“Fighting for your life makes every other thing you ever did before seem extremely dull.”
This line is spoken by Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) in the penultimate episode of Ozark’s third season, which hit Netflix on Friday. It’s a line that cuts to the core of what makes Wendy, her husband Marty (Jason Bateman), and the show around them tick. In its first season, Ozark plunged viewers into the world of the Byrdes and their Missouri money-laundering operation. From the moment a Mexican drug lord knelt Marty down and put a gun to his head in the pilot episode, we’ve been watching him talk and scheme his way out of certain death.
Subsequent episodes and seasons have seen Wendy take on an increasingly prominent role within the criminal enterprise that is keeping her and Marty and their two kids alive (for now). Ozark lost some momentum in its second season as its pace slowed, but the show is back with a vengeance now, doing what it does best: namely, putting the Byrdes at the center of a volatile situation where things keep spiraling further out of control. This season, the dark drama pops with bigger emotional fireworks, thanks in no small part to the arrival of Wendy’s bipolar brother, Ben (Tom Pelphrey), who adds an unexpectedly moving human element to a show where characters regularly display an inhuman lack of empathy. Ben is the Fredo Corleone in this equation, ready to break his sibling’s heart and that of the viewer.
If you’re all caught up with your weekend Ozark binge, then let’s dive into the Lake of the Ozarks with spoilers.
Casino Boat on the River Styx
In the age of antihero TV, Ozark originally started out as something of a white-collar Breaking Bad, built around a financial advisor instead of a chemistry teacher. Like Walter White’s meth business, Marty’s money-laundering operation was born out of desperation. As he began navigating his life of crime, he even picked up his own young, gender-swapped, Jessie Pinkman-like accomplice in the form of Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner in an Emmy-winning role). Likewise, the show was hardly unique in its approach to federal agents—with the dysfunctional dead Roy and his occasionally extraneous subplot calling to mind that of Michael Shannon’s character in Boardwalk Empire. Marty and Wendy’s nascent status as a Machiavellian power couple also had a precedent on Netflix in House of Cards.
Three seasons in, Ozark has managed to outstay these comparisons to other prestige dramas and establish its own identity as a show about two people achieving a twisted kind of selfhood by continuously fighting for their lives, just as Wendy says. The third season finds Marty and Wendy at cross purposes, with Wendy acting unilaterally and Marty deliberately undermining her plan to expand the business into a legitimate casino, even as their first riverboat casino undergoes F.B.I. scrutiny.
The old paddle wheeler they bought in season 2, now spruced up as “The Missouri Belle,” sits docked on a tributary of the Missouri River. Yet it might as well be the River Styx at this point, because the Byrdes seem bound for hell. (Maybe they can actually get the ‘70s prog-rock band Styx to play a show on the boat next season, like they did with fellow Illinois natives REO Speedwagon this season. After all, Styx is from Chicago, where the Byrdes lived until they fled to the Ozarks.)
The casino floor gives the show a new visual canvas for some scenes while acting as a literalization of Marty and Wendy’s high-stakes crime-and-parenting game. Since he bluffed his way out of a gunshot to the head back in Chi-town, Marty has essentially been gambling with his own life and those of his wife and children. What drives him, more than anything, is that he wants to win. It only takes him being kidnapped, beaten, and sleep-deprived by the head of a drug cartel, Omar Navarro (Felix Solis), for us to finally learn that about Marty this season.
Flashbacks during Marty’s captivity down in Mexico show us him as a kid, obsessing over an arcade game called Beast Slayer. The game, he soon realizes, is “totally fixed.” In the hospital where his father lay dying, young Marty tells his mother:
“I watched this guy, number one on the leaderboard … I mean, his gameplay is awesome … and the only way he could keep winning was to drop more quarters. Can you believe that? You can’t just get good enough and play through on one quarter. The only way you can win is if you got enough money.”
As an adult, Marty has found the ultimate arcade game, like the one he played as a kid, only there are no respawns, just one play-through, in this game because it’s real life. The first board of the game required him to launder eight million dollars, just to prove to his boss, the now-deceased Del, that he could. His reward for being successful on that board was a stay of execution … and another fifty million dollars to launder. The game goes on; Marty just keeps dropping more quarters, trying to survive.
The Imploding Nuclear Family
By now, Marty’s criminal endeavors on Ozark have long since become a family affair. In the season 3 finale, which continues the gambling motif with its title, “All In,” Marty and Wendy casually involve their daughter, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), in aspects of the business. At one point, there’s a two-shot of the parents sitting at a table, openly discussing how they will curry favor with Navarro and outwit cartel lawyer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer). Charlotte becomes a background blur between them until she chimes in with the idea to use drone footage of a fiery truck massacre (against members of the Kansas City mob) to put the F.B.I. on the scent of a rival cartel.
Meanwhile, the gun-toting Byrde son, Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), is busy barging into houses—when he’s not already busy setting up shell companies through offshore bank accounts, as we’ve seen him do previously on the series. Helen isn’t the first cartel operative that Jonah has threatened with a loaded rifle, either. There was also Garcia, the enforcer that his housemate and best friend, Buddy, ended up shooting through a window back in the season 1 finale.
As Marty and Wendy leave for Mexico to meet Navarro, Marty hands Charlotte the keys to Buddy’s mausoleum so she can take over the money-laundering rotation in their absence. They’re not exactly keeping it “all in the family”—more like putting the family “all in,” per the episode title. Unfortunately, having everyone all in seems destined to cause the implosion, or self-nuking, of their nuclear family. Keep in mind, Charlotte already sought to emancipate herself from her parents, and by the end of the season, Jonah is in a place where he has a clear picture of the fratricidal monster his mother is.
Laura Linney has gone Lady Macbeth before (see: Mystic River), but this season of Ozark has really let her and her character off the leash, to the point where Wendy herself is an emergent Macbeth or Michael Corleone figure. Over the last two seasons, Wendy has become more of a political power player, such that Marty almost takes a backseat to her now. Before Navarro kidnaps him, Marty is relegated to using spyware on Wendy’s phone so he can listen in on her calls with their boss.
Wendy is a fierce, capable woman, but her ambition and newfound confidence sometimes cloud her judgment. It probably wasn’t the best idea for her to call Navarro up after the horse farm incident and start upbraiding him with lines like, “We’re supposed to be partners!” and, “You’ve just undermined everything we’ve been working on!” She’s treating this drug cartel leader like she would a wayward political candidate. Her relationship with Helen — once an ally — gets complicated, too, by Helen’s daughter, Erin (Madison Thompson). Erin’s misadventures with Charlotte and Jonah land the three of them at the police station. “We may have dipped our toe in the friendship pool, but I’m not sure we’re going to swim in it,” Helen says to Wendy outside the station.
It’s ultimately Ben, however, who fractures Wendy and Helen’s relationship entirely when he shows up at Helen’s house and confronts her, telling Erin the truth about what her mother does. He’s in the middle of a manic episode, off his meds and angrier than ever, when this happens. Season 3 of Ozark opens with a throat-slitting, bomb-planting encounter that ignites a gang war; but the more bone-rattling explosions come from character-based freakouts and blowups. At the heart of these is Ben, the proverbial wild card whose combustible personality serves as both a plot catalyst and an affecting portrayal of mental illness, while outfitting Wendy with her very own Fredo Corleone as she makes her turn to the dark side.
An Unquiet Mind
When we first meet Ben, we don’t even know who he is. We just know that he’s a substitute teacher who doesn’t take kindly to cyberbullying in his classroom. So much so, that he labels his students “emotional terrorists,” rounds up all their phones, and feeds them into a woodchipper, before attacking an innocent stranger. Bearded and long-haired, virtually unrecognizable from his role on Iron Fist, actor Tom Pelphrey makes us really feel for Ben as a tragic character.
Pelphrey recently spoke with ET about the research that went into his role, some of it coming from the book An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison. Suffice it say, Pelphrey and Linney both deserve Emmys for their work this season. On the Wendy front, there’s also a big barnstorming fight that she and Marty have in a session with their marriage counselor, and there’s an absolutely gut-wrenching phone call that she makes to Marty later when she’s coming to terms with betraying her brother.
The penultimate episode serves as a dramatic showcase for Pelphrey, with his opening monologue in the backseat of a taxicab offering a poignant glimpse into the mind of a manic-depressive. Talking about the rare good days that he has, he says, “I remember what my mind was before the thing happened that ruined my mind.” Ben has such a sweet side to him, but he’s also dangerous, and his illness is ill-suited to cope with the craziness that Marty and Wendy, the ostensibly sane adults in the family, have wrought.
This, I think, is part of the reason why Ozark began to feel distant in its second season: because the big emotion of Marty and Wendy’s upended lives had given way to a more dehumanized status quo. Ben is a bundle of raw nerves that crashes their civilized, feel-nothing party, suffusing the show with anguish in a way I’d not thought possible. He recognizes the inherent absurdity of the lie they are living when he says to Marty, “Do you realize what you’re doing here? Do you know how far from normal every single thing you’re doing actually is?”
Now, Ben is dead. The lie has begun to unravel. Wendy’s brother puts a more personal face on the growing list of lives destroyed by the Byrdes. It’s probably an understatement to say that the characters in Ozark aren’t always the most sympathetic. That struck home with me the most somewhere around the point when Marty and Wendy sat down for dinner with Jacob and Darlene Snell in the second season. Jacob and Darlene had already murdered a pregnant woman — a pastor’s wife, no less — yet here the Byrds were, dining with these killers. That’s who they’ve become.
The Godparents, Part II
I started getting into Ozark just this year because of the Jason Bateman/Mark Menchaca connection with HBO’s The Outsider. Here outside the Stygian riverboat casino — on the other side of season 3 — it feels like the show is putting the Byrdes on a collision course with the same dark fate that has befallen so many other great TV and movie antiheroes. The show’s ever-destabilizing pressure-cooker plot and its ability to tighten the noose around its characters reminds me a little of Uncut Gems, the recent Adam Sandler film about the downward spiral of an adrenaline-junkie jeweler. That movie was quick and chaotic, more of a short-form burst, than Ozark is; and unlike Sandler’s character, Marty and Wendy aren’t gambling addicts, per se. What they are is two morally compromised people hooked on the life-or-death stakes of their own ongoing predicament as indentured servants of a drug cartel.
They made a deal with the devil (back in 2007 in the show’s timeline) when they jointly decided to get involved with Del and the bad people he represented. Now they themselves are the bad people. Ozark is a show full of criminals and lowlives, but at the center of it all is the aggressive foreign spore of the Byrdes, who swept into town and started stirring up trouble, disrupting the local ecosystem, causing deaths and misery, almost as soon as they arrived.
In an interview with EW, showrunner Chris Mundy likened the Byrdes to an “invasive species.” If you think about all the other people who have gotten sucked into Marty and Wendy’s orbit, only to see their lives destroyed (like their marriage counselor this season, or Mason Young and his wife last season, or Rachel Garrison or any of the others), it’s hard not to identify with their son, who now realizes that his parents sanctioned Ben’s death. Maybe Mason was right: maybe Marty is the devil, and Wendy is, too.
Ben’s murder is perhaps the Fredo moment when Wendy finally broke bad for good, moving beyond redemption to a place where she’s lost the last of her humanity. Call it The Godmother, Part II, or The Godparents, Part II, seeing as how Marty is right there with her. On the one hand, the fratricide can be seen as an act of self-preservation for Wendy and her kids. On the other hand, she carries out this unholy task — arranging her own brother’s death — as a show of loyalty to her boss, only to have said boss quickly downplay it as “what was required.” She can tell herself she did it to “protect” her family: that’s the rationale that the Michael Corleones and Walter Whites, mobsters and kingpins of the big and small screen, always use. In reality, it’s a decision that has not only alienated Jonah from her, but also Ruth, who might have been her sister-in-law in another life.
Ruth has long born the brunt of Marty’s dismissive, too-busy-for-you, buh-bye attitude, so on that level, it was gratifying to see her finally quit, call his wife a “bitch-wolf,” and storm out on them. Her retreat sent her straight into the clutches of Darlene (Lisa Emery), the homicidal hillbilly matriarch who went around playing mommy and slashing tires this season before hooking up with Wyatt (Charlie Tahan), a kid young enough to be her grandson.
Darlene and Wyatt make for quite the odd couple, and I’m not sure we needed to see a sex scene between them, but that’s just me talking. I’d be interested to know how invested other viewers were in their whole subplot, because to me, throwing them together almost just seemed like a weird way of keeping the benches warm for those two actors on the show. Their separate subplots had already somewhat peaked with Darlene’s poisoning of Jacob and the electrocution/hallucinatory return of Wyatt’s father. Condensing down the two subplots into one new Harold and Maude-type thing did, however, lay the groundwork for Ruth’s estrangement from the Byrdes. That looks to be an important setup for next season.
Ozark ratcheted up the tension this season, drawing out the suspense of the power struggle between Helen and the Byrdes until its final moments. The loser of the silent war, Helen, went from being waterboarded in the first episode to having her brains blown out all over Marty and Helen in the last episode. Against all odds, the last thing we saw was Navarro embracing Marty and Helen, giving them a blood-soaked hug. They’re with him, now—part of a new infernal family of cartel villains that is sure to keep racking up a body count as it comes into conflict with other local Missouri villains next season.
In the background, Ben’s ghost will haunt the show’s future. He’s out here with us in the audience, watching the havoc that the Byrdes are wreaking, and we can concur: no, indeed, this is not normal.