Ozark ended with a resounding ‘meh’. The Netflix series has been a fun, tense journey but the final season, while still an enjoyable watch, succumbed to the issues that had been threatening to surface since the very beginning. The show, with an ungainly 14-episode run, became too focused on the shallow mechanics of the plot, paying less attention to the actual story being told. There is a vital difference between plot and story. The wheres and whats of the business deals overpowered the vital whys of them. The season was convoluted machination after convoluted machination, multiple issues created and then resolved each episode to the point where it all felt artificial, and the characters within got lost. There was so much movement and yet everything important stood still.
Ozark’s third season was fantastic, the peak of the show, but from the very start of the fourth it felt like the show had run its course. The same few pieces had been moved across the board too many times for them to now have any impact or believability. Ruth getting angry and cursing the Byrdes no longer means anything; we’ll know she’ll come around in an episode or two, we’ve seen it before. Marty and Wendy ending up in jail because of their simmering anger at each other? Give it an episode and the status quo will return, however shaken up it might seem. As Jonah says “All you do is talk. Nothing changes”. This makes individual episodes feel repetitive but also the season as a whole lose tension. What tension the final season gained in the first half it loses in the second as it drags on and on, just as it is about to wrap-up for good. The show can only escalate and then reset so many times before the next escalation loses all impact.
Thankfully there is some good thematic work throughout which sets certain episodes apart and stops the whole season becoming totally homogeneous. I particularly enjoyed ‘Trouble the Water’ in which most characters were tempted by a better life and either refused or accepted, whether it was Ruth, Mel, Sam, or the kids. There were also moments where the story was told in more dynamic ways than simply phone calls and meetings, like the fight in the traffic jam. What a great and unique scene in the show, providing an outlet for tensions that have been building since the beginning. It’s funny and brutal and different and genuinely insightful; the best moment of the season. I wish there were more scenes like it. More could have been done with Ruth’s journey to Florida. Similarly, that could have been a way to reveal new aspects of her, her desires, and we get a glimpse of this on the plane but it lasts one scene and then she’s straight back to the Ozarks to have her story told through double-dealing business meetings about wills and shares as usual.
The key to good drama is consequences. Sadly, in Ozark, the consequences for people’s actions grow increasingly muddled. Everyone conveniently seems to have poor memories, remembering only what has happened in the recent season like they are watching the show like us, with years in between, instead of actually living it. Frank Jr and Ruth suddenly forgive each other and become firm friends despite him beating her last season. Sure, Jonah needs to find an outlet for teenage rebellion against his mother but siding with Darlene? His mother got Ben killed but Darlene murdered a woman and cut out her unborn baby to raise as her own! And when the Byrdes are negotiating deals between the cartel and the FBI, who know of their crimes and have decided to look the other way, how are we supposed to care about a rogue PI investigating Ben’s disappearance? The show feels so far past stakes of that scale. It would be like someone embezzling millions from a company but the drama coming from them being found out for stealing paper clips from the stationary cupboard.
The shadow of Breaking Bad, and more recently Better Call Saul, has always fallen heavily on Ozark. For the most part, the series has managed to stand apart despite the comparisons, charting its own path, yet the final season feels particularly influenced by those shows and copies two elements that end up being the worst parts of the season. The flashforward to the car crash is a huge mistake and feels more like a gimmick that hurts the show than a tantalising tease. In the finale it serves as an omen that hangs over the family but in terms of watching the whole season seeing the entire Byrde family together, happy, is more attention-grabbing than the crash. Knowing not only that they will survive but will come together destroys any tension regarding those characters and their choices across the 14 episodes. And then there is Javi who feels like a blatant attempt to copy Lalo Salamanca. He’s a terrible antagonist and watching Ozark at the same time as the finals season of Better Call Saul makes for a pale comparison.
And so, we get to the series finale which, perhaps somewhat controversially, I actually quite liked. Finally, there is a consequence. A cost. I wonder if this is why there are so few consequences for actions throughout the season? To make it seem like the Byrdes can make a clean getaway so to play the final deadly consequence as a twist rather than something inevitable. The family can get out but only if Ruth dies. This makes me angry, which is the point. Everyone loves Ruth and it’s heartbreaking seeing it go down. I like unhappy endings and this is one where essentially the villains win. The ultimate cost is the final shred of the Byrdes’ morality. I don’t completely buy Marty betraying Ruth, it doesn’t feel earned, but I like the idea enough to go along with it. I feel the same about the final scene. I love the concept of the family uniting for an evil deed so they can escape this life but the execution is lacking. Really, a cut-to-black and then hearing a gunshot ring out? What a tired hack trick to end on.
What are your thoughts on the final episodes of Ozark? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.