Now that’s how you make a thriller.
Anyone burned by the slow stroll to nowhere of recent Netflix dramas had to be pleased with the pins-and-needles tension — and shocking payoffs — of “Ozark,” Jason Bateman’s new original series for the streaming giant. From the first episode to the ending, Season 1 was filled with shocking twists and intense familial strife.
Below, we’ll break down why the near-constant darkness always felt grounded in reality, using big developments in the plot and key scenes throughout the series to illustrate how a horror story still felt relatable — and all the more terrifying for it.
Premiere – “Sugarwood”
The importance of the premiere episode was its power. While that may go without saying, given the first hour’s overall impact, it’s important to remember how many dramas start slow. “Ozark” digs right in, and does so with great purpose: to alert you to what kind of show you’re watching and prepare you for what’s to come.
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Meet Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman): a financial adviser working for a small firm in Chicago with his partner, Bruce (Josh Randall). But making smart monetary moves isn’t just Marty’s business. It’s his life. We learn as much by the penny-pinching tendencies on display when he denies another $10 donation to his daughter’s friend — for charity. A shot that starts with his entire family gathered around the dinner table ends with Marty munching on chips alone.
Clearly, his job is affecting his life.
Also clear: Marty isn’t working above board. The premiere’s opening scene shows him hiding a mountain of cash in a shed out in the middle of nowhere. But the best part of that scene is that we catch up to it midway through Episode 2. Again, if this show wanted to be “Breaking Bad,” it would have made us wait to find out what that scene really meant. It would have used the scene to foreshadow something way down the line that we wouldn’t understand for hours. But “Ozark” is aware it hasn’t earned that yet: It’s about the now. The premiere is filled with big moments that matter in that very moment.
And it all starts with the massacre of Marty’s business partners. Del (Esai Morales) suspects his money launderers are skimming money in the process, which we later find out is a bluff. He didn’t know. He just presumed, and Bruce fell for it. What’s important to note about all these deaths goes beyond simple set-up. Yes, Marty’s last-second idea saves his hide and sets in motion the entire series — moving the family to Missouri, laundering more money than he ever imagined possible — but it also sets a standard: The worst can happen, and Del won’t hesitate to pull the trigger.
This lesson is reinforced again when Wendy (Laura Linney) tries to flee with her fling, Gary (a.k.a. “Sugarwood” — thanks for the episode title, P.I.). Just as you expect a conflict between an angry Marty and his wife’s lover, down drops Gary’s body with a sickening thwack, right in the middle of the street. Del found out what Wendy was trying to do and dealt with it before Marty had a chance. How he handles Gary — and Wendy — is memorable for all parties: exactly the response Del wants.
Marty is horrified, but confused. He eventually makes his way back to his car, and the about-face done by Bateman in this scene is just one of many highlights from his performance. This isn’t exactly a victory for Marty, but it’s far from a defeat.
While shocking moments like these establish a constant tension throughout the series — this is horror, plain and simple — it’s Marty’s unbearable emotional arc that keeps us in his reality. From watching his wife’s sex tape, again and again, torturing himself in silence, to begging for his life at gunpoint after watching his friend and business partner die, to choosing whether or not his philandering wife — who just betrayed him, again, by trying to steal his money — will live or die, Marty’s ability to compartmentalize is astounding. What keeps it from being unbelievable, aside from Bateman, is his breakdown.
To end the episode, Marty pulls the van over, walks into the woods, and weeps. The consequences he’s been forced to face are too much for him, and the audience needs to see that. Without knowing what this means to him, something further emphasized in Episode 2 when Marty seriously contemplates suicide, viewers may have lost the thread in this onslaught of bad news. This is a family story. This is a romance. This is unparalleled perseverance; brought on as a result of a bad decision, yes, but motivated by the purest of intentions.
Marty loves his family. He lost them. And he’s not going to lose them again.
Continue reading for a breakdown of Episodes 2 – 9 and the (nearly) feature-length finale.