You’ve already heard about Ozark.
In this time of social distancing and self-quarantines, you’ve seen interviews with celebrities who, when asked what they’re binge-watching during these trying times, invariably reply, “Well, of course Ozark.” Usually in the same breath as Tiger King, which has already had its fifteen minutes of fame, thank you very much.
I just watched Rachel Ray interview Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson on the at-home edition of her television show (which I prefer to the studio version). In addition to plugging his new book and network television series, he namedropped Ozark as well.
This has been a successful show for Netflix. The first season blew me away from the first episode. Season 2 was, perhaps, slightly less surprising because we were already primed to expect the bodies to hit the floor. And, the body count in Season 2 was a high one. In many ways, it seemed like we were clearing the board of extraneous story threads to achieve greater plot focus going into Season 3. That was the ultimate effect, at any rate.
Just in case you’ve never heard of Ozark, allow me to give you the thumbnail sketch. The series is about a Chicago family laundering money for the second-largest Mexican drug cartel in a Missouri vacation spot, the Lake of the Ozarks. Like Breaking Bad (another excellent series this one gets compared to a lot), the series plots the descent of its characters into ever-increasing danger and violence, a slippery slope largely of their own making as their actions to protect their family seem to ultimately only further complicate the plot.
For you lovers of story structure, you have to recognize the signs that this series has no intention of ending any time soon. I don’t even have to check to know that we’re getting a Season 4. At this point, it’s a foregone conclusion. With Ozark, we’ll probably get an announcement in a couple of years that we’re heading into a final season. That will be when the creative minds behind this series will guide the story into Act 3. Until then, they’re going to keep throwing rocks at the Byrdes. Whenever things seem to be going well for them, something is lurking around the corner to mess it all up. That’s what Act 2 is designed to do.
I personally get a lot of enjoyment from watching the Byrdes try to extricate themselves from one disaster after another. Maybe this is that schadenfreude thing everyone’s always going on about.
The leads on this show continue to be introverted, borderline autistic-savant accountant Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) and his politically savvy, sometimes unfaithful wife Wendy (Laura Linney). Although their problems with the drug cartel started with Marty and his late business partner, it’s fully a family problem now. Wendy is definitely an active player in the drama. The children are in the loop as well, but the series chooses—wisely I think—not to concentrate too much on the younger Byrdes this season.
There is an increasing tension between Marty and Wendy. To call the current state of their marriage rocky would be an understatement. If you’ve ever been in a relationship that hit a rough patch, the scenes where the marital strife comes to the fore will hit a few of your emotional buttons. They certainly did mine, even though I usually have little problem separating reality from fiction. Even as the show crossed the line into melodrama, I felt sympathy for the characters.
Tension is the correct word for it. From within the marriage, and from outside forces at the same time. Like a rubber band motor being wound. Eventually the band is going to break, or will suddenly cut loose, releasing all tension in one explosion of motion. Much of the season, the viewer is waiting for the resolution of the tension, in whatever form it takes. Which comes in the finale. Sort of.
The series is made even better by its ensemble cast. Julia Garner (now “Emmy-winner Julia Garner”) is perfect as Ruth Langmore. If she wasn’t so good in her role, I feel she would have been written out of the plot by the end of Season 2. She’s still a bit of a wild card, but feels like a part of the extended Byrde family most of the time.
It turns out that Wendy has a troubled brother named Ben Davis (Tom Pelphrey) who is bipolar and has a history of improperly acting out when he’s off his meds. One of his meds side effects impedes physical intimacy. When he inevitably becomes romantically involved with Ruth Langmore, guess what happens.
I liked the character of Ben. I also like the actor who portrays him this season. He was on that short-lived Marvel Netflix series Iron Fist. I liked him on that show, but thought he did a better job on Ozark. Of course, his affected North Carolina accent hurt my ears a little, but no one north of the Mason-Dixon Line probably noticed.
I was a little troubled by the way Ben’s mental illness was used as a plot device. From his first scene, it was easy to see where the character arc was going to lead. Marty and Wendy could see it as well. I know we do a lot of questionable things when it comes to family, but the Byrdes accepting Ben into their current situation, with death hanging over their heads like a perpetual Sword of Damocles, didn’t exactly seem like the same money-laundering power couple we ended Season 2 with. I’m not really complaining. The character was a good addition to help stir the pot a little. I’m on the fence about how I feel about the resolution of his own character arc this season. The skeptic in me says that anything we’re told that happened off-screen may not have happened. I guess we’ll wait and see.
Lawyer for the Cartel, Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer) is back again this season. Her dead-eyed shark stare is scarier to me than just about anything on this series. McTeer is also a veteran of the Netflix Marvel phenomenon (short-lived though it was). She played Jessica Jones’ superpowered mother. She was scary on that show as well. She is briefly humanized this season as her daughter comes to live with her for a while. But, that’s just misdirection. She’s still a lawyer.
All apologies to any lawyers reading this. Or members of drug cartels. That was a cheap shot.
Lest we forget, batshit crazy poppy farmer Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) is still out there. She has the late preacher’s baby. Plus, the new man in her life is Ruth’s brother Wyatt (Charlie Tahan). Ewww. . .
There’s also FBI oversight complications, and everyday money laundering issues. There’s problems with that Kansas City Mafia again. And issues with casino competition. Plus, we have to deal with how to get REO Speedwagon to play at the casino so that the dentists will hold their convention there. You know, the usual.
I’m not sure where the story is heading after the final two episodes. It seems to be making an even darker turn. At this point, it’s difficult to see the overarching story playing out as anything other than a tragedy.
What I do know is that this show is positively crying out for veteran character actors Margo Martindale and Walton Goggins. I know that Goggins’s silly unicorn series was renewed, but maybe they could work around his schedule. Or, how about this? An overly aggressive FBI agent played by Michael Chiklis or Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris.
Or I could let the people who’ve already proven that they know how to create a successful series continue to work their magic. I guess I’ll keep my Netflix subscription for another year.
Firewater’s Fighting-for-Your-Life-Makes-Every-Other-Thing-You-Ever-Did-Before-Seem-Extremely-Dull Report Card: A
Still great television.