“Someone is going to die—and it could be anyone.”
If anyone had said this as Ozark, Netflix’s hit family crime drama, entered its end run, it would seem ominous—the fact that it comes from the Byrde’s youngest son makes it downright chills-inducing. And while death might seem like a given on a show in which five crucial characters were killed off in the previous eight episodes, hardly anything has ever been obvious when it comes to the rise of this dark, addictive show, which went from being critically dubbed as a Breaking Bad imitator to an Emmy favorite and one of Netflix’s foundational series. Now, as the streamer deals with questions about its future, the Byrdes are saying farewell on April 29 with the release of the second half of Ozark’s fourth and final season.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be working for a while now, and I know that these situations don’t come along very often,” says Laura Linney, the heralded actress behind the ever-cunning Byrde matriarch Wendy. ”The culture of television can be a little strange, and if you really want to tell a story, it doesn’t always necessarily accommodate that. And we all realized the potential within filming the first few episodes. I can remember being on set, looking around and thinking, ‘Oh boy, I think this could be pretty good.”
Since its premiere in the summer of 2017, Ozark has proved that it’s not your traditional TV series, and the Byrdes aren’t your traditional TV family. Sure, Wendy, Marty (Jason Bateman), Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), and Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) sit around the dinner table, but those nighttime conversations center less on report cards and more on drug trafficking and murder coverups. “If there were a show about me being a parent, it’d be pretty boring,” says Bateman, who also serves as a director and executive producer for the show. “I hope I make decisions that are somewhat predictable and responsible, whereas Marty and Wendy have some excitingly crooked ideas about what is right and what is wrong.”
That’s putting it lightly. The criminal life was initially reserved for Marty, a seemingly buttoned-up, risk-averse Chicago financial adviser who secretly cleaned money for Mexico’s second-largest drug cartel. But after his partner steals $8 million from their bosses and Marty’s life is threatened, he panickedly proposes an idea that even he didn’t believe would work: He’ll move to the Ozarks, where he can wash $500 million over the next five years. A family enterprise officially was born. Since that relocation, the Byrdes have stolen, killed, purchased a strip club and a funeral home, and—stick with us on this one—attempted to launder through a church only for the pastor to kidnap Wendy, which forces them to murder him in self-defense, foster his newborn baby, and eventually trade the child to a violent psychopath for the right to build a casino. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“What I loved about the setup of the whole series is that you had this family living this conventional life in Chicago, and what you realize is that they don’t know themselves very well and they don’t know each other very well,” shares Linney. “Over the course of the series, they get to know each other really well, and they get to know themselves really well … you see what happens to a relationship when there’s pressure, whether it’s financial pressure, societal pressure, or, in their case, just the pressure to, literally, physically survive.”
At this point, the Byrdes hope that the family that launders together, stays out of jail together, but with threats approaching from all directions, there’s still time for things to go seriously bad in the remaining seven episodes. But as Ozark approaches the finish line, no matter the reaction to what Bateman calls an “opaque” conclusion, the show’s legacy as one of Netflix’s best is already cemented.
Already a comedy superstar on the big and small screen, Jason Bateman wasn’t explicitly looking to go from sitcom dad to unlikely antihero (more on that overused word to come) like Bryan Cranston and Michael Chiklis did on Breaking Bad and The Shield, respectively. Rather, he wanted to follow the paths of filmmakers like True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga and Big Little Lies’ Jean-Marc Vallée, who took on directing an entire season of a major project. Bateman’s search led to Ozark, a pitch hailing from The Accountant screenwriter Bill Dubuque and producer Mark Williams. “It was the challenge of taking on what would basically be a 600-page movie,” says Bateman, whose previous behind-the-camera work included an episode of Arrested Development and two small, well-reviewed films in 2013’s Bad Words and 2015’s The Family Fang. “I was deliberately wanting to take on something dramatic and dark as a director, because I was really interested in some of those techniques that I was observing and impressed with and trying to learn from people like David Fincher.”
Coincidentally, production company MRC developed the project and shopped it around town, and then Bateman and Ozark landed at Netflix, which Fincher helped put on the prestige TV map with House of Cards. Bateman and Co. turned to another Netflix series about a family’s dark secrets and how far they’d go to keep them to find an experienced TV writer-producer to steer the day-to-day ship. “I said no to doing it a couple different times,” admits showrunner Chris Mundy, who, at the time, was already committed to finishing Kyle Chandler’s Bloodline. But when the start date for Ozark repeatedly got pushed back and Bloodline wrapped its three-season run, Mundy was suddenly available to act as showrunner. “Bill wrote a great pilot, and because none of us had written it, we could all own it together. And so, the jumping-off point was, ‘OK, here’s this thing, what can we do with this?’”
Bateman’s goal to direct all of Season 1’s 10 episodes proved to be too ambitious due to time and budget, so he’d settle for the first and last two. While he says he’s now even more eager to eventually have that “full immersion” experience, his role as executive producer supplied enough daunting challenges to keep him busy, starting with winning over the only person he had in mind to be his on-screen partner in crime. “We met in New York,” recalls Linney, already a three-time Oscar nominee and four-time Emmy winner. “I just remember sitting there with him and getting the sense of like, ‘Oh, this is something I should do.’ I didn’t even really know why I thought that, it just seemed interesting.”
This era of TV has been littered with series centered on white male antiheroes doing whatever they want, when they want, while the characters’ wives are hated for not cheering him and his exploits on. Anna Gunn won three Emmys as Skyler White on Breaking Bad, but most fans loathed how Skyler disapproved of her cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher husband transforming into New Mexico’s premier meth manufacturer. “It was fairly early on that a guy stood up and said, ‘Why is your character such a bitch? I mean, Walt is working and he’s doing this for his family,’” Gunn recalled speaking to EW in 2018. “He was so clearly firmly with Walt, and thought Skyler was just this awful, nagging person. That was one of the first moments where it came right to me, and it was shocking.”
The Ozark team made it a priority to force the audience away from this kind of thinking—and to give Linney a role worthy of her time and talents. Mundy says that from the jump, they decided to never include scenes that “have to be about things that other people didn’t know,” hence why Wendy’s knowledge of Marty’s true work predated the events of the series, making her fully complicit in his activity. “You’re really being foolish if you don’t give Laura Linney as much work as possible inside of any show she’s a part of,” Bateman says. “To just delegate her to some cliché, traditional wife role would simply be leaving one arm tied behind her back and not taking advantage of everything she can bring to a project.” And Linney brought it, going to town on a character that breaks so bad that Wendy frequently became the scariest thing on Ozark. “She’s an absolutely terrible parent, she’s a mess, and she has serious, serious issues—but I would never want to change it,” Linney says. “It’s just who she is.”
Rounding out the core family were 17-year-old Hublitz (a former contestant on MasterChef Junior) as rebellious teen Charlotte and 13-year-old Gaertner (who played the young Matt Murdock on Netflix’s Daredevil) as the gifted introvert Jonah. “I had no idea who Jason Bateman was,” Gaertner says, reflecting on his audition. But that changed very soon. Production began in the summer of 2016 in Atlanta, which would serve as the primary filming location (the ending of the pilot is one of the few sequences shot in the actual Ozarks). Even with Gaertner’s lack of Teen Wolf Too knowledge, the Byrde chemistry was instant. “The majority of the scenes that the main family nucleus have together are all dinner scenes, which are usually long and difficult to shoot, with maintaining continuity for food and lighting, and setups on four different actors,” shares Hublitz, who also tried out for the role of Marty’s expletive-loving criminal protégé Ruth Langmore, which went to future breakout star Julia Garner. “One of the first scenes we ever shot together was that scene as a family in the pilot where we’re eating burritos. We were just joking around, getting to know each other, and that’s how we all bonded.”
But Netflix still needed to be convinced—and the bar was high. A few years into its original programming push, the streamer had found early success with Emmy winners House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, fan favorites The Crown and Stranger Things, and hyped-up Marvel series. Mundy points to the fourth episode, “Tonight We Improvise”—which opens with Marty explaining money laundering and closes with the reveal that the person he’s talking to is Jonah—as the thing that secured Netflix’s confidence early on. “This was almost kind of like proof of concept,” Mundy explains. “Between the script and first cut, MRC and Netflix both could breathe a bit of a sigh of relief, like, ‘OK, at least they know what they’re doing.’ It didn’t mean that people were going to like it, but we had an internal plan.”
When Ozark premiered a year later, many did like it. Season 1 earned a respectable 70 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a number that drastically increased in subsequent seasons; the performances of Bateman, Linney, and Garner were also particularly lauded. Yet the prevailing narrative from critics was that the show didn’t meet the standard set by Breaking Bad, widely considered one of the greatest shows in TV history. On the surface, the constant comparisons make sense: an ordinary family man turning to a life of crime and working for a Mexican drug cartel. But Mundy believes putting the two up against each other was both unfair and too easy. “I would’ve hoped that people would wait and see what we were writing towards, emotionally, which was different from where they were, brilliantly, taking Walter White,” he continues. “I remember reading an early review that said, ‘Well, we all know where this is ending,’ and I’m just like, ‘Really?! Because we don’t, and we’re making it.’”
Part of the read on Ozark was that it was attempting to coast on the fumes of the antihero trend that was formed by The Sopranos, The Shield, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad—but it was a trend that’d also begun to feel rote by 2017. But Mundy thinks Ozark and Marty never belonged in that conversation. “I don’t think of Marty as an antihero,” he says. “He was somebody who was caught on a slippery slope and trying to get off of it and back to some kind of normalcy and family … we were naturally not drawn into that trap, to the degree it’s a trap.”
Instead, Ozark zeroed in on the Byrde’s marriage, which itself was a bit of a slippery slope. Mere minutes into the pilot, Marty is seen watching a secret recording of Wendy having sex with another man. It’s a video that he returns to throughout the first season, well after the man is thrown to his death from his high-rise right in front of Marty and Wendy. Not even the most adorable and bribable marriage counselor could solve issues like that (RIP sweet Sue!). “I’m not smart enough to write, but I imagine if I was, I’d really be interested in the possibilities of hooking two people up in a marriage that starts at the lowest point, on the doorstep of divorce, but then finding out through a circumstance that it’s impossible to get divorced,” Bateman muses. “That right out of the gate sets up so much conflict and tension.”
As dark as the marriage and Ozark in general got (crack your lighting jokes here), that doom and gloom didn’t seep into the actual making of the series. Mundy earned the nickname “Grim Reaper” due to how many characters met their untimely demise, and Linney threw a fake funeral procession at the end of Season 2 to honor all the departing actors. It took place at Linney’s Atlanta home, and the cast and crew dressed in black for a catered event in which Mundy eulogized memorable Ozark players like Jacob Snell (Peter Mullan), Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner), and Cade Langmore (Trevor Long), as well as their portrayers. Growing up on such a deadly set, Gaertner, now 18, says the mood was always “very light,” especially when the heavier moments are interrupted by actors taking selfies as they lay in a pool of their own fake blood. But that doesn’t mean he was allowed to watch all the moments that he was technically present for. “I have two older sisters, and what my parents would do is, we’d sit down to watch and we’d all have a pillow with us, and if there was something that my parents weren’t so sure about, they’d be like, ‘OK, put the pillows up,’ and then they’d try to fast-forward through that part,” he says. “The harder thing is that a lot of my friends definitely weren’t going to be allowed to watch it, so they had no idea what I was working on or what the big deal was.”
And a big deal it truly became. Following the first season’s positive reviews, Bateman scored Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, while Daniel Sackheim was nominated for the head-turning “Tonight We Improvise.” The buzz went up a level with Season 2, especially when it came to awards season: Bateman was once again nominated for an Emmy for his acting, and Linney and Ozark snuck into the Best Actress and Best Drama fields. But it was two surprise victories that officially cemented Ozark’s place in the TV landscape. “I remember when everything flipped; it was the night that Julia won for Best Supporting Actress and Jason won for Best Director,” Hublitz recalls. “I knew everything was going to be different from then on. I was flying back into Atlanta from a visit home to New York, and Charlie [Tahan], who had become one of my best friends, called me while I was heading to baggage claim. I had tried so hard to put the Emmys on the little screen on the plane, but I couldn’t watch. So, my phone had just turned on, and he immediately called me, and he goes, ‘Dude, she won! She won!’ I was screaming in front of all these people at the Hartsfield Airport.”
But that unforgettable evening—in which Bateman prevailed over the directors of the last season of Game of Thrones—was just a preview.
Ozark’s third season was released on March 27, 2020, approximately two weeks after the world shut down and billions of people were stuck inside. By then, everyone was joking that they’d already run out of things to watch, but then arrived 10 thrilling, adrenaline-pumping episodes of Ozark. Supported by a powerhouse performance from Tom Pelphrey as Wendy’s brother with bipolar disorder Ben (RIP), the towering and chilling presence of Janet McTeer as cartel lawyer Helen (RIP), and a bloody, shocking cliff-hanger, Season 3 scored a 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 18 total Emmy nominations, including another win for Garner’s turn as fan-favorite Ruth. Aside from amassing hardware, Ozark had become a phenomenon, transitioning from a prestige play for Netflix to one of their biggest originals yet. “The first two seasons, I got more feedback and texts and emails from people that I hadn’t seen in a while,” Mundy says. “For Season 3, it was less the number of people that seemed to be watching than it was the reaction to it … We got lucky that the best season we’d made up until that point also hit at the time that most people were sampling it.”
“There’s sort of a stereotypical person that watches Love Actually and John Adams and the other things that I’ve done, but this just blew it out of the water as far as the different types of people who were attracted to the show,” Linney suggests. “Thematically, with the country itself going through an identity crisis, watching a family go through its own identity crisis connected. Family was always the anchor. Being with Jason, Sophia, and Skylar, particularly in the house, it’s where a lot of the scenes could just relax—and really ignite. I think it’s amazing to watch four people who are related to each other collectively transform.”
There’s not enough time or space to recap all of the questionable decisions made by the Byrdes, particularly the parents. “I can’t say they are particularly good parents,” Gaertner says with a laugh. “I mean, his mom is responsible for his second dead best friend’s death—what do you do with that?”
Maybe that explains why Mundy says “unconditional love” is the central theme of the final season. “At what point is it not healthy to love unconditionally?” he asks. “And when is it better to start putting some conditions on this whole thing for the good of the rest of your family and the world?” Regardless of the looming outcome, the Byrde offspring is just happy to see a light at the end of the tunnel. “My favorite part about the family dynamic this season is that you begin to see hope, and it reignites their desire to be somewhat harmonious and united,” Hublitz says. “There’s been a lack of hope for the Byrde family until now, and there’s this lightness about all of them. Everyone’s changing and shifting.”
Despite Ozark exploding to new heights of success with Season 3, it was months before the official announcement of a Season 4 renewal. That good news came with a caveat: The expanded order of 14 more episodes would be split in half and bring the series to a close. Considering the surge in viewership, Netflix surely would have welcomed a longer run for Ozark, but Mundy and Bateman were resolute in their original mission to not overstay their welcome. “This is a serialized show, so it’s linear: There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Bateman explains. “We’re not stopping because we felt like the interest was waning, we’re stopping because we managed to hold the interest long enough for Chris to meet the ending that he started to see develop.”
The first seven episodes of the fourth and final season premiered in January and opened with the family together in their van on the brink of leaving the Ozarks behind and returning to Chicago, only for Marty to suddenly swerve to avoid a collision, causing the vehicle to flip over repeatedly. The family’s fate is left unanswered, with the latest sequence of events yet to catch up to that moment, but there’s still been more than enough drama. As the Grim Reaper continues to stack dead bodies (RIP to Sheriff Nix, Frank Sr., Darlene, and, especially, Wyatt), the Byrdes are attempting to go legit, while also getting deeper and deeper intertwined with imprisoned cartel leader Omar Navarro (Felix Solis) and his power-hungry nephew Javi (Alfonso Herrera). Marty seems over it all, trying to convince himself that they can return to their old lives, which Wendy points out to him was a lie. “I don’t think he grew so noticeably more than one would naturally grow over the course of four years, when you factor in the kind of circumstances that he has gone through,” says Bateman. “So, he’s gotten four years savvier. From a crime standpoint, he’s gotten four years better at working his craft of laundering and manipulating. From a family standpoint … it’s become a little more difficult for him to justify what he’s doing as a coleader of the house. That was part of the tension that Season 3 was bringing on and then really culminated in Season 4: Marty was looking for an off-ramp, whereas Wendy was doubling down.”
That’s putting it kindly. In addition to becoming a cold-blooded confidante to Navarro, Wendy also appears to be losing her grip on reality. She made the ultimate sacrifice in Season 3 by telling herself that serving up the troubled Ben to the cartel was the only way to save her family. But she’s since reframed him as a missing drug addict as part of the promotion for the Byrdes’ new foundation, and it’s unclear if she’s rehearsed the lie so much that she now believes it. “What I love about her is how shrewd and emotionally immature she is,” Linney shares. “It’s a great combination, because then you have someone who’s just careening all over the place, but who is very sharp and crystal-clear about what she wants and how she’s going to get it. She’s potentially really dangerous.”
A lack of control, at least over emotions, might also accurately describe how the cast handled filming their final scene. Appropriately, they wrapped together as a family; the memory of that moment prompts Hublitz to suggest she might need some tissues, again: “Nothing could have prepared me for that final cut. We instantly all started crying and hugged each other. I just remember looking around at everybody and thinking, ‘Wow, these are the people that raised me out of my adolescence.’”
Before audiences get to unload their own emotions on the concluding moments, Part 2 picks up in the immediate aftermath of Ruth discovering that Javi murdered her cousin Wyatt (Tahan). That revenge-fueled mission kick-starts the beginning of the end, with Mundy revealing the first new hour will be “a different episode for us,” with “a singular focus to it, emotionally.” Beyond that, like everything with Ozark, it’ll circle back to the f-word. “It’s all about the choices of who’s family and who’s not,” Mundy teases. “It’s the kids making a decision about whether or not they want to stay with their parents, Marty and Wendy making a decision about whether or not they want to stay together, and Ruth making a decision about whether she is a Langmore, a Byrde, or if she is at war with the Byrdes. Everything kind of mirrors each other in terms of: What is family?”
Bateman has helmed only two episodes since winning his Emmy, which opened the door for Linney and House of Cards star Robin Wright to be among those to step behind the camera in Season 4. But he wasn’t going to miss the chance to return to the director’s chair for the finale and finish what he started. “The central questions that Chris and I posed to each other as we were thinking about how to end this thing were, ‘Should it be a cautionary tale? Should it be a victory? Should it be a failure? Do they get away with it, or do they not?’” he says. “There’s an obvious way to state whether they got away with it or not, and then there’s a more of an opaque way to communicate whether they get away with it or not.” Bateman pauses, carefully considers his words, and continues. “I don’t think it’s any spoiler to say that Chris and his gang stayed consistent in keeping things a bit opaque with what he leaves in everybody’s mind. As far as whether this is a win or a loss, I’ll leave it up to you to decide.”
Derek Lawrence is a Los Angeles–based writer covering TV and film. His work has also appeared in Entertainment Weekly, People, and Vulture.