When “Ozark” started telling its story (back in July 2017), the rough question surrounding the Byrde family was, “How in God’s name are they still alive?” Fans very well may have asked themselves that question a dozen times over the first 10 episodes, as showrunner Chris Mundy’s propulsive crime thriller kept setting up impervious obstacles, and the ever-resourceful Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) kept finding creative ways around them. But in the following seasons, as their collective foot eased off the accelerator, Netflix’s Emmy-winning original series began positing subjective queries oft-heard in other antihero tales, like “Are the Byrdes beyond redemption?” and “What’s left of this marriage — of this family, these lives — to save?”
After dwelling on these quandaries for nearly five years — amid sporadic bursts of momentum (a shocking death here, a narrow escape there) — we’ve arrived: the final season. Playing out over a super-sized 14 episodes and split into two parts, “Ozark” is ending its elaborate money laundering empire in Season 4, and it’s boiled down its broad themes into one basic “will they or won’t they,” summed up nicely by Bateman himself: “Are they going to get away with it, or are they going to pay a bill?”
It’s no spoiler to say Season 4, Part 1 isn’t going to answer that question, just as it’s somewhat predictable this half-a-season consists largely of table-dressing. Once the general plan is outlined in the premiere, Marty and Wendy — not to mention their two kids, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) — go about executing their objectives. The stakes are higher, yes, but by now, the structure is familiar: The Byrdes are given a perilous, preposterous task, and they try to do it anyway. (Because they have to, but maybe, just maybe, do they also want to?) The added suspense that comes with any closing season is diminished by this being Part 1, but the pillars of “Ozark” are still standing — the acting (led by Linney’s bristling turn), the mechanics of each successful crime, the slick yet ugly underworld of a muddy lakeside Missouri — as Mundy & Co. work to build belief in each possible outcome. By the end of Part 1, it’s not so easy to say, “Well, the Byrdes are going to pay the bill because they deserve to,” or “Of course they’ll get away with it! They’re too good!” Even if, at this point, the main motivation to see “Ozark” through is to find out who survives, there’s more in jeopardy than just these four lives (and Ruth — ya gotta root for Ruth).
Courtesy of Netflix
For those who need a refresher (which is more than understandable, given “Ozark” hasn’t released a new episode since March 2020), Season 4 picks up following the brutal, sudden death of Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer). After “inviting” Marty, Wendy, and Helen to his home in Mexico, cartel leader Omar Navarro (Felix Solis) executed his attorney of 10 years, choosing to trust the Byrdes instead. (Helen said she wanted to take over the Byrdes’ businesses, presenting a “me or them” scenario to her boss… and he chose them.) Why? Well, he has one more big ask of the couple who’ve been able to do the impossible time and time again: He wants out. As revealed in the Season 4 trailer, the Byrdes’ main task of Part 1 is to arrange a Get Out of Jail Free card for the world’s most wanted drug kingpin. Helen may have been a good lawyer, but Omar needs a miracle worker — and he knows it.
Back in Missouri, Ruth (Julia Garner) has teamed up with her cousin, Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) and Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) to start selling opium again. After being shut down by the cartel once already (they don’t like the attention Darlene’s drug business may bring from authorities), this choice pits Ruth against her former boss — and she even recruits young Jonah to help her with the financial software. In what is already a tumultuous parent-child relationship (considering Jonah knows his mother was somehow involved in his Uncle Ben’s death), this “betrayal” creates a seemingly irreparable fissure. Maybe Wendy could patch things up if she wanted to, but let me tell you: She doesn’t.
Without getting into spoilers (look for that review this weekend), Linney remains a mesmerizing force. Whether it was Ben’s death or having Helen’s brains blown all over her face, Wendy’s “give a shit” level has reached rock-bottom depths in Season 4. Always ready to take decisive action, be it in building political capital by buying off key allies or exacting maternal life lessons with the same severity shown to her professional enemies, Wendy powers these seven episodes through sheer force of will. Seeing Linney unleashed is reason enough to plow through Part 1, but how her character justifies her position presents its own additional incentive.
Courtesy of Netflix
During one early sparring session with her morally superior son, Wendy spits out, “You need to grow up. This is America. People don’t care where your fortune came from.” Later, when trying to woo a would-be business partner who’s wary of associating with money launderers, Wendy says, “It’s the only way to make the bad mean something: Bury it. Bury it. Pile good on top of good.” Clearly, Wendy isn’t just talking to other people in these conversations. She’s justifying her own actions. But she’s also providing an extra layer for “Ozark’s” endgame. As the Byrdes expand from a typical upper-middle class family into a mega-wealthy political power couple, they’re becoming more than an outlier or an oddity; with their win-at-all-costs attitude, ever-deepening pockets, and lack of comeuppance for irrefutable wrongs, they represent the corruption rooted within the country itself.
One has to wonder if there’s enough truth in Wendy’s convictions to save her family; if her “go big or go home” attitude, paired with a loose moral compass, is just the thing that will get her out of trouble. This is America, and in America, powerful people with lots of powerful friends tend to make out OK. On the other hand, the Byrdes have been toying with folks — the Snells, the Navarros, etc. — who shoot first and worry about the clean up later. If Wendy keeps pissing people off, can she really expect her money, power, and privilege to insulate her from a bullet? And even if she does manage to survive, will she really be able to do enough good to bury the bad she’s already assembled? If she can save her life, can she also save her soul?
Eh, probably not. But there’s plenty of time to dwell on these and more long-lingering questions over the first seven episodes. Part 1 isn’t the end, so much as a chance to take stock in what’s kept us coming back to “Ozark” each season. Be it the thrills, the performances, or morbid curiosity, Mundy’s series is still searching for more meaning in its final hours. When Part 2 hits, we’ll finally hear how much “Ozark” has to say.
“Ozark” Season 4, Part 1 premieres Friday, January 21 on Netflix. Part 2 does not yet have a release date.