Despite having long languished in its comparisons to Breaking Bad, “Ozark” has always been and remains one of the most electrifying shows on Netflix. The harrowing story of an in-too-deep financial advisor and his unassuming family being forced to launder Mexican cartel money in the boonies of Missouri, “Ozark” has, over its previous three seasons, cemented itself as a nail biting masterclass in tension. The awkwardly pragmatic Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), his ruthless wife Wendy (Laura Linney) and their foulmouthed trailer park protege Ruth (Julia Garner) are some of the most memorable and engaging protagonists of the last decade, their writing and acting deserving of a dragon’s hoard of awards. This is the part where I advise you, dear reader, to abandon this article and binge watch “Ozark” if you haven’t already. I’m sure you can squeeze more than thirty hours of heart-pounding drama into your vice tight schedules. It’s addictive enough to warrant it. Anywho, coming off of the carnage that bookended season three, the seven episode first part of season four dropped on Netflix on Jan. 21, with the second set to release sometime later this year. Withholding half of the series’ final act is a noxious, money-grubbing ploy, but fans soldiered through with a smile for the sake of the show. Riding into this final season on the back of “Ozark’s” gilded standard of writing and acting, it suffice it to say that my expectations were atmospherically high. And they were met, to the letter. In fact, my expectations were met so exactly that I came out of this latest season feeling woefully unsatisfied. “Ozark” is still as good a show as it always has been. Nothing has changed. And that’s the problem.
After years of being only a hair away from being executed by their employers, the Byrde family have finally weasled their way into being the valued confidants of the Navarro Drug Cartel. Now, the only thing standing between the Byrdes and an end to all of their deadly debts is one last mission: to cut a deal with the FBI so that their boss, infamous drug lord Omar Navarro can live free and rich in the United States. It’s an impossible task, but after three seasons of near death experiences, it might as well be just another Tuesday for Marty and Wendy Byrde. “Ozark” is a show that understands its own strengths. The writers are experts at crafting incredibly tense, high stakes, Catch-22 situations and having the characters finagle their way to survival by sheer luck and guile. The Byrde family has spent this entire show dancing on hot coals at the gunpoint of the Cartel, talking their way off the executioner’s block more times than I can remember and it is consistently nerve-exhausting. However, like a world-class meal served to you three times a day, seven days a week, this formula, no matter how riveting it is, has begun to lose its flavor.
This is the final season, and the Byrdes are facing the same impossible odds and deluge of wrenches in the gears that they were in season one. “Ozark” left us off with a fantastic set up; the Byrdes being given more power by the cartel, their long time ally Ruth abandoning them over her hatred for Wendy and a war looming between Navarro and the local redneck gang lead by the insane Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery). However, over the course of this season, the Byrdes are treated like the same disposable whipping boys they always are, Ruth swears no great revenge towards Marty or even Wendy and the Snells never go to blows with Navarro, Darlene remaining the same adversarial nuisance she’s always been. It’s disappointingly underwhelming. The show, seeming paralyzed when it comes sticking a toe outside the formula it’s mastered, adheres to a status quo that the story has long outgrown. In a sort of reverse pointillism, individual episodes shine in how engrossing they are, but when you look at the show as a whole, it dissolves into a litany of monotonous dots, endless problems and solutions that continue with minimal long term consequences most of the time.
A lack of dynamism has always been “Ozark’s” worst affliction. While the show’s plotlines are brilliant, they have always been played out at a geologic pace, characters spending a season to go from one step in their arc to the next. Take Jonah Byrde (Skylar Gaertner) in season four, Marty and Wendy’s teenage son. In the wake of his uncle’s tragic but necessary death, Jonah spends this season coping through anger towards his parents and a rebellious streak. And that’s all he is over the course of these seven episodes: mopey, impulsive and upset, never changing his view on the tragedy or coming to any new understanding by the last episode. Same goes for Marty Byrde himself, who, while the most entertaining character on the show, has remained the same guy having a barely restrained panic attack he’s always been. This lack of dynamic character work, changing attitudes, developing power levels, building motivations episode by episode, was always present but is most noticeable in this season. Final seasons have to turn up the heat; characters have to switch around, bodies have to be stacked higher, wits have to be further at their end, otherwise the audience doesn’t feel like they’ve been on any journey with the show. Season four adds some new spice into the pot in the form of new characters, but unlike previous additions to the cast, these recent additions feel rather rote and forgettable, consisting of Navarro’s ambitious and spoiled nephew and a PI who spends the season buzzing around the Byrdes like a fly trying to find its way out of a room.
Is the season bad? Of course not. It’s “Ozark.” The characters are still iconic, the episodes still induce white-knuckle stress and acting is still top shelf material. But all of this was true for the last three seasons as well. “Ozark” has always been a great show, but the fact that it refuses to be better than it’s been makes this latest season feel worse than it is.