There’s something about the Netflix model that encourages more intense creative investment in season premieres and finales. With shows that people are likely to binge in a weekend, a company needs to hook them and leave them wanting to keep their subscription active at least until that weekend’s season-ending cliffhanger is resolved. Just look at the first season of Ozark, which opened with arguably the best series premiere in the history of the streamer and ends with what might be the show’s crowning achievement, a feature-length thriller with deaths both inevitable and unexpected. It’s an episode that finds the Byrdes at a crossroads that could break up the family forever, even changing some of their identities, but it ends the season with them feeling more united than ever, determined to clean up the mess they’ve created in the Ozarks.
What does the title “The Toll” refer to in this episode or even season? It’s funny that the episode opens with a toll of a bell, reflecting both the dire fate of the show’s preacher and the sense that time is up for Marty Byrde. Of course, there’s also the toll of doing business in the Ozarks. The body count is rising, and it feels as if every parachute Marty finds to escape his free fall has a hole in it. Think about the number of times in just this episode when Marty has a few minutes to think he might have escaped his latest dilemma only to be thrust into another one. It’s a constant “frying pan into the fire” situation for Marty. And the flames are rising.
It opens somewhat quietly, as the fallout from the deaths of Boyd and Russ impacts those in their circle. The Byrdes go to pay their condolences, and Three and Wyatt seem in shock, throwing rocks at a can. Wendy thanks Ruth, both a moment of compassion and an acknowledgment that she knows what Ruth did for them. Marty doesn’t keep secrets from her.
The real drama starts at Mason’s first sermon on the lake since discovering his flock is full of drug traffickers. He stutters and stumbles. “Christ still loves you,” he says. He looks closely and sees some of his flock in a new light. “Do not participate in the unfruitful deed of darkness but instead even expose them,” he says, paraphrasing Ephesians 5:11. He then stops Ash from handing out the drug hymnals. He needs to talk to Jacob. The service ends early, and Snell gets the call. Darlene is ready to act. Jacob gives her a nod.
After a scene in which Rachel realizes the Blue Cat is now insulated with dirty money, Mason is at the Snell compound. These two men of principle are at a crossroads, but close viewers should already sense a problem: Darlene isn’t there. She’s always been by Jacob’s side. Where is she? “Life is all about choice,” Jacob tells Mason, and the preacher has made his choice. Jacob calls Marty and uses the word consequences — never a good one from a drug lord. “It’s done,” he says. And in one of the show’s most chilling moments, Mason comes home to an empty house and hears a baby cry. On the porch, he finds his child, but Grace is gone. Mason is startled and shaking. Did they do it? Did Darlene really cut the baby out of Grace? Mason’s eyes dart as he hugs his child’s head.
Marty has a plan (he always has a plan). He comes to Jacob with $300,000. He’s prepared to be the Snell’s sole customer. And he will launder their profits at the same time. Darlene isn’t convinced and says a great line: “I don’t think the juice is worth the squeeze.”
An intense episode turns up to 11 when Wendy is caught trying to run with her kids by Del’s enforcer, Garcia. Jonah catches him, pointing the gun Tuck bought him at the menacing figure. He even pulls the trigger, but it doesn’t go off, and it looks as if Jonah might get murdered when Buddy pops up and cocks his trusty shotgun. Sometimes it helps to have a protective old man living in your basement. He tells Wendy and the kids to go outside. The camera follows as a blast shatters the window.
After such carnage in the first act of the episode, the writers allow for a bit of calm before the eventual storm of the final scenes. Marty comes home to find a dead body and uses his new funeral home to dispose of it with the help of Buddy. Petty comes to chat with Rachel about Marty. Then the action intensifies again with the arrival at the Blue Cat of Del, who is spotted by the agent after menacing Rachel a bit. Can the feds really get Del?
Ruth tries to console Wyatt, giving Julia Garner one of her best scenes of the season. She encourages him to keep his father’s stuff, and there’s sympathy for his loss, regret over her fractured relationship with her father, and guilt over the death of Russ all in one beat. Later, Cade will call Ruth and tell her, “You and me are gonna talk in prison.” It’s a brief preview of season two.
The action intensifies again after Rachel appears to leave town and Wendy goes with the kids to meet Marty but finds his private investigator instead. He has passports, social security cards, and birth certificates for the trio to run … without Marty. Jonah doesn’t want to become “Mike Fleming,” and Charlotte doesn’t want to give up her phone, but Wendy seems ready to go. She learns that Marty asked for these go packs to be made up way back in Chicago. He always had this parachute, a way to get the family out of the Ozarks. It makes sense. They can run and start a new life. Wendy wasn’t happy with Marty anyway.
Marty is about to be very unhappy himself. He finds Del and an enforcer in his home, looking for Garcia. And then the torture begins. Marty has a plan! Stop ripping his toenails off! He convinces Del to go with him to the Snells. He’s going to merge his two major criminal overlords. The cartel loses 20 percent of its product to border seizures. Offset that with Snell product and have a major hub close to Chicago. It gets better. Marty wants to flood Snell land and open a casino on the water, a riverboat that can launder $90 million a month, more than enough for both operations. It appeals to Jacob’s need for power and his desire for political capital.
It all looks like a perfect deal until Del jokes that only Marty could convince him to partner with “a bunch of rednecks.” The calculated Del didn’t account for Darlene’s temper. The insult leads to a shotgun blast to the head for Del, and Jacob shoots Del’s enforcer in the throat. Marty can’t believe it. They’re screwed. Jacob insists that “they’ll send another Mexican to take his place,” which is almost a funny inverse of the stereotype that just got Del killed. They won’t be suspected because there’s no logic in killing someone they just went into business with.
A stunned Marty comes home to find the full government in his way, guns drawn, ordering him out of the car. They’re looking for Del. Think about this: If Darlene hadn’t killed Del, Marty would be going to jail then and there with Del. She saved him by destroying everything. As is, with no Del, there’s no probable cause to go in the Byrde house. Petty later loses his shit in a motel room.
Marty calls Wendy and tells her not to come home. “Then you come to us.” Marty doesn’t think he can. He’ll never stop looking over his shoulder. It seems as though they might run, but Charlotte takes the keys. There is nowhere safe for them. “You made us adults the second you told us what Dad was doing,” says Charlotte. And then Jonah says that if he becomes Mike Fleming, Jonah Byrde will be dead, which he doesn’t want. It’s a really sharp, well-written scene that doesn’t succumb to the melodrama that would drag down lesser shows.
In a terrifying scene, a dead-eyed Mason marches through the woods with his new baby, gets to the lake, and heads into the water. He dunks the child, leaving it open to baptism or drowning, but the emotionless look on his face implies the latter. He closes his eyes and suddenly lifts the child, doing the cross on his forehead. Thank God.
Finally, Marty is on his trampoline as the music in the episode calms. He’s alone. Wyatt and Ruth hug on the other side of the lake. And Marty hears a car pull up. It’s the kids. They run up and hug their dad. It feels as though Wendy would have left, but the kids wouldn’t let her. Now the family has to stay together. All exits are blocked. Marty and Wendy share a long, emotional stare.
• Jason Bateman’s direction here is so accomplished — his best work to date — holding together an 80-minute episode that never drags. It feels half as long as some Netflix dramas that are normal length.
• Who was your MVP of the first season? Garner was a revelation, but it really feels as if the season belongs to Bateman, who is the main guide through all of this chaos and the mirror through which we meet most of the characters. This season may be his best acting work too.
• Thanks for reading all season!