Netflix’s biggest drama begins its final seven episodes with a chapter that plays out through Ruth’s eyes, memory, musical taste, and grief. After so many people have pushed Ruth around over the last three and a half seasons, she’s decided it’s time to push back, and her arc transpires against a backdrop of memories of her youth with Wyatt and a soundtrack of Illmatic by Nas. It culminates in Ruth taking vengeance against Javi, gunning him down for what he did to Wyatt and Darlene. She’s not going to be convinced this time by Marty and Wendy’s pleads. She’s had enough. And the funny thing is that Wendy figured it out first. Early on, she says to Marty, after he won’t warn Javi about what Ruth is going to do, “All this and you still don’t understand people’s will?” She’s essentially telling everyone how this episode will end: with a demonstration of Ruth’s will.
“The Cousin of Death” opens with one of Julia Garner’s best sequences, still reeling from the grief over Wyatt’s death. Keep in mind, she didn’t just hear the tragic news; she found the bodies. As she’s driving and crying, the episode flashes back to a memory of Wyatt and Ruth playing a game of “Name the Opening Track” on classic albums like The Chronic, The Black Album, and even Red. It’s one of those fun memories of a relatively casual day that often jumps to mind after you lose someone you love. And it’s a time they imagined a future that will now never happen, one in which Wyatt put a pool outside his lakeside home just because that’s what rich people do. Garner nails the immediate, overwhelming grief here.
Cut to one of the few scenes not centered on Ruth or Javi this episode, although they’re the focus of the conversation. Javi calls Marty with instructions to clean up his mess and schedule a meeting with Claire in Chicago. When Marty asks why he did it, he says that he did what “My uncle should have done when she killed Del,” referring to the end of the first season. Ozark has long been interested in the ripple effect of major actions like that, and it’s interesting to consider that Darlene Snell signed her death warrant that long ago. Wendy thinks that they need to warn Javi to keep the work with Shaw and the Foundation alive. Marty knows that would lead to Ruth’s death. He’s still more protective of her than Wendy. It could end up his fatal flaw.
Ruth works through tracks from Illmatic on her journey, starting with “N.Y. State of Mind” as she goes from the grief stage to the anger stage. She starts by asking Jonah for help to find Javi, but Charlotte is the one who gives the details about the Chicago meeting. And Jonah even gives her a photo from Javi’s business yearbook so she knows his face. Shortly thereafter, Wendy tries a desperate move, insisting to Ruth that Javi has gone back home and won’t be in the country for months, insisting that the Byrdes will help when he returns. Ruth knows she’s lying but plays along. Wendy’s getting easier to see through.
As Javi splurges on the Richard M. Daley Suite at a fancy hotel, Ruth’s bumping “Represent” on the way to Kansas City to get a piece and a new license plate. She’s got a plan. She quickly gets to Chicago (and quickly finds rock star parking), gets out of her car, and plugs Javi … wait, it’s just a daydream while she’s driving. Marty calls and tries to talk her out of it. A nice beat here clarifies the stark differences between Marty and Wendy. Marty just trusts Ruth more. And he truly does want to know if she’s alright. There’s almost a sense that Marty could talk her out of drastic action again. Almost. “Life’s a Bitch” starts to play. It sure is.
Javi calls his mother on the phone and plans to be home in two days to do the work that her brother couldn’t do. A lot can happen in two days. And Javi’s fate starts to unravel as Ruth arrives in the Windy City. She calls Three first, who pleads with her to come home, even suggesting that Wyatt would hate this. It triggers a memory of a very young Ruth hearing the abusive Cade fight with her mother. She goes outside to sleep on the roof with Wyatt.
She’s in a diner, pumping coffee and Nas when she spots Killer Mike of Run the Jewels, a band that has been used regularly on Ozark. It’s a bit of a cheesy cameo even if RTJ and Mike rule in general. The dialogue in this scene feels a bit shallow. She lets him listen to Illmatic, and Mike mentions how Nas grew up in the Queens projects from which he could see the opulence of Manhattan. She wonders if he would trade all of that heartache even if he knew it would produce Illmatic? Ruth is tired of looking at the power players across the river like Wendy and Javi. She’s using the music of Nas and his story to give her the courage to do what she needs to do.
The next morning, Ruth does an ace Charlotte impression to find out that the Javi/Shaw meeting is at 10 a.m., and she sees the Byrdes arrive. Inside, Javi commits to a contract and a price reduction with Clare Shaw as long as he gets Shaw Medical stock options. Javi is tired of being kept behind the scenes. In many ways, this episode draws lines between Javi and Ruth. He’s on the other side of the river, too, sick of being treated like a dirty secret. He mentions he had a professor in journalism school who treated him like a lesser being but now they’re having dinner for his money. And he tells Marty he wants the holdings of Omar’s children.
It’s important that Marty spots Ruth outside and doesn’t tell anyone. He calls her instead, believing he can talk her out of it. He has no idea that she’s leaving messages for a dead Wyatt and having visions of shooting the Byrdes while they shop for real estate.
Later, Javi is having dinner with his former professor, a crucial scene for understanding his motivations. The professor insists that a donation from Javi would have to be anonymous. It’s an insult. He wants Javi’s money but not the reputation associated with Javi’s money. The professor goes to the washroom after the check comes, and Javi follows. In the restroom, Javi offers $2 million, but his name has to be on a building, or the donation is anonymous but he beats the living shit out of this man in the bathroom. He doesn’t really give him time to mull the decision, smashing the man’s head into a urinal and flushing it. Javi is tired of being ignored and underestimated.
Ruth crashes a dinner with the Byrdes and Shaw, insisting they go to Claire’s office. Back to “Represent” as they drive, Wendy looks nervously at Ruth in the back seat. Marty tries to appeal to her decency when they get there. Ruth rants that she used to love to listen to him talk and how the Bydes will tear everything to the ground and make you feel like they care. It’s really a major theme of Ozark: the trouble the Byrdes caused to so many lives when they chose to leave Chicago. She saves most of her ire for Wendy, who she calls “fucking soulless” and a “predator with no conscience.” She’s sadder about Marty, noting how he pretends to care but has no real emotion. And the key line: “You really think everything you do is to protect your family?!” This is the excuse that Wendy uses in particular. It’s arguably not been true for some time now. The ruthlessness of Wendy comes through in her call to Javi to lure him into the trap. “Great! See you soon! We’ll put some Champagne on ice!” Chilling.
Javi walks into the office, and there’s no monologuing. Ruth emerges and shoots him three times. There’s silence as she leaves and the score builds. As Marty and Wendy clean up, Ruth cries in the parking garage. There’s a shot of her on the roof that she spent so much time with Wyatt on, but this time she’s alone. She’s put his memory to rest.
• Go listen to Illmatic. It’s one of the best rap albums of all time.
• The title refers to a bar from “N.Y. State of Mind” from that album: “I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death.” Ruth barely sleeps in this episode and has visions of death when she does.
• Other than maybe the Killer Mike scene, this is a very narratively tight episode. There are few supporting characters. No FBI or private-investigator scenes, little time with the Byrde children. It’s nice to see an hour this focused.
• Julia Garner probably won the Emmy for this season already, but this episode probably sealed it.
• Was El-P (the other half of Run the Jewels) just busy that day?