[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Ozark” Season 3, including the ending.]
Describing a movie or TV show as a parallel to our troubled times is already a cliché, but watching “Ozark” while bunkered down does crystalize the obsession around Netflix’s distressing drama. So, before digging into Season 3’s twists, toils, and tumultuous ending, it’s worth noting why the new episodes feel both distinct from and eerily similar to past seasons — besides that it’s simply better-made than Season 2. (If you want to skip right into what happens in Season 3, head to the first bolded section.)
At its core, “Ozark” is about two people who screwed up so badly there’s no coming back. The only solace they can find is temporary. Maybe it’s in the day-to-day grind, when they can distract themselves through work. Perhaps they only feel at ease when they’re lying — lying so convincingly they believe each other when they can’t believe themselves. Or maybe their only true peace comes during those fleeting moments when they’re able to confront the truth, which means focusing on one thing: saving their kids. From a broad social perspective, it’s easy to look at the pandemic in similar terms: America has screwed up pretty badly in handling the crisis, and history will be divided into before and after the COVID-19 outbreak. But right now, we’re still in the middle. We’re just trying to get through it, fiscally, emotionally, and for some, physically.
There is a future beyond the coronavirus, but there is no future for Marty and Wendy Byrde (Jason Bateman and Laura Linney). Deep in their core, they know that. So seeing them scramble to stave off the inevitable is a twisted kind of entertainment in general, but one that can be oddly cathartic for our current state. People are using entertainment not as a means of escapism, but as a way to lean into the pandemic; they’re streaming “Contagion” and reading Ling Ma’s “Severance” as a way to engage with their anxieties. “Ozark” can serve a similar function, whether it’s marveling at two doomed souls stubbornly fighting for their lives, or spotting now-familiar instincts play out under different circumstances.
The Byrdes are trapped. There’s nowhere to run, and whenever they’re really scared, they retreat further into their home. Sound familiar? It sure did during one Season 3 scene, in Episode 6, when Marty is setting up a bed in the living room. As he pulls off the couch cushions and spreads out the sheets, Wendy nervously watches. Her apprehension grows with each fluffed pillow, and she tries to reason with him to just come sleep in their bedroom. She hasn’t forgiven him, but she is scared for him. Why? “It’s a house made of windows,” Wendy finally says. Marty looks around, aware of his vulnerability to the outside world, and then picks up his bedding to go sleep in the loft.
In reality, our homes represent a certain degree of safety. They always do, but especially now, when social distancing is encouraged by government orders literally called “safer at home.” But in “Ozark,” there is no safe place. If the opposing cartel’s hired assassins wanted to kill Marty and Wendy Byrde, a couple of guards outside their home won’t stop them. They know that, and yet they refuse to make the dirty work easy on their enemies. So the dramatic push-and-pull comes from within their relationship — which fractures to greater extremes than ever in Season 3 — as well as from outside threats encroaching on the family. As couples try not to crack under each other’s constant presence, their anxieties fueled by personal foibles and everything going on outside their vacuum-sealed doors, “Ozark” should feel more relatable. We’re all trying to keep ourselves safe, our loved ones safe, and then, maybe, the world will get better, too.
Marty and Wendy, Battle Royale
That being said, by Season 3, Marty and Wendy’s squabbles are almost entirely motivated by outside pressure. Yes, the couple we met when “Ozark” began was on the rocks. Wendy was having an affair and wanted to leave Marty, while Marty wasn’t doing much to keep Wendy engaged in their marriage. But I had to chuckle when, during one of their faux therapy sessions, Dr. Sue Shelby (Marylouise Burke) asked Marty what it would look like if Wendy got her way, and he responded, “Well, it would look a lot like death — literal death.”
That’s just where the Byrdes are at this stage, and Season 3 brings them to a boiling point before dealing out two grave reminders why, like it or not, they’re in this together (Marty’s kidnapping and the death of Wendy’s brother, Ben). First, the hot water: Jumping ahead six months between the end of Season 2 and the start of Season 3 allows “Ozark” to entrench its central protagonists in two clear positions: Marty, with the FBI lurking around every corner, has stopped laundering money and is determined to keep playing it safe until he’s certain the operation is secure. Wendy, stuck in the office, is bored. These two attitudes are not far removed from where they started in Season 1, with Wendy restless at home and Marty obsessed with his work.
But now Wendy is willing to push back — not in secret, but directly against Marty. Assessing what’s happening with their cartel overlord (he’s in the midst of a costly war with another cartel), Wendy makes the strategic choice to embed themselves deeper within their organization. She wants to buy another casino and the hotels that come with it; when Marty sabotages that operation, Wendy not only keeps pushing on that front but also starts a nonprofit to put their money to “good” use. Marty, of course, is apoplectic. He’s so scared of becoming further attached to the cartel that he bugs his wife’s phone, pays off their couples counselor, and, as mentioned above, sabotages Wendy’s plans for expansion.
As opposed to last year’s exhausting, elongated discussions about getting a casino license, all of these choices are active and all of these choices are more or less understandable. Big moves happen fast, which help to keep the pace up, and showrunner Chris Mundy doesn’t make it easy on the audience to choose a side in the marriage wars. One minute you’re scared Wendy is pushing her family too far, too fast, and the next you’re begging Marty to do something, anything, instead of hiding.
Not only are these more compelling story arcs than Season 2, but they take advantage of the excellent actors leading “Ozark.” After carrying a lot of overly talky scenes last year, Linney shifts into another gear and tears through Season 3. Her early aimless office banter with Helen (Janet McTeer) sets the stage for what’s to come. It’s amusing in its banality when they complain about bad coffee or boring meetings, before teaming up to take over a casino, and then in later episodes, when she’s a distraught, barely intelligible heap of a human, Linney doesn’t keep hitting the same sad notes over and over — she builds layers within her grief.
The shot of her in the van, pulling over to the side of the road and breaking down, is etched in my mind because it’s distinct from every painful moment that preceded it. Linney knows how important it is for an actor to vary how they experience misery; to dial in on what’s specifically driving their emotions, bring that out, and leave the rest for another time. You could say she finally let it all out parked on the side of the road, after leaving her brother to be killed, but I bet she’s got even more in the tank, just in case she needs it. That’s just the kind of professional she is.
Bateman, meanwhile, has to operate on a narrower emotional register. Paranoia, anger, jealousy, fear — they’re all bottled up within Marty as he goes about his day to day. Even after he’s kidnapped (which we’ll talk more about shortly), Bateman keeps his numbers cruncher super-focused. After all, he’s keeping his cool for everyone else; no one can see how scared he is, and he can’t even let himself go there. It’s a humble choice for an actor and one that pays off huge the few times Marty lets loose. Hearing him call Wendy a “bitch” has immense power because it comes spewing out of Marty’s mouth. You could see him thinking that word every time she went behind his back to talk to the cartel boss or push her agenda forward. But when he said it, that line was as shocking to the audience as it was to Wendy.
The Cartel Gets a Face — and a Baby!
Let’s take a closer look at Marty’s kidnapping. A well-timed burst of excitement to end the third episode and weighty enough to carry all of Episode 4, Marty’s time in Mexico wasn’t nearly as gruesome or unnerving as it could’ve been — but there was also no way the lead character of “Ozark” was going to die one-third of the way into Season 3. What mattered is how it affected Marty, which was plenty. While he kept his true feelings suppressed upon return, getting up early to cook breakfast and playing video games in the garage, his commitment to turning an FBI agent made for a tense back-half of the season. (Shout-out to Jessica Frances Dukes as Special Agent Maya Miller, the best new character of Season 3, and the only one who doesn’t die!)
But there’s a downside as well. Felix Solis does a fine job conveying the menace and volatility within Omar Navarro, but “Ozark” should’ve known better than to put a face to its big bad. Until Season 3, Navarro was just a name, a figure, a myth. He could do anything and get to anyone. In that way, he was a monster in a horror movie, while Wendy and Marty were the victims trying to escape. And what’s the cardinal sin of a monster movie? Showing the monster. As soon as you expose what’s lurking in the shadows, it loses its mystery, and as soon as we see Navarro, he becomes a flesh-and-blood human being. (Even a bloody massacre during a baptism can’t make him as feared as he was.) Maybe the point was to make it seem like Marty and Wendy could outsmart him, outrun him, or even kill him, but they introduce that idea far too early in Season 3. (Just imagine if you didn’t see Navarro until he shoots Helen in the head! What a terrifying, monstrous introduction!)
Bye, Bye Helen, We Barely Knew Ye
Speaking of, Helen is worth her own bit of unpacking. While the ending of Season 3 may seem pretty wild — mainly because of the extremely gross brain matter showered over the Byrdes’ faces and hair — it’s both weirdly funny and illustrative of an ineffective pattern.
What did we come to know about Helen Pierce in Season 3? She’s got two kids and an ex-husband who’s fighting her for custody. Her daughter, Erin (Madison Thompson), comes with her to the Ozarks and causes trouble by a) flirting with some bad boys, and b) learning too much about what her mother really does for work. Helen, the cartel’s lawyer, has already established herself as an instrumental go-between for Navarro and the Byrdes, but she pushes even further this year. She flirts with becoming a true blue friend to Wendy. She helps her close the casino deal. She warns Wendy about how to talk to Navarro, even after she’s gone too far.
But that’s about as much as we know about Helen. There aren’t any scenes meant to give her interiority until much later in the season. On the one hand, that’s for the best: Helen, like Navarro, represents the scariest part of the Byrdes’ world, and getting to know her too much would tarnish her omnipresent aura of danger. On the other hand, she’s clearly being fleshed out just a little bit more than usual for a reason, and that reason isn’t clear until the final episode, when the audience learns she’s planning a takeover of the Byrde family business.
By then, it’s too late. We know Navarro isn’t going to kill the Byrdes and let Helen run their business. We may not have known he was going to shoot her in the head the second she walked off the plane, but we knew she was toast — and the same can be said about Ben, who’s played with balance and swagger by Tom Pelphrey, but also gets fleshed out only so they can kill him off in dramatic fashion. Ben’s arc works better than Helen’s (both of whom are shot in the end) because of how close he is to Wendy, and the focus is put on what she does to her brother rather than how the audiences feels for Ben, specifically; viewers are affected by Wendy’s impossible choice — protect her brother or protect the rest of her family — instead of just one more shocking death.
This pattern has been in place for three seasons, but it’s not sustainable. Just about every newbie to the Ozarks goes down in due time, while the veterans stand their ground. In Season 4, the writers should consider investing more in their core cast — even if that means killing them off. After all, they’ve proven there’s plenty to mine within Wendy and Marty. Why not tighten their circle even more? Eventually, the noose has to close completely.
“Ozark” Season 3 is streaming now on Netflix.
– I’m wavering back and forth on Episode 3’s “Time for Me to Fly” bookends. Opening any episode with a dream, especially a dream as explicit and obvious as Wendy shooting Marty in the street, is a bad idea, but closing on REO Speedwagon performing the same song while Wendy watches Marty get hauled away to his death is a rather effective reversal: What once was an anthem about Wendy’s personal empowerment has now become a frightening reality about getting exactly what you wished for.
– Similarly, I’m not sure if “Ozark” knows what to do with its once-best character. Ruth starts the season strong, working closely with Marty and allowing viewers to savor Julia Garner and Jason Bateman’s bristling back-and-forths. But tying her to Ben feels like a stretch, given how briefly they knew each other, and everything to do with Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) is a bit extraneous, as though he was just hanging around until Ruth got fed up with Marty and needed to take her talents elsewhere. I imagine her fights with Darlene (Lisa Emery) will be ferocious come Season 4, but this makes two straight years of Ruth operating more for others than concocting schemes herself.
– Also, did anyone else feel like there was a huge missed opportunity when Ben left the Snell estate? Once Darlene started harboring a man wanted by the cartel, I thought the finale was destined to see the old foes go to war once again. Instead, Ben just left, and the focus shifted back to Wendy — which worked fine, but I feel they could’ve kept Wendy’s fateful decision with the added tension of a shootout between the Mexican cartel and the Missouri locals.