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‘Ozark’ Is at the Crossroads Ahead of Its Part 2 Finale

The first part of the crime drama’s final season doesn’t bring us to a cliffhanger, but rather a stalemate. What’s changed with the Byrdes?

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Ozark, now in its fourth and final season on Netflix, has thoroughly exhausted its humble crime family.

Four and a half years ago, the Byrdes departed the North Side of Chicago for the Lake of the Ozarks to expand a money laundering operation for a drug cartel. This was the bright idea of Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), a financial adviser who was in over his head. His late business partner Bruce (Josh Randall) had bilked the cartel for $8 million and gotten himself killed. Marty pitches the business in the Ozarks to compensate the cartel and save his family from retribution. As they work at gunpoint, Marty and Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) are raising a teen daughter, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), and son, Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), and nursing a toxic marriage that was bound for divorce even before Marty got his whole family involved in a deadly criminal enterprise. Marty and Wendy have great crackling passion for each other, but rather than love, the passion happens to be contempt.

Despite this, the Byrdes take to money laundering in the wilderness with relentless ingenuity and a rejuvenating fervor. They’re at once in and out of their element. They’re city slickers—Marty, in particular, has an irrepressible snobbery about him—brokering war and peace among treacherous factions in the boondocks. We might call the Byrdes dysfunctional if not for their objective success. We might root for their safe return to Chicago if the North Side weren’t so gray and miserable for them in the pilot compared to the catharsis they’ve achieved in Missouri. So we wonder whether this disastrous arrangement will, despite the duress and occasional murder, somehow turn out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to the Byrdes. Why escape back to desk work and divorce court? What if this is the escape?

In the final season—which has been split into two parts, the second of which will be released later this year—Marty and Wendy take on an even more complicated assignment: laundering the cartel boss’s reputation. Omar Navarro (Felix Solis) wants to cut a deal with the FBI that will allow him to travel at will between the U.S. and Mexico in exchange for some intelligence for the FBI and, as gratitude for services rendered, emancipation for the Byrdes. In the season premiere, we meet Omar’s nephew, Javi Elizonndro (Alfonso Herrera), a seething University of Chicago hotshot who clearly intends to depose his uncle sooner or later. In fact, Omar confides in Marty and conspires with him to thwart Javi. This subterfuge goes about as well as you’d expect; Marty and Omar aren’t ending the series on an easy handshake. By the midpoint of the season, both men are breaking toward the exit from the family business only to find there may well be no way out. Meanwhile, Wendy works to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through a nonprofit that is launching a network of drug rehab centers in the Midwest, and her knack for fundraising suggests a dark and strange return to her old career in politics.

Netflix’s decision to split Ozark’s final season into two parts of seven episodes each is no less annoying or counterproductive than the use of the same strategy with Season 1 of Lupin. The first section of Ozark doesn’t bring us to a cliffhanger, but rather a stalemate: The negotiations among Omar, the Byrdes, and the FBI collapse, and so Javi seems destined to run the cartel regardless of his uncle’s fate. The Byrdes haven’t even begun to outsmart Javi, and so the final episodes of the series risk the characters going out on a whimper rather than a bang.

In its first couple of seasons, Ozark was a wild ride. It wasn’t necessarily Breaking Bad, but that was its low-key strength—its trashiness, its shrugging off of the more literary obligations of prestige TV. Ozark was a sweaty white-collar crime drama with a bad temper and a certain zeal in living out a midlife crisis to its sad, absurd conclusions. Four seasons deep, Ozark has become a much more regimental drama. Marty and Wendy work through each new complication in their great escape from Missouri—a stubborn boss, a rogue lieutenant, a teen rebellion, a dead sheriff, a relentless PI—in standardized triage at the dinner table.

The Byrdes have hardened. In their downfall toward an unhappy finale, this family isn’t tragic but simply exhausted. These people have humored too many dark promises of “a new life” to take much joy or optimism in a move back to Chicago. So far that’s the trouble with Ozark in its final season: The wild ride ended long ago, and now we’re coasting toward a resolution with more resignation than excitement.

But that’s assuming Ozark doesn’t recover its bravado in its last several episodes. There’s still time to break the glass and send the Byrdes back off the rails.

A previous version of this piece misstated a link between Marty and Javi. Omar confides in Marty and conspires to thwart Javi; Javi does not confide in Marty.