The first season of Ozark invited us to watch as Marty and Wendy Byrde dug themselves into a hole of corruption that they probably couldn’t escape. The second season shows how the Byrdes behave once they’re stuck down there.
Being trapped in a dark pit also captures how it feels to watch these ten new episodes of Ozark, which debut Friday on Netflix. Despite excellent performances from Jason Bateman (an executive producer who also directs the first two episodes) and Laura Linney as the ethically scrambled Byrdes, too much of season two is a slog through repetitive dialogue, an array of betrayals, and predicaments that force Marty, Wendy, and others to engage in even more reprehensible behavior. So much goes wrong on this show that, if it weren’t so serious, it could actually be a comedy. But Ozark is very serious. The weather on this show, literally and in terms of mood and color palette, is always partly to mostly cloudy.
This season focuses on the Byrdes’ plan to open a casino in Lake of the Ozarks, the bucolic setting with a seedy underbelly that gives this series its name. (Between this and Sharp Objects, it’s not a flattering scripted TV month for the state of Missouri.) The casino, an idea Marty proposed in the season-one finale, is purely a front: It will be built on land owned by cantankerous heroin producers Jacob (Peter Mullan) and Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery), who will distribute their product to a Mexican drug cartel invested in the casino for the money-laundering opportunities it provides. Marty and Wendy are committed to getting this riverboat gambling business up and running in order to fulfill their promise to the cartel and thereby protect their family, which includes teenage son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) and daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz). Once their slot-machine mecca is complete, as the two declare in the first few minutes of the season premiere, they plan to leave Missouri and start a cleanly washed life somewhere else, perhaps in Australia.
Of course, the first rule about any crime series like Ozark is that the protagonists can never simply recalculate their ethical GPS and get back on the right path. Every time they think they might get out, something always goes wrong and pulls them back in. This show operates according to the principles of Murphy’s Law, as well as Al Pacino’s Godfather Part III Law.
Ozark seems determined to pack as many classic lawbreaking-antihero problems as possible into a single season of television. There are numerous attempts at extortion, a drug overdose, more murders than I cared to count, an unanticipated suicide, multiple kidnappings, a House of Cards–esque bit of political intrigue, a smarmy, unprincipled FBI agent doing smarmy, unprincipled things, an abundance of double-crossing and secret-keeping, and some light arson. Somehow, the season manages to both do the most and drag in its pacing in a way that feels like nothing is happening, even though tons of things are.
Part of the problem is that there isn’t enough nuance to cement our investment in these people or their situations. Some of the more interesting characters — most notably Ruth, the trailer-dwelling teenager who works for Marty and is played with spitfire grit by Julia Garner — are bogged down in story lines that grow tired as soon as they get started. For Ruth, that means being saddled with having to deal with her dad, Cade (Trevor Long), who’s fresh out of jail and serves his narrative purpose as a backwoods cliché that constantly threatens to fire shotguns and bullies Ruth while referring to her menacingly as “baby girl.” He’s the worst, not just because he’s an obviously bad guy, but because he seems to have been created with little depth and sense of imagination.
That’s true of other characters who get a bunch of screen time this season, including Helen (Janet McTeer), the cartel’s Chicago-based attorney, who power-glides through scenes wearing silk blouses and total disdain for the fact that she has to subject herself to the Ozarks. On one hand, it’s refreshing to see a cartel being represented by a menacing middle-aged woman instead of a typical Miami Vice–style baddie. (In contemporary TV terms, Helen is definitely a Lydia.) But despite the dastardly majesty McTeer brings to the role, Helen is conceived less like a multifaceted human being and more like a pseudo-person who’s there to convey the danger posed by the cartel.
As is true of so many Netflix series, this season of Ozark would have benefited enormously from a trim. Seven or eight episodes, instead of ten, would have made the experience more concise and propulsive. As proof, one need only look at episode seven, a taut hour in which Wendy is taken hostage — an incident juxtaposed with a subsequent interview the Byrdes do for a local newspaper profile. It lays out the contradiction between the Byrdes’ reputation-building and their sordid reality in a way that serves as a mission statement for what Ozark wants to be and how good it could be.
That episode, in particular, highlights the gifts of Linney and Bateman, who are both masters at lying with layers: straight-face fibbing that reveals their characters’ skills at deception and their occasional tells, maybe through a pause held a little too long, or a glance that’s just the tiniest bit unsteady. Ozark is about the ease with which people deny that they’ve engaged in startlingly awful behavior — “People make choices and people have to live by them,” Marty tells Wendy in a wildly unself-aware attempt to rationalize the consequences his misdeeds have had on others — but it’s also the story of a deeply dysfunctional marriage.
The fact that Wendy and Marty are both so deft at tailoring their lies to different dicey situations speaks to what may have attracted them to each other in the first place. But they’re absolutely terrible at communicating with each other, a point this season of Ozark drives home to the point of absurdity. The two of them have at least one conversation per episode in which one becomes frustrated that the other has left him or her in the dark. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?” is the most frequently uttered phrase in this series. By the end of the season, I was ready to foot the divorce-attorney bills myself if it would put an end to these redundant discussions, which jump out even more when viewing episodes back-to-back.
It’s tempting to criticize Ozark because its protagonists are challenging to root for, but that’s not really the problem. The best antihero shows don’t actively encourage us to take the sides of the main characters; they simply give us conflicting desires. On Breaking Bad, we wanted Walt to get off scot-free and we wanted him to get caught. On Better Call Saul, we wish Jimmy could become a respectable, successful attorney and we enjoy watching his inevitable spiral toward becoming Saul Goodman. On The Americans, we hoped Elizabeth and Philip would finally be exposed for being Russian spies and we desperately wanted them to pull one over on the FBI.
On Ozark, I’m neither in favor of the Byrdes getting away with everything nor do I hope that they finally get their comeuppance for the horrendous things they’ve done. Despite everything Linney and Bateman bring to the series, the real problem is that, in the end, I don’t really care what happens to this extremely flawed husband and wife.