In the director’s commentary for the “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode of “Community,” writer Chris McKenna mentions he was working to avoid giant plot explosions. In order to break up the tension, he dolloped small doses of excitement throughout the alternate timelines: Jeff and Annie making out in one; Britta and Troy flirting in another; and in another, from which the now-infamous gif was created, Troy returns to the party with pizza to find the entire apartment in flames, Pierce shot through the leg. No one timeline had all the fireworks.
“Ozark” is following a similar logic for its final season—at least, for the first seven episodes coming to Netflix on January 21st. Sprinkled throughout these episodes are pivotal flares of emotion. FBI Agent Maya Miller’s (Jessica Frances Dukes) stern face is shattered by the shock of realizing the difference between what she thinks her job is, and what the FBI thinks her job is. Pharmaceutical CEO Clare Shaw (an unsteady, miscast Katrina Lenk), a sort of Mercer/Sackler stand-in, albeit a repentant one, is perfectly pleasant as Wendy and Marty Byrde (Laura Linney and Jason Bateman, respectively) pitch her on donating to their foundation, but when she realizes they’re suggesting she buy opium from the cartel, her polite smile and the room temperature drop simultaneously. Given cartel lawyer Helen Pierce’s (Janet McTeer) murder, Wendy seeks to hire Jim Rattlesdorf (a deeply underrated Damian Young), whom we first met in season two as Charles Wilkes’ (Darren Goldstein) right-hand man. Exercising her brand new attorney-client privilege, Wendy informs Jim that she and her husband launder cartel money. The smashed-egg-on-my-forehead expression on Young’s face is Emmy-worthy.
Season four is at its best when it deftly manages constantly shifting alliances and character developments within those emotional flares. This includes Ruth’s new, and considerably more difficult, life. At the end of season three, Ruth Langmore (the ever-terrific Julia Garner) quit working for the Byrdes, devastated by Wendy sending her own brother, and Ruth’s boyfriend, Ben (Tom Pelphrey) to his death. We last saw her admiring the poppy farm with cousin Wyatt (Charlie Tahan), who is in the world’s most disturbing live-in romantic relationship with trigger-happy Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery). Ruth is now preparing to launder the proceeds of the heroin operation, but she and Darlene frequently clash, each trying to prioritize their instincts. (Darlene’s continued unhinged nature, it must be said, makes me long for Helen, who disposed of pesky people with no muss, no fuss efficiency. Mrs. Snell, on the other hand, continues to dispatch anyone who finds themselves on the business end of her shotgun.) Cartel boss Omar Navarro (Felix Solis) is tussling for control of the drug empire with his brash, American-educated nephew Javi (Alfonso Herrera), whose impulsive decisions frequently imperil almost everyone on the show. United in both their grief over Ben’s death and hatred for Wendy, Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) starts to launder money for Ruth, despite living at home and continuing to witness his family’s litany of felonies.
Speaking of Wendy: move over, Heisenberg, there’s a new monster in town. Laura Linney is firing on all cylinders this season, sliding in nanoseconds from honey-sweet do-gooder businesswoman to hemlock-lethal crime boss. Wendy begins this season with a startling two-pronged act. In unguarded moments, genuine guilt over what she did to Ben flashes across her face. But the rest of the time, she is selling her dead brother, in press conferences for the rehab centers the Byrde Foundation is building, as “missing, due to his lifetime of struggling with opioid addiction.” All of this is horse shit, of course, and fools no one who knows her, including Ruth, whose few moments of happiness were spent in Ben’s arms; Marty, who is appalled that Wendy would use her dead brother as PR fodder; and Jonah, fast becoming the smartest Byrde. Wendy fails to convince Jonah of her grief every time, and her white-hot rage grows by an order of magnitude every time her familial instincts fail her.
Marty and Wendy have repeatedly said they’re trying to protect what is now rapidly receding in the rearview mirror: their family. Jonah has already jumped ship. Full credit to Skylar Gaertner for making the most of the tension between mother and son; he contrasts perfectly Jonah’s innate calm with Wendy’s fury. Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) is still in the fold but wants to skip college in favor of continuing to work for her parents, so she’s rattled when Jonah says, “It’s a matter of time before you fuck up really bad, and Mom will just fire you. Then where will you be?” The Byrde children are turning into their parents. Wendy sighs happily when she hears about her daughter, in true company man form, exploring a newfound penchant for ruthlessness, for doling out threats, for loyalty to the family. And Jason Bateman sneaks in a rare (and hilarious) smile of genuine pride when he hears that his 14-year-old son is laundering money.
There is a new fly in everyone’s ointment: a private investigator named Mel Sattem (Adam Rothenberg, playing the part to perfection). He bears jarring, probably intentional, similarities to Agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner), may he rest in piss, including facial structure, height, build, and relentlessness. The key difference? Sattem’s sunny disposition. On a mission to get Helen Pierce to clap eyes on divorce papers, he drives from place to place, blasting catchy music from his old Mustang. “A body,” Sattem tells everyone with considerable good cheer, “is as good as a signature.” Alas, if only he’d been at the second baptism of Omar Navarro’s newborn—he would’ve had a front-row seat to Wendy and Marty washing bits of Helen out of their faces and hair.
I’ve always wanted to interview “Ozark’s” costume director. The show’s production design and color grading don’t leave a lot of room for variation, so costumes tend to stick to grays, blacks, blues, and browns. But there are subtle differences over the course of four seasons in attire. This season, there’s some olive green creeping in, mostly in Wendy’s clothes. As such, Wendy’s uniforms of black and brown shirtdresses, oxblood-and-coal trouser and blouse combinations are her armor. They allow her to enter a scene almost imperceptibly, so she can deftly unsheathe her real weapon: her tongue. This wardrobe is interrupted by a single sweater-coat from previous seasons: dark brown body, with horizontal stripes of gray, white, muted ochre yellow, and khaki green. Wendy only wears this when she’s trying to appear sympathetic; in season four, she wears it just once, on a visit to Agent Miller, who has given birth to a son. Marty, in contrast, has some of the most consistent wardrobing because he has largely not changed at all. He’s still the same brilliant, bizarrely calm money launderer he was when we met him.
Ruth’s style evolution is probably my favorite. When we first met her, her clothing was casual: cutoff jean shorts, spaghetti strap tops, T-shirts, frayed jeans. But since season one, Ruth has lost multiple loved ones, managed multiple businesses, and been waterboarded. Her clothes have sobered. She sticks to jeans without holes, sturdy jackets, full-sleeved sweaters. A few times this season, we see a ratty camel-colored pullover with a pattern of textured swirls (mimicking, perhaps, her crop of curls); rather tellingly, Ruth wears this during the episode she loses her only heroin distribution line and is struggling under the weight of an identity crisis, coupled with Wendy labelling Ben an addict in the press.
Netflix has forbidden critics from talking about character deaths, of which there are many, but it's fair to say that episodes six and seven take on a cold-bloodedness that should ring familiar to Netflix subscribers. The plot mechanics dueling with character decisions is reminiscent of “House of Cards," and not just because both episodes were directed by Robin Wright. “Ozark,” thankfully, has thus far avoided a descent into the higgledy-piggledy morass of plot, ideology, and motives that marred the final season of "House of Cards."
Finally, a meditation on Julia Garner’s work as Ruth. This performance will go down in history as one of the finest ever seen on television or streaming services. If you turn off the sound, Garner can still convey a myriad of emotions. She needs neither a scene partner nor spoken dialogue. Garner’s calibrations of Ruth’s behavior have paid off: her anger doesn’t feel stale, nor her resilience monotonous. There’s a heartrending sequence at the beginning of episode two, when Ruth places Ben’s ashes in a cookie jar of a ceramic goat. It sits on her trailer’s dining table—despite her wealth, Ruth has not bothered moving—and she stares at it. Even when the tears bubble up, she fights them. Her breath grows shallow. Her face crumples in agony. The grief, raw and unrelenting, breaks forth across her face in desperate sobs, refreshing the audience’s memories of a thousand losses: Ben, her father, her uncles, her mother, Three, Wyatt. She is fully alone, and she knows it. But by the end of this half-season, Ruth has had enough. You can only push her so far before she pushes—no, roars—back.
Whole season screened for review. Premieres today, January 21, on Netflix.