, is how Marty ends up taking a measure of responsibility for all that he (and Wendy, of course) have wrought when he must stand in for Navarro and preside over the cartel’s violence firsthand. Whether it’s through an incident of psychotic road rage, regret over his misguided killing of a cartel chief, or the decision to let Ruth meet her end at the gun of the new-minted cartel queenpin, Camila Elizondro, Marty finally gives us a glimpse of his soul (what there is of it) and the personal weight of his decisions.
Above all else, he has chosen Wendy, who, as played by the extraordinary Laura Linney, will go down as one of the great villains in television history. Many years ago, after recording a song and filming a video together, Moby was asked what Gwen Stefani smells like.
His answer? “Ambition.”
Wendy Byrde positively oozes the odor of cruel, desperate ambition. While you could see the hints early on, only during season three (when Wendy takes a solo trip to Chicago) did it become clear that something wicked this way was coming. She sneaks into their old family home and leaves the house in such a not-so-subtly-disturbing state that there’s no way the new occupants didn’t change the locks and hire security after their return. It’s clear that Wendy thinks of herself as being sidelined by Marty—him as the earner and her as the mother and wife—and when she got a chance to get up off the bench, she didn’t just want to be Lady Macbeth whispering in her king’s ear. She wanted the crown for herself.
The genius of Linney’s performance is that she is not sympathetic; Linney’s attitude seems to be that if you find her to be relatable at all, great, but that is on you. She never pandered to the audience, choosing rather to embrace the hate, but, more importantly, she made us understand why she is who she is. She was once a kingmaker who became a marginalized house wife. But now, fuck that. I serve no man. I shall be queen—damn the cost.
Unexpectedly, once Wendy loses her children to her rube father (the brilliantly cast Richard Thomas—“Goodnight John Boy!”) whom she despises, and commits herself (a stealth move, as it turns out) to the same institution at which her doomed brother briefly took up residence, she, for the first time in many an episode, steps back and makes Marty finish things largely on his own. Ever industrious, and far more committed to his lady than would ever make sense to those in their right mind (but let’s remember, Marty’s mind is not right), Marty pulls it off.
The Byrde family’s power is restored, their foundation makes them major power players in Midwestern politics, and a grand ball is held at the Belle. Marty even gets the satisfaction of thinking that Ruth, the person he most cares for—in his limited way—outside of his family will run the Belle and be his partner again.
But you can’t have it all, Marty Byrde. There was no way Camila wouldn’t one day find out who killed her son (in spectacular fashion, as Ruth pulls the trigger while Javi still has words in his mouth), especially with the comparatively weak-willed Clare being one of the keepers of the secret. In those last moments at the ball when, somewhat surprisingly, it is Wendy who tries to think of a way to save Ruth, it is in fact Marty—in line with the sort of skewed practicality he’s always operated with—who says no. We leave Ruth to the cartel.
It’s his only logical choice, and Marty makes it knowing exactly what it means (Bateman’s trademark underplaying is utterly devastating here). There are no machinations or fast-talking wordplay that can change the course of events. So, he does nothing—and Ruth pays the ultimate price.
And don’t get me wrong, that hurt. But to have expected something different, such as Wendy getting her comeuppance and Ruth skating free (which I suspect would have been a very popular ending for most), I think is to misunderstand the nature of the show at its core.
The Byrdes get away with it.
And only the Byrdes.
Everyone else is collateral damage—including a Chicago PI who decides he’s not for sale and, with no small amount of newly discovered integrity, faces down Marty and Wendy only to realize there are more Byrdes to deal with than the two in the bush.
Detective Sattem tells Wendy and Marty, “You don’t get to be the Kochs or the Kennedys […] the world doesn’t work like that.”
”Since when?” Wendy replies.
Cut to black. Gunshot. Finis.