Ever since its debut in 2017, Ozark has toiled in the shadows of prestige TV shows like the Bryan Cranston-led hit Breaking Bad, Justified, Narcos, The Americans. While not as strong as its counterparts, Ozark has still evolved into a uniquely wry thriller over three seasons. The show’s tapestry of characters and their illicit activities might not be wholly original, but it’s spun in exciting and foreboding ways.
Ozark’s appeal lies in the many riveting power struggles at its core, none more fraught or intimate than the one between Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney). The former is a slick, mild-mannered financial advisor who loves to talk his way out of problems only to land in a pile of even worse life-threatening situations. Wendy’s political background makes her more of an impulsive criminal mastermind. Their dueling approaches heighten the already massive stakes in season four, now that the Byrdes are deeply entrenched with cartel leader Omar Navarro (Felix Solis).
Despite their intense internal struggles, Marty and Wendy’s tug-of-war—from muttering curses to yelling matches to joining forces as needed—is the anchor for the show’s tumultuous nature. Bateman and Linney’s chemistry is raw and impressive as they navigate the fragility of their bond. Bateman’s masterful comedic flair offsets Marty’s deadpan delivery, their dark banter making a doomed relationship between recognizably horrible people both heartbreaking and entertaining.
Marty and Wendy have become the go-to people for Omar after he had his lawyer and liaison Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer) shot in the head. The Byrdes have barely cleaned Helen’s mushy remains from their hair before Omar dubs them “celebrities” and brings them in on a game-changing plan. He wants Marty and Wendy’s help in turning himself over to the authorities for his freedom. The duo uses his (extremely questionable) faith in them to their advantage to plot an escape from the Ozarks by arranging an exchange with hesitant FBI agent Maya Miller (Jessica Francis Dukes).
However, the handover is going to be far from smooth sailing. Omar’s persistent demands, the introduction of his recklessly eager nephew Javier (Alfonso Herrera), along with a slew of other challenges on the homefront threaten Marty and Wendy’s plans. The challenges they experience feel more personally crushing as they reckon with Wendy’s hand in the death of her brother, Ben (Tom Pelphrey). She copes with the fallout in irrational ways, Linney rising to the challenge of pushing Wendy into a darker hole by making more rash decisions.
Marty loses the support of his talented apprentice, Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner). Ruth’s evolution from rookie robber to sharp-witted businesswoman is Ozark’s most fascinating aspect, as she is easily the best-written character. The show is built around the central couple trying to keep their family intact amid horrifying circumstances, but the Byrdes’ tight-knit bond contrasts Ruth’s growing isolation. With hardly any notion of self-discovery, and fueled by self-preservation, Ruth has often sided with Marty in the past. She’s killed her uncle, suffered abuse from and let go of her father, and is estranged from her beloved cousin, Wyatt (Charlie Tahan).
Garner is gunning for a deserved hat-trick at the Emmys with her astounding turn in season four. The actor’s gut-wrenching performance captures Ruth’s despondency and desperation for companionship, especially now that she’s lost her lover, Ben. Knowing that Wendy is responsible for his death, she is forced to move on from her found family of sorts. Ruth takes her savvy knowledge to Wyatt and his girlfriend, Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery), who has restarted her heroin smuggling business in full force while raising baby Zeke.
This partnership is hilarious to witness because of the generational gap. Darlene quickly realizes she’s working with a set of brazen millennials who want to sell drugs to hippies. Ruth tap-dances around Darlene’s tendency to pull her rifle on whomever and whenever she wants to; much like Marty, she’s able to talk her way out of trouble. Ozark juggles several complex stories in the first act of its swan song, so there isn’t time to explore Marty and Ruth’s broken connection. Luckily by episode seven, “Sanctified,” it’s evident the show is hinging its end on their unexpected mentor-mentee bond, the strength of which will determine how the story concludes for the Byrdes.
Ruth wins 14-year-old Jonah Byrde (Skylar Gaertner) over to her side to help launder cash for her operation. It’s not difficult, considering he’s enraged at his mother’s role in Ben’s murder. Jonah’s irksome arc falls into “Annoying TV Teen” territory: Think Dana Brody in Homeland or Kim Bauer in 24. It bogs down an otherwise thrilling set of episodes, his rebellion causing Marty and Wendy to make atypically silly choices, and is the only low point of Ozark’s fourth season so far. On the plus side, Charlotte Byrde’s (Sofia Hublitz) emancipation days are behind her, and she’s fully on her parents’ team now.
Season four plays out like a clash of the titans between the Byrdes, the Navarros, the Snells, the Langmores, and the Kansas City mob, as each party struggles with their turf and business. Marty and Wendy venture into big pharma in anticipation of the future, and are impacted by the arrivals of Javier and private investigator Mel Sattam (Adam Rothenberg) in town.
All of these complicated storylines collide in explosive ways by the time “Sanctified” rolls around. The first half of the final season is packaged such that it sets up the show’s obviously ill-fated end—it’s hard to see how Marty and Wendy can have a happy ending. But the seven episodes also work well as a shorter season of the show. Ozark returns to prove its worth in the genre by remaining a riveting and satisfying crime drama to its bitter (almost) end.