The saddest episode in the history of Ozark is also one of its best, anchored by truly moving performances from Laura Linney and Tom Pelphrey. Linney’s Wendy Byrde has often been a cold political animal, a shark unafraid of any other predators in the water, even a drug kingpin like Omar Navarro. What’s finally broken her, and even brought her back to her husband Marty, is the sad saga of her brother Ben. Linney deftly captures how Wendy’s emotional connection to her brother influences the tough decisions she has to make this episode, while Pelphrey conveys the horror of being somewhat aware that you are constantly making bad decisions but still are unable to stop. In the opening scene, a monologue that should earn him an Emmy nomination, he speaks of general anxiety and fear, that feeling that a kid is going to jump in the road as you’re driving and change your life forever. Ben thinks he’s the driver. He’s actually the kid jumping into the road.
“Fire Pink” feels like a set-up for a war between Helen Pierce and Ben Davis, but it’s not exactly that. Ben is lucky to have someone like Ruth in his life, because she instantly knows the danger of the situation when she hears that her boyfriend told Erin Pierce about her mother’s role in an illegal empire. The way she goes and grabs a shotgun and a go bag is amazing. She gets Ben out instantly, and, after a brief memory scene with Marty, the episode is basically about Wendy trying to figure out what to do with her brother, as he constantly sabotages everything she does.
Everyone but Ben seems to comprehend the danger inherent in what he did with Erin and Helen. As Helen says, “There’s no room for mental illness in a criminal empire.” She may be emotional about what Erin knows, but there’s a key moment in the kitchen with Marty when she tells him that the major concern is who else Ben might someday tell. He’s a loose end, and criminal operations can’t have loose ends.
At first, it feels like the Byrdes may start an all-out war with Helen. They consider going to Navarro and convincing him that they’re more valuable than Helen. And it’s an argument that Wendy might be able to win. The problem is that Ben needs to be shuttled to safety before that can happen, but his illness and emotion keep sabotaging his sister’s attempts to keep him alive.
Before then, Erin goes to hear the truth from the Byrde children. Would Helen allow that? She probably can’t just lock Erin in her room, but doesn’t it seem like she might try? Or get her on a train immediately? The Byrdes are dangerous. They’ve killed people. Helen is sometimes fearless, but if Ben is the vulnerability on the Byrde side of the empire, Erin is the one on her side. It’s hard to believe Helen would just let her talk to Jonah and Charlotte. But she does. And she learns that what Uncle Ben said was true.
She rushes into the Byrde home while Wendy is still there, trying to talk Helen into sparing her brother. When Erin drops everything on the table, Wendy tries to lie, but Jonah stops it. The coldest and scariest moment comes when Helen looks at the Byrde kids as she says, “unacceptable vulnerabilities,” but it also adds depth to why Helen was so secretive with her daughter. It’s not out of pride or concern over illegal behavior. It’s because people who know what people like Helen do end up dead. Helen is upset because her daughter is now a “vulnerability.”
And then the truly tragic final arc of Ben Davis really kicks off. After Wyatt Langmore, of all people, talks him out of running, he actually goes to the Missouri Belle. With people outside watching and an FBI agent inside, he begins a pattern of destructive behavior. Marty shuttles him into a car quickly and gets him to Wendy, but she doesn’t know what to do but drive. What now? Does Robert Forster show up and give Ben a new life at a Cinnabon?
Before that option can be explored, Wendy falls asleep in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart stand-in called Warner Mart (subtle), and Ben actually calls in a tip. The cops show up to see Ben and Wendy, reporting on a call that a drug lord is targeting someone in a car in a big box store parking lot. Wendy talks her way out of the situation, and the siblings hit the road again to who knows where.
It’s not Ben’s last mistake. Shortly thereafter, he calls Helen, trying to apologize, trying to fix something that can’t be fixed. Wendy catches him and her polite regard starts to crumble. As Ben slaps himself and sobs, Wendy struggles. He’s a mess, but he volunteers to go to Knoxville and lay low. Even Wendy can’t quite believe this. It’s like the alcoholic saying he’s clean as he goes into the liquor store.
As Marty’s plan to keep the known evil of Maya Miller in the Belle seems to work, Ben spirals further. At a gas station, he buys a burner phone, and Wendy knows it’s over. She has to turn him in or kill him herself. Over pancakes, they talk about the past and future, and then Wendy walks away from her brother, leaving the restaurant. She goes to the car and drives away, tearfully calling Marty as the cleaner known as Nelson takes her parking spot. He marches toward a confused Ben as Wendy cries in her car on the side of the road. Through sobs she asks her husband, “What are we doing?”
• This episode has one of the best examples yet of what we should call the Wendy Turn, wherein she goes from convincing someone to intimidating them. She’s always so polite and smiling at first, like with the cop in the parking lot, and then she’s not. There’s even a variation on the Wendy Turn in the gas station when she realizes her brother bought the phone — the look in her eyes conveying the knowledge that a new tactic is necessary.
• It’s funny how much Ozark is a show about danger bringing people together. The saga with Ben leads to the first time Marty has told his wife he loves her in a very long time. And it’s brought Wyatt and Ruth back together after their drama. They even hug. This is often a drama about the solidarity created by common fear.
• This is Linney’s best season. She was almost certainly an Emmy nomination lock before, but she might be a front-runner to win now. And I hope Pelphrey gets a nod, too, just for that opening scene alone. It really sets the stage for the tragedy to follow.