If you’ve never got around to watching Netflix thriller Ozark, this is the time. Not just because you need lots to watch while you’re stuck inside, but because it’s a show that benefits from being viewed with zero distraction. What better time than when you can’t go anywhere? It’s a story that is not always hugely action-packed, but the fun is in watching its characters’ souls blacken over time.
To give you the broad strokes, the show centres on Marty and Wendy Byrde (Jason Bateman and Laura Linney), whose chirpy names belie a harried existence. Marty is an accountant who’s been laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel. A major screw-up puts his head on the chopping block, but he manages to save his skin by promising his bosses he can launder $500 million in the Ozarks, a part of Missouri that mixes holidaymakers with rednecks. Marty takes his family (wife, son and daughter), who mostly don’t like him, and moves to the middle of nowhere, initially to try to escape a life of crime as quickly as possible. Gradually, both Marty and Wendy – especially Wendy – get a taste for being bad. Now, if you’ve never watched it, you’d better leave now, because we’re about to talk about season three.
At the end of season two, Wendy stepped up to becoming the family’s most crime-y person. She scuppered Marty’s plan to run to Australia and won herself some brownie points with her cartel boss, and especially his lawyer, Helen (Janet McTeer). With more recognition comes more danger. Season three keeps a lot of the focus on Wendy as she starts to fancy herself a colleague of her cartel boss, rather than a pawn. It is, to a certain extent, more of the same on the plot front – the Byrdes keep sinking deeper into the murky waters of law-breaking while pretending they want to get out – but this show has never really been about dense story, but dense character.
The writers seem aware that things aren’t changing very fast and needlessly toss in obstacles that don’t make a lot of logical sense but give them some new story to work with. Wendy’s charismatic, problematic brother shows up for little reason other than to cause drama (he’s central to the season and his importance is rushed), and a plot with an FBI agent feels quite similarly crowbarred. But while there’s some clumsy setting up, the writing of individual scenes remains elegant as ever. The dance the Byrdes do around each other – not just the parents, but their kids, who move between loyalty and deep distrust – is always fascinating. You never forget that they’re a family before they’re a crime collective.
Wendy’s move to the top is particularly well played (it helps that Laura Linney is an acting titan). She starts to get puffed up on her own criminal competence, which is a very dangerous place to be. If your murderer boss is watching you closely, he knows when you mess up. Seeing Linney play that mix of confidence and fear is a gift. It’s a bonus that she spends much of her time with lawyer Helen, one of the most marvellously ruthless characters on TV.
Ozark draws a lot of comparisons with Breaking Bad – they’re both about ordinary schmos growing to love lawlessness – but it’s yet to hit the heights of that show. There’s still potential, though, and that’s a high bar to hit. Its storytelling has some finessing to do, but it has the characters to become a first rate classic. And Breaking Bad didn’t get really good until season four.