Review: ‘Ozark’ Season 4, Part 1 drops on Netflix to binge first half of final season

This review may contain spoilers of Seasons 1-3, but only minor details of Season 4.

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews Season 4 of 'Ozark'

We all just went to bed on what was the 14th anniversary of “Breaking Bad,” only to wake up with a new batch of episodes of “Ozark,” our newest fix of drug-dealing family drama.

After a pandemic delay, the fourth and final season dropped Friday on Netflix for one last ride divided into two parts. The first batch of seven episodes is now available for your binging pleasure, while the second batch of seven episodes will drop at a later date.

Such TV reviews are admittedly tricky — not sure of which readers are caught up on the previous seasons — but I’ll try to refresh you on where we left off and tease the new season’s key developments without major spoilers as you sit down to watch this weekend.

Created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams, the series is set in Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, where Dubuque worked as a dock hand during college in the 1980s, though most of the show is actually shot near Atlanta to receive Georgia tax breaks for film production.

It follows the dysfunctional Byrde family, led by financial advisor Marty (Jason Bateman) and political campaigner Wendy (Laura Linney), who are forced to leave Chicago and go on the lam in the Ozarks when a money laundering scheme goes south, putting them under the thumb of a Mexican drug cartel and under the increased scrutiny of the FBI.

In a show filled with anti-heroes, our biggest attachment is to Marty, who is seemingly introduced watching porn at the office, only to learn that he is actually watching video of his wife’s affair. Within seconds, he goes from pathetic to sympathetic. This sympathy ebbs and flows throughout the series, as Marty keeps his calm through high-pressure decisions.

As for Wendy, we initially despise her for cheating on her husband, a feeling that carries through most of Season 1 as a selfish antagonist within the family. As they work on their marriage in Season 2, we come to admire her entrepreneurial spirit in running the family business, until she becomes greedy and coldblooded like Michael Corleone in Season 3.

Caught in the middle of it all are their two innocent kids, Sofia Hublitz as Charlotte and Skylar Gaertner as Jonah. Charlotte learns the hard way that the visiting boaters on Party Cove aren’t meant for long-term relationships, while Jonah displays a troubling fascination with dead animals while taking an interest in his parents’ financial web of shell companies.

Julia Garner steals the show as the tenacious Ruth Langmore, whose family reputation is trailer-park troublemaking. We root for her to break free like Jesse Pinkman without forgetting her roots, taking care of her cousins Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) and Three (Carson Holmes) alongside uncles Russ (Marc Menchaca) and Boyd (Christopher James Baker).

Season 1 also introduced ailing tenant Buddy Dieker (Harris Yulin); Blue Cat restaurateur Rachel Garrison (Jordana Spiro); gullible realtor Sam Dermody (Kevin L. Johnson); unethical FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner); Mexican drug lord Del (Esai Morales); and deadly poppy growers Jacob & Darlene Snell (Peter Mullan & Lisa Emery).

Season 2 further explored Pastor Mason Young (Michael Mostly) and his pregnant wife Grace (Bethany Anne Lind), whose river sermons are hijacked by heroin dealers; Ruth’s paroled dad Cade Langmore (Trevor Long); lakehouse political donor Charles Wilkes (Darren Goldstein); and the drug cartel’s cutthroat lawyer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer).

Most recently, Season 3 added drug lord Omar Navarro (Felix Solis); pregnant FBI Agent Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes); Helen’s naive daughter Erin (Madison Thompson); Teamster Frank Cosgrove (John Bedford Lloyd) and son Frank Jr. (Joseph Sikora); bribed shrink Sue Shelby (Marylouise Burke); and Wendy’s bipolar brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey).

Now, Season 4 picks up after Wendy callously whacked her brother, Fredo style, leaving him alone for hitmen at a roadside diner as she broke down on the phone in an award-worthy scene. It all built to a shocking cliffhanger on a Mexican airport runway as Navarro blew Helen’s brains out all over Marty and Wendy before giving his new partners a hug.

The first new episode is fittingly called “The Beginning of the End.” We open with a framing device of a dangerous event that is never resolved in Part 1, before flashing back to Marty and Wendy wiping Helen’s brains off their clothes. You’ll smile as they reemerge in slick designer wear for a party to meet Navarro’s hot-headed nephew Javi (Alfonso Herrera).

Marty and Wendy face mounting odds with cold determination and a dash of sarcasm:

“We need large numbers of money, then we need to buy all the people,” Marty says.

“Somehow we have to turn Omar Navarro into a model citizen,” Wendy says.

“And then we need to convince Darlene Snell to shut down her heroin operation,” he adds.

“Of course we do,” she quips, as if the road ahead isn’t tough enough.

Thus, Season 4 revolves around Marty trying to broker an impossible clemency deal between Navarro and FBI agent Maya, while Wendy hypocritically touts the Byrde Family Foundation’s new drug rehab centers when really they’re the ones fueling the opioid crisis by striking a new supply deal with Clare Shaw (Katrina Lenk) of Shaw Medical Solutions.

“It’s the only way to make the bad mean something: bury it; pile good on top of good,” Wendy says, while Bateman spits zingers: “I’m late for my own felony, I’ll see ya later.”

The most promising character arcs this season might just be the teenage Byrde children after being let in on the family schemes. Charlotte becomes a key asset, doing her parents’ bidding by meeting with Helen’s daughter to break the bad news of her mother’s death, while Jonah drifts further away, understandably pissed at his mom for whacking his uncle.

“How do you explain this to a teenager whose only job is to hate you?” Wendy asks.

Jonah rebels against his parents by going into business with Ruth, who keeps Ben’s urn in her trailer (note its clever placement in shots). Ruth also buys the Lazy-O Motel like “Schitt’s Creek,” while forming an alliance with poppy-farmer Darlene Snell, who preys upon Ruth’s cousin Wyatt. His fate hinges on whether he can escape the predator Snell.

Will the Langmores finally leave town? The theme of family vs. adopted family is woven throughout. When Navarro and Javi embrace to say, “Blood over everything,” they mean that blood is thicker than water, but it also foreshadows that there will be blood. There is no “Red Wedding” like “Game of Thrones,” but several characters won’t make it out alive.

As always, “Ozark” boasts brooding direction. In Ep. 1 (24:00 mark), a private investigator forces Marty behind the staircase railing like jail bars, recalling when Dustin Hoffman came knocking in “All the President’s Men” (1976). When the investigator returns with a false theory in Ep. 5 (12:30 mark), we cut to a different camera angle to show Marty’s relief.

The walls are indeed closing in on the Byrde family, who have always done their plotting in the shadows of dark interiors by cinematographers Ben Kutchins and Armando Salas, who do their best impression of Gordon “The Prince of Darkness” Willis. The same indoor shadows remain, only now the glass windows have been shot out by their son’s shotgun.

Season 4 even features a brilliant composition where the camera lurks outside of the home, gazing through the glass at Marty and Wendy at the kitchen sink, symbolically divided by a window pane down the middle of the frame. TV truly has risen to cinema.

The cherry on top is graphic designer Fred Davis, who uses a black backdrop with a white letter “O” containing four images shaped like the letters “O-Z-A-R-K.” Like Saul Bass’ graphics for Hitchcock, the credits become symbolic foreshadowing of what’s to come.

For all this, the series has received 32 Emmy nominations with Garner winning Best Supporting Actress (Drama) twice for her role as Ruth and Bateman winning Best Director (Drama) for the episode “Reparations.” Bateman has also won two SAG Awards and two Emmy nominations as Marty, while Linney has earned two Emmy nominations as Wendy.

Could Season 4 finally win Best TV Drama after recent domination by “Game of Thrones,” “Succession” and “The Crown?” Season 3 of “Ozark” had its most critical acclaim yet on Rotten Tomatoes — Season 1 (70%), Season 2 (90%), Season 3 (97%) — while audience scores steadily remain strong for Season 1 (92%), Season 2 (90%) and Season 3 (92%).

At its worst, “Ozark” can feel a little implausible, but it’s so entertaining that we don’t care. At its best, it echoes elements of the great family crime dramas in the shadow of Coppola.

“This is America,” Wendy insists. “People don’t care where your fortune came from, and in two election cycles, it’ll just be some myth, some gossip, some f*ckin’ cocktail party.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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