“There’s a saying in politics: ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’”
Wendy Byrde is hell-bent on turning the Navarro drug cartel war crisis into political leverage. She explains her plan to her husband and business partner, Marty, whom she needs on her side if they have any chance of succeeding. In an industry as dangerous as this, it’s imperative the pair work together, but it soon becomes apparent they are not remotely on the same page.
“I think that’s batshit crazy,” he responds.
Netflix’s “Ozark” chronicles the lives of Marty and Wendy, along with their kids Charlotte and Jonah, as they establish their casino empire in the Missouri Ozarks — primarily to work closely with the local mafia and launder money for the Mexican drug cartel. The above conversation, which takes place within the first half of the premiere, guides the bulk of the season’s narrative, with the Byrdes stuck between two warring ideas about how to keep their family safe. Wendy insists expansion will make them “too big to fail” and currying favor with Navarro will make them untouchable. Marty, on the other hand, wants to get as far away from the cartel as possible. This season chips away at the trust the Byrdes have for each other, each one thwarting the other’s plans while enemies strike from every side.
This is “Ozark” at its apex. The dialogue is sharp, the motives malevolent and each scene is laced with tension and suspense. The Byrde’s growing number of enemies are seamlessly woven into the plotline and keep us on our feet. Every move they make to undermine one enemy (the FBI, the KC Mob, the Snells, … the list goes on) sets them into the trap of another, and we can’t help but anxiously brace ourselves for impact.
Even with the volatile nature of the series, this season offers some genuine moments that keep us caring about the characters. There are some really heartfelt scenes between Wendy and her brother Ben, Charlotte and Jonah and Ruth and Wyatt. Season 3 sports the most compelling narrative the show has seen and I was thoroughly impressed by how much this storyline hit me. The last three episodes are a harrowing watch and it was the first time in a long time a TV show has caused me to genuinely hurt … and it hurt very badly.
Not every part of the plot is seamless, though. While the storylines that count are bulletproof, a select few of the side plots seemed a forgotten waste. There are a few scenes where Helen, the Byrde’s business partner, is on the phone with her husband, and they don’t fit anywhere meaningful. The fight between Wendy and longtime enemy Darlene Snell for custody of Zeke was the end-all, be-all of one episode, and then we never see or hear of Zeke again. Some of the KC Mob stuff with Frank Jr. took up more time than it was worth.
It’s a good thing, then, the performances eclipse my grievances with these abandoned plots. There are a few shows in my book (“Peaky Blinders” and “Big Little Lies”) which exhibit such phenomenal acting that I truly couldn’t care less if the narrative was decent or not. The characters could be fighting over how much mayonnaise to put on a sandwich and I’d probably still be floored by the incredible performances. I’ve just added “Ozark” to the book.
Janet McTeer shines as the tight-lipped, no-nonsense Helen. Felix Solis gives an ominous portrayal as Navarro and Jessica Frances Dukes is great as FBI agent Maya Miller. Julia Garner previously won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ruth, and she’s wonderful in this season as well. Lisa Emery is creepy and intimidating as the unhinged Darlene Snell.
Jason Bateman’s portrayal of Marty opened my eyes to the full scope of his acting chops. Aside from his two episodes in “The Outsider,” I had only seen him in comedies like “Arrested Development” and “Horrible Bosses,” but he really commands as a drama actor as well. He’s also proven himself to be a very talented director and producer.
Then there’s Tom Pelphrey, who knocks the wind out of you as Ben. This is not an easy role, but he soared as the likeable and well-meaning brother of Wendy who struggles to navigate the world of money laundering. His pain is so palpable it’s nearly sickening to watch. I’m gonna go ahead and say he deserves the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor. We still have two more months of television eligibility, but I just can’t see how any other performance could come close to his.
The ultimate performer of the season is Laura Linney. She’s truly phenomenal as Wendy Byrde and dominates in every scene, depicting wickedness, anguish and frustration with ease. Wendy is a complex character, being a vicious businessperson while also a concerned mother, wife and sister, but Linney delivers in whatever is required of her. If this isn’t a Best Lead Actress-winning performance, I don’t know what is.
Thankfully, these incredible actors fight about more than mayonnaise sandwiches, and the storyline makes “Ozark” a must-watch for anyone looking for a bit of thrill. The series as a whole will undoubtedly earn a Best Drama Emmy nom, and with “Game of Thrones” out of the picture, I anticipate it’ll be between this and HBO’s “Succession” for the win.
Final rating: 4.5/5
Featured Illustration: Austin Banzon