Opinion

Ozark finally acknowledges its victims in its brilliant final season

Not since 'The Americans' has a series grappled this seriously with the lives ruined by its antiheroes

"Just how bad are these people?" asks a confidante of Ozark's plucky private investigator Mel Sattem (Adam Rothenberg) in reference to the married, middle-aged, accidental crime bosses Marty and Wendy Byrde.

"I don't know," Mel replies. "Scale of one to 10, 10 being pure evil, uh … nine, nine-and-a-half."

He's not wrong. Not since The Americans has a series grappled this seriously with the ruined lives, psychological terror, and amorality of its antiheroes. In doing so, the fourth and final season of Ozark creates a carefully layered and genuinely deft meditation on the recursive nature of organized crime, the enduring wounds of family trauma, and the myriad ways that money and power protect the wealthy from accountability — all of which should elevate the show into the discussion of the best television of this era.

After Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) relocates his family to Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks in the first season in order to avoid execution at the hands of a ripped-off Mexican cartel boss, the series falls into a kind of doom loop, where every time the family seems on the verge of getting out — either by completing their laundering quest or surrendering to the FBI or more recently, by setting up a Koch-like political kingmaking operation — something goes disastrously wrong.

The final seven episodes of the show, released on Netflix today, shift the focus to Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), one of the Byrde's Missouri-based collaborators, whose hapless clan of small-time crooks have all ended up dead after getting mixed up in the Byrdes' schemes. The first of these new episodes, "The Cousin of Death," is a standout as Ruth contemplates a spectacular and self-destructive act of revenge against the new cartel boss, Javi Elizondro (Alfonso Herrera), who casually killed her cousin Wyatt (Charlie Tahan). That her scheme will torch the Byrdes' latest efforts to make good with the cartel and move into (mostly) above-the-board business is almost a bonus, a catharsis after years of doing their bidding.

The fourth season introduction of the opioid epidemic, in the form of a thinly-veiled Purdue Pharma operation called Shaw Medical, rectifies one of the earlier seasons' glaring problems. The first time I watched Ozark in 2017, at the height of Trump-era diner-safari journalism, I thought: People who live in the Ozarks are going to hate this. The region is falsely depicted as gritty and run-down, hilariously fake southern accents abound, and the two largest groups of locals — the Langmores and the Snells — are trashier than a monster truck rally afterparty. As much as I enjoyed it, it also really did seem to embody elite contempt for certain parts of the country.

That's why the final season's dramatic shift from the Byrdes and their endless quest for power and safety (two goals frequently working at cross-purposes) to the Langmores' and other people whose lives have been wrecked by Marty, Wendy, and their coterie of wealthy backers, is so welcome. The writers even haul back some season one characters as a reminder of the ruins the Byrdes have left in their wake. Their efforts to finally make good on their money laundering promises to the Navarro cartel still dominate the show's running time, but it finally becomes clear who the real protagonists are. Hint: It's not Wendy (a sublime Laura Linney), whose monstrous behavior spirals out of control, nor is it Marty, whose crisis of conscience and escalating disagreements with Wendy mirror the arc of Philip from The Americans. It's not even Ruth, who, like everyone on the show, has passed up a dozen opportunities to take the scratch and dash, drawn back into the Byrdes' flytrap again and again.

No, the protagonist is the Ozarks. It is every community in America devastated by the greed and selfishness of others. In the bleak moral universe of the show, the powerless are ground up into a paste by grifters sporting the patina of legitimacy that only bottomless cash, connections, and unenlightened self-interest can provide. The end-users of opiates and heroin are as disposable as a needle to the Byrdes, the Navarros and their henchmen, the pharma executives in their palatial skyscrapers, and probably even to most of Ozark's viewers. The feds ostensibly hunting down the cartels and the Byrdes seem to care more about careers and optics than they do about the victims of the drug trade. One sociopath replaces another, be it in the cartels or in the pharmaceutical industry or in the casino business.

How often, before this season, did you even think about what all of this mayhem was about? The particular brilliance of Ozark's send-off is its willingness to take some responsibility for glorifying mass murder and systematic theft, all with the ultimate purpose of getting people like the Langmores hooked on drugs. It's almost like the writers and showrunner Chris Mundy are acknowledging that they are part of the problem — and so, as the viewer, are you.

Still, you're probably wondering who dies, right? Ozark is a show with a body count not for the faint of heart, and its gleeful willingness to knock off main characters, often in deliciously shocking fashion, is part of its appeal. I'm not allowed to tell you exactly who, but yes, some people get got. Some of them deserve it and some of them don't. The lengthy final episode features several fakeouts and premature denouements, at least one of which is too cute by half. The conclusion is likely to leave some viewers dissatisfied even as it faithfully ties together the program's themes and ethos.

"Money is not peace of mind," Marty says in the series-opening monologue to potential clients. To him and all of the other monsters of drugs and finance, it is "the measure of a man's choices," and rarely has the oblivion wrought by such a philosophy been as painfully riveting to watch.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the actor who plays Marty Byrde. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.

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