Review: ‘Ozark’ drops final 7 episodes on Netflix, bringing end to Byrde family drama

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews final season of 'Ozark'

This review contains spoilers of Season 4: Part 1, but only minor details for Part 2.

The gap between Season 3 and Season 4 felt like an eternity due to pandemic delays, but since “Ozark” divided its final season into two seven-episode batches, it’s been torture waiting for the final shoe to drop after Ruth Langmore shouted, “You’ll have to ‘fn kill me!”

On Friday, we finally get the final batch on Netflix, bringing a dramatic end to the Byrde family drama. Netflix is allowing us to discuss everything but the series finale. What’s a critic to do? I’ll try to refresh you on how we got here and tease the final developments without major spoilers as you sit down to watch this weekend. Fasten your seat belts.

How we got here

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 filmed near Atlanta to receive Georgia tax breaks for production.

It follows the dysfunctional Byrde family, led by financial adviser 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. We admire Marty’s ability to keep calm in high-pressure situations, but we lament his pushover tendencies.

As for Wendy, we initially despise her for cheating on her husband, a disdain that remains for most of Season 1 as a selfish antagonist within the family. As they mend their marriage in Season 2, we admire her entrepreneurial spirit in running the family business, until she becomes irredeemably coldblooded like Michael Corleone from Season 3 onward.

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 (“Breaking Bad”) without forgetting her roots of cousins Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) and Three (Carson Holmes) raised by uncles Russ (Marc Menchaca) and Boyd (Christopher James Baker).

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

Season 3 added drug lord Omar Navarro (Felix Solis), who blew Helen’s brains out; Helen’s daughter Erin (Madison Thompson); FBI Agent Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes); Teamster Frank Cosgrove (John Bedford Lloyd) with Frank Jr. (Joseph Sikora); and Wendy’s bipolar brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey), whom she left to be whacked at a diner.

Most recently in Season 4: Part 1, private eye Mel Sattem (Adam Rothenberg) probed Ben’s disappearance; Ruth placed Ben’s ashes into an urn and bought the Lazy-O Motel; Jonah moved out over his uncle’s murder; Wendy struck opioid supply deals with Clare Shaw (Katrina Lenk); and FBI Agent Miller arrested Navarro to imprison the cartel chief.

It all built up to Navarro’s hotheaded nephew Javi (Alfonso Herrera) killing Wyatt and his predatory bride Darlene Snell in a spray of bullets at the Snell farm, leaving Ruth to mourn her cousin, grab their orphaned baby and hop into a van to seek revenge. Her furious outburst, shouting, crying and peeling out, was the ultimate midseason cliffhanger.

The final binge

This weekend drops the curtain with plenty of death, family strife, even a little insanity.

The first episode of the final batch thankfully gives us a definitive conclusion to Ruth’s revenge plot. As she mourns Wyatt through teary-eyed memories behind the steering wheel, her drive unfolds to Nas’ “Illmatic” album with symbolic lyrics following her journey as she tracks down Javi in Chicago where he is meeting with Marty, Wendy and Clare.

We won’t spoil what happens — does she secure revenge, or does she chicken out? — but the ramifications elevate Javi’s mother Camila Elizondro (Veronica Falcón). She makes moves in Mexico as her brother Omar waits in a U.S. prison, sparking twists, turns and internal turmoil within the cartel family as viewers’ chief cartel foil changes every season.

Ruth’s decision also affects the homestretch of her character arc, marking a drastic turnaround from where she started. Will her grief over Wyatt cloud her decisions? Did Wyatt leave her anything in his will? Will her criminal record hold her back from taking over the drug business or ruin her chances at gaining more power at the riverboat casino?

As we learn Ruth’s fate, several other memorable characters show up to take a final bow in the final season. One character appears in a flashback to a pivotal moment that we never got to see on screen, another character appears in brief flashes of mournful memories, and another character even returns to the Ozark after being run out of town.

While these cameos answer certain questions, other subplots are left dangling. The midseason cliffhanger made a big deal about Ruth obtaining Darlene’s adopted baby Zeke, but oddly the child takes a back seat. In fact, the baby isn’t mentioned in the big return episode; you’ll have to wait until the next episode for a casual mention of a babysitter.

Oh well, there’s a bigger custody battle brewing over Jonah and Charlotte, who are ready to break free from their parents as mid-to-late teenagers. Wendy’s estranged father Nathan (Richard Thomas) becomes a major player, moving into the Lazy-O Motel, seeking the truth about his son Ben’s disappearance and worrying about his grandkids’ safety.

As always, Marty quietly checks on his kids (“I miss you at the house”), but the lifestyle is getting to him (“I’m sick of having blood on my hands”). While he hasn’t grown a spine to stand up to Wendy yet, we finally see him lose his cool in a road rage incident like “Falling Down” (1993). It’s out of character, but we can’t blame him amid the mounting pressure.

Wendy more fiercely fights to keep her children in her grasp, declaring that she will do anything, even kill, to keep them in her possession. By the end, she’s pleading on her knees, calling him “daddy,” seeking medical advice for her mental health issues, and even head-butting her car window in frustration. It’s not out of love; she just doesn’t wait to fail.

Wendy’s head butt and Marty’s road rage are clearly foreshadowing the framing device of the Byrde family car crash, which opened Season 4: Part 1 back in January.  This takes a little of the mystery out of Season 4: Part 2 as we know that no matter how much freedom Jonah and Charlotte seek, they’ll at the very least wind up in a car together with them.

The directing has visually hinted at their potential doom all along, plotting in the shadows of dark interiors as cinematographers Ben Kutchins and Armando Salas recall the work of “Prince of Darkness” Gordon Willis. Expect more shots of the camera lurking outside of the home, gazing through the windows at Marty and Wendy as the walls figuratively close in.

We also see more ominous bars, set up in Season 4, Ep. 1 (24:00 mark) as private-eye Mel forces Marty behind the staircase railing like when Dustin Hoffman came knocking in “All the President’s Men” (1976). When Mel returns with a false theory in Ep. 5 (12:30 mark), we cut to a different camera angle to show Marty’s relief. Will it pay off in the finale?

For now, the best clues remain the opening logo by 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 foreshadow what’s to come as we the audience play “I Spy” for the familiar images in a mini game within the show.

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 with 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?” “Ozark” has garnered increasing critical acclaim on Rotten Tomatoes — Season 1 (70%), Season 2 (76%), Season 3 (98%), Season 4: Part 1 (91%) — while audience scores remain steady at 92%, 90%, 86% and 90%, respectively.

The final grade of critics and audiences hinges on the finale, which I’m forbidden to discuss under embargo until Monday (thanks Netflix). As of the penultimate episode, the car-crash framing device still hasn’t been addressed. Will the crash be the end of the Byrdes? Or will they dangle upside-down and crawl out onto the highway for more?

For now, go binge the final seven episodes this weekend and Tweet at me on Monday as the embargo lifts. To quote Ruth, if you want to know any more, “You’ll have to f’n kill me!”

WTOP's Jason Fraley talks 'Ozark' live on WTOP

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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