Marriage is tough, especially when you’re running a money-laundering operation for a Mexican drug cartel, working with the Kansas City mob, and dealing with the FBI breathing down your neck—all while contending with a spouse who doesn’t see eye to eye with you about how to simultaneously accomplish your goals and keep everyone, including your kids, safe.
For its latest go-round, the series (created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams) complicates its usual criminal nastiness with persistent marital strife, beginning with Marty and Wendy. Having now chosen to stay put in Osage Beach, Missouri, to scrub money for cartel boss Omar Navarro (Felix Solis) via their new riverboat casino The Missouri Belle, the duo find themselves at odds over whether to lay low or to expand. Theirs is a philosophical and strategic disagreement, and it’s soon exacerbated by the arrival of pregnant federal agent Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes), who’s in town to audit the Byrdes’ gambling venture and is sure, albeit without proof, that they’re in deep with south-of-the-border villains.
Taking a backseat isn’t easy for either Marty or Wendy, both of whom think they know the best way to protect their clan. To Wendy, that means purchasing another casino and segueing into legitimate businesses—a move that will provide Navarro with a financial safety net in case his ongoing war with a rival cartel goes south, as well as raise the Byrdes’ own public profile to the point that executing them would be unwise. Acquiring said casino, however, requires convincing its husband-and-wife owners to sell, and given that this couple’s own union is marked by angry, resentful power struggles, that’s far from a simple task—particularly when Marty decides to surreptitiously thwart Wendy’s plans, much to the chagrin of his wife and their cartel attorney Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer), who’s now firmly ensconced in the Ozarks for the summer with her daughter Erin (Madison Thompson), a teen eager to get into trouble.
There’s plenty of that to be found in Ozark, which intertwines its various players in thorny circumstances that can only be rectified, ultimately, by murder. Per this season’s marital-warfare theme, Helen is in the midst of a nasty divorce from her husband (Douglas Dickerman), and desperate to keep Erin ignorant of her underworld profession. That becomes difficult the more Erin hangs out with the Byrde kids, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), who have long been in the know about their parents’ illicit enterprise and entanglements, and have left behind the innocent domestic life Wendy had craved for them.
Dysfunction abounds, be it in Wyatt’s (Charlie Tahan) decision to shack up with psychotic heroin bigwig Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery)—a May-December coupling that’s as gross as it is exploitative, at least on her part—Wendy’s desire to snatch baby Zeke away from Darlene, or Ruth’s (Julia Garner) feud with KC mafioso Frank Cosgrove’s (John Bedford Lloyd) disrespectful son Frank Jr. (Joseph Sikora). It’s enough to make even the most devoted family man or woman want to pick up and run, and making matters crazier still, Wendy’s brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey) unexpectedly appears on their doorstep—his bipolar condition in tow.
As usual, things quickly take a dark turn, but unlike in its past two seasons, Ozark doesn’t drench everything and everyone in gloom, instead casting more of its action in steely blue-gray daylight, the better to impart a sense of its characters being exposed at all times, and from all angles. There’s nowhere to hide, or to flee to, in this treacherous saga, and a collection of sterling directors—led by Bateman himself—convey that perilous situation through compositions that starkly separate and isolate characters in the frame. Few small-screen works so deftly reflect their subjects’ psychological and emotional conditions through purely aesthetic means, with Bateman and company’s visuals—especially in sequences set on the casino’s oblong gambling floor—expressing how Marty, Wendy and their cohorts are all players in a deadly game that’s fundamentally rigged in favor of whoever has the most money.
Amidst Marty weighing an offer to work with Maya (and the government), Wendy striking up a risky relationship with Navarro, and volatile Ben threatening to explode at any moment—and thus get his relatives killed—Ozark finds levity in Marty and Wendy’s trips to a shrink (Marylouise Burke) whom they both manipulate with bribes. Cash rules everything around the Byrdes, and yet attaining enough of it to guarantee safety entails foreseeing potential wild cards, and no amount of number-crunching and drone surveillance can quite do the trick. Driven by bleak, noirish fatalism, it’s a suspenseful portrait of the impossibility of achieving total control and stability, at home or at work, and the destructive chaos that ensues from any attempt to do so.
Bateman’s Marty is as calculating and single-minded as ever, and an early, unpleasant trip to Navarro’s Mexican compound only further amplifies his cunning focus. It’s Ozark’s women, however, who firmly command the spotlight. Conveying menace and authority with silent glares and superficially pleasant smiles, Linney is still the most compelling actress on TV, and her Wendy continues to develop in multifaceted ways, relishing her newfound power, and craving more, only to learn a painful lesson about the pitfalls of unchecked arrogance—and the price of holding others’ lives in her hands. She’s the show’s brightest star, and ably complemented by both McTeer and Garner, the former exhibiting shades of humanity beneath her terrifyingly ruthless exterior, and the latter feisty and formidable even as Ruth falls for Ben and strives to reconnect with cousin Wyatt, who’s seething over Ruth’s murder of his father.
Save for a few minor missteps concerning Wyatt’s foolishness and Ruth’s less-than-wholly-believable anger over her own dad’s assassination, Ozark once again handles its business with merciless efficiency. There’s beauty in that precision, and in the show’s despairing depiction of individuals caught in figurative quicksand, sinking the more they thrash about, trying to fight the inevitable. Then again, as the series’ conclusion suggests, perhaps doom isn’t unavoidable for the Byrdes—so long as they remember that the family that schemes together, stays together.