Ozark’s Finale Gave Us Shock Without Substance

One big happy family. Photo: STEVE DIETL/NETFLIX

This piece contains major spoilers about the ending of Ozark. Do not read unless you have already watched or don’t mind having the ending spoiled for you.

The ending of Ozark, the Netflix series about overcoming the many downsides of laundering money for a drug cartel, is brutal, abrupt, sort of vague, and potentially shocking. What it is not, however, is surprising. In fact, it is 100 percent emblematic of the things that made Ozark frustrating more often than it was fulfilling.

The episode closes with a cut to black and the sound of a gun being fired. While we don’t see the bullet hit its target, we can presume that it does and that Detective Mel Sattem has been killed. But seeing Mel die — by the way, this would not be the first time a season of Ozark has ended with cutting to black as someone is murdered — isn’t really the point. The point is who’s holding that gun: Jonah Byrde, the son of Marty and Wendy Byrde, who has been both preparing for this moment and doing everything he can to avoid it since the series began.

By passing the shotgun to Jonah, Ozark has completed its central arc: The Byrdes are finally a locked-in family unit. They’ll be able to move back to Chicago and thrive with all their misbegotten cash, presumably never facing a single consequence for the many terrible things they’ve done. Even though the ending is vague enough to leave room for debate regarding the family’s immediate future — and, for that matter, Mel’s future, since we don’t see where the bullet lands its vibe conveys pretty clearly that the Byrdes have always maneuvered their way out of trouble and will likely continue to do so. Even before a weaponized Jonah shows up, the finale leans in that direction with the death of Ruth, an event that Wendy and Marty mutually decide not to prevent, and the pre-shooting conversation that unfolds between Wendy, Marty, and Mel, who has in his hands both Ben’s ashes and the proof he needs to pin Ben’s death on the Byrdes.

“You don’t get to win,” says Mel, who sticks around to chat instead of taking his DNA evidence straight to the local police because, you know, gotta make a self-righteous speech first. “You don’t get to be the Kochs or the Kennedys or whatever fucking royalty you people think you are. World doesn’t work like that.”

“Since when?” Wendy asks.

And there it is, Ozark’s main argument: that rich, merciless people always prevail because money and the power that comes with it are what matter most in American society. Ozark has been saying this ever since the heavy-handed “Money is the measure of a man’s choices” monologue Marty delivered at the beginning of the first episode. Mel tells Marty and Wendy that their money is toxic because he sees it as the measure of their ethically bankrupt choices, but to Marty and Wendy, their money is a measure of their sacrifices and the determination they have shown in acquiring it, moral compasses be damned. As Wendy points out with a completely straight face, “Money doesn’t know where it came from,” which is a different way of saying the ends justify the means. Ozark ends, essentially, by telling us the same thing it has been saying from the beginning.

It makes sense for any series, Ozark included, to conclude by echoing its start and coming full circle. The problem in Ozark’s case is that doing so only emphasizes the degree to which the show failed to add genuine complexity to the themes it addresses. Most viewers probably knew before they ever watched Ozark that the wealthy and sophisticated have advantages that the poor and less well connected do not. The ending merely confirms that reality, which is why Ruth’s untimely demise for killing Javi is less surprising than Ozark seems to think it is. It may be shocking, in one sense, to see Ruth take a bullet to the chest courtesy of Javi’s ice-cold mother, Camila; Julia Garner’s character is beloved, and it’s cruel to snuff her out in the last minutes of the series. But it’s inevitable that Ruth, a self-identified redneck with little money who has had to swear through gritted teeth her whole life, would eventually lose to the Byrdes. Contrary to Mel’s point, the world often works exactly like that, and it certainly does in Ozark.

Ozark has always been a halfway-decent crime thriller that conducted itself like a prestige drama that should be taken as seriously as it takes itself. Only in its superb third season, when Wendy’s mentally ill brother, Ben, showed up to generate even more volatile ripples in the Lake of the Ozarks, did it fully live up to its potential as a show as deeply invested in character dynamics and real human emotion as it was in plot developments. For the rest of its run, however, Ozark pulled off a version of the same scam that Wendy and Marty were running, projecting the image of an important series with cachet — see its dusky-blue color palette and its themes about ethics — and convincing plenty of people, including Emmy voters, that it was. It has a lot in common in this regard with the original Netflix Original, House of Cards, another show that took itself very seriously and hid its lack of substance behind shadowy lighting and acting that was strong enough to sell some illogical twists and often thin material.

Ozark has benefitted from its performances in a similar fashion, with Garner, Jason Bateman, and especially Laura Linney making it seem as though the series has more gravitas than it actually possesses. But Ozark never slowed down long enough to meaningfully study its most fascinating character (Wendy) or anyone, for that matter. It was too busy hurling freshly baked obstacles at the Byrdes so Wendy and Marty could get into yet another argument about how they just need to agree on this one last thing because they are “so close to being out of this.”

There were some very clear opportunities for this final season to recapture the humanity it found in season three, which makes it more maddening that Ozark couldn’t quite pull it off in the end. In the penultimate episode, Wendy has a breakdown after her father, Nathan (Richard Thomas), convinces Jonah and Charlotte, the Byrdes’ daughter, to move to North Carolina with him. This development temporarily breaks Wendy and enables Linney to take her performance to completely unhinged heights — the way she says “Oh, Daddy” when she knocks on her father’s hotel-room door is Ozark’s “Here’s Johnny!” moment. It’s fascinating to watch her go off the rails while staying grounded in reality, but Ozark won’t just sit with Linney in this mode for a little bit. By the beginning of the finale, Wendy has checked herself into a mental hospital, checked herself out, won back her kids, and is ready to host a huge gala at the Missouri Belle, the Byrdes’ casino. The moving parts take priority over the emotional impact of Wendy’s psychological collapse.

The story line involving Nathan’s efforts to search for Ben, his missing son, is similarly bursting with potential for tension and commentary on Wendy’s hypocrisy, something the series toyed with in the first half of season four when Darlene tried to “help” Wendy search for the brother she actually had killed. But Ozark whiffs on those opportunities. Instead of making Nathan’s interest in finding Ben a “Tell-Tale Heart” moment for Wendy, the Ben search exists mostly as a means to set up a Nathan-Wendy conflict that will lead to a custody battle over Charlotte and Jonah. (Like everything on Ozark, that custody battle plays out in a remarkably condensed period of time.)

Ben himself, as played by Tom Pelphrey, even reappears in the flashback that opens episode ten and initially made me think we might learn something surprising or new about what happened to him. But the seven-minute sequence simply shows us the last moments of Ben’s life in order to underline how sad it is that he was killed. Why bring back Pelphrey, who is terrific even in these brief moments, just for this? To remind us, I guess, how grotesque it is that Wendy ordered a hit on him and what an innocent, lost soul he was. But if there’s deeper meaning here that adds to our understanding of his death or his relationship with his sister, it eludes me.

The best example of Ozark’s tendency to make plot developments seem more portentous than they are is the car accident the Byrdes get into, an incident revealed partially in the opening moments of season four and in its entirety in the finale. Because the accident was alluded to early on, it seems this will be a major turning point, but everyone emerges physically unscathed from the flipped minivan. Showrunner Chris Mundy, who wrote the finale, positions the accident as a moment that bonds the family and heals the long-standing rift between Wendy and her kids, particularly Jonah. That makes sense technically, but Ozark doesn’t do the work to sell me on the idea that the accident has renewed the family’s resolve and commitment to one another. That’s partly because there’s too much else going on in the finale, including the intrigue involving Camila’s efforts to identify Javi’s killer, to give this moment the space it needs to feel believable. But it also seems like Mundy and Bateman, who directed the episode, don’t want to overemphasize how the accident might have altered Jonah’s and Charlotte’s feelings toward their parents because they want to preserve the surprise reveal of Shotgun Jonah.

This is the crux of why the series’ final moment doesn’t ultimately work. It’s completely believable that Jonah, who, for a while now, has been attracted to the criminal work his parents do (not to mention guns), would finally take the ultimate step to preserve the family business. But he has also been so furious at his mother — specifically for having Ben killed, mind you! — that he’s been living in a hotel for several weeks and, mere hours earlier, steadfastly insisted that he and Charlotte must move to North Carolina with their grandfather. It’s certainly plausible that Jonah might change his mind about all that, but would he change it so quickly and be so willing to murder another human to save his mother from being outed as an accomplice in her own brother’s death? Ozark uses the car accident and a conversation between Jonah and Charlotte at the gala to hint at this transformation without showing us any of Jonah’s internal struggle.

In other words, the final seconds of Ozark take a sudden turn mostly for the sake of taking a sudden turn. We watch the Byrdes quote-unquote win, and we don’t feel anything — or at least I didn’t. That’s the essence of Ozark: As thrilling as it could be, this series was ultimately as empty as the “I love you”s that Wendy and Marty exchange when they return home from the gala. It was a show about cold people with chilly visuals and a hard slab of ice at its center that, like so many binge-focused Netflix series, took hairpin narrative turns over and over until the very end. Then it just stopped, as if there was nothing more to say because it didn’t have anything terribly meaningful to say to begin with.

Update: An earlier version of this article referred to Camila by the incorrect name. It has been corrected.

Ozark’s Finale Gave Us Shock Without Substance