***Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for Ozark through Season 2 follow. Spoilers***
It’s said by most health experts that basically anything you can do to raise your heart rate for more than ten minutes at a time, can have incredible benefits for your overall wellbeing. They encourage you to work exercise into your day in little, but manageable ways — take the stairs at work, fit a walk into your day when you come home, jog on the spot while dinner is cooking, join a pole dancing class. Anything that gets your heart working that bit harder is beneficial.
For those of us less inclined to leave the house, and indeed, the couch … I might suggest watching Ozark.
Season One threw us in at the deep end, meeting Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman, giving the performance of his life, and doing a beautiful job directing) and Wendy (Laura Linney = Goddess, Icon, Queen, obviously), ten years deep into their lives as money launderers for a deadly Mexican Cartel. It’s quite refreshing and bold for a show to present lead characters, heroes, who are already a decade removed from having abandoned all ethical and moral pretences, and Ozark leaned into its premise and presented us one of the most tense, fraught, anxiety inducing seasons of television in recent years. Unlike similar shows, about suburbanites clashing with organised crime, Ozark is not a show about witnessing the moral decline of Good People™; instead, following confirmed Bad People™ as they are finally confronted with the ugly truth and consequences of the choices they have made. It is a show often accused of having unlikable characters and that is fair, but is also — bluntly — the entire point. You’re not meant to like the Byrdes.
Though … you’ll be surprised how hard you root for them.
Season Two picks up exactly where the first left off, with Marty and Mom and Pop Heroin Farmers, the Snells, hustling to cover up Darlene Snell’s (an absolutely terrifying Lisa Emery) impulsive murder of a cartel Lieutenant. Just like Season One, such a sudden and potentially devastating upset is a common theme throughout the second outing, and if I’m being really honest … there are points when it veers into frustrating, wheel-spinning territory. More on that in a second.
Marty’s mission seems almost insurmountable — in order to launder the cartel’s millions of dollars, he has convinced the Snells to flood more of their precious land, and to allow the building of a casino, in exchange for the Cartel expanding the Snell’s heroin distribution, to the benefit of both parties. In order to build the casino, Marty and Wendy need to: go into partnership with a mysterious, right-wing business man, Charles Wilkes (Darren Goldstein), use his connections to convince/bribe Missouri politicians to raise the state cap on casinos, and pass an examination of their finances and lives by the gaming board to secure approval — and that’s just the mostly above-board, official business.
Since this is Marty and he’s an absolute master of wandering blindly into the territory of every criminal gang on the planet, he also manages to step on the toes of the Kansas City Mob. Because, you know, why not?
There’s so much to love here that it’s astonishing, really. One has to allow for some things; that the Byrdes, both Marty and Wendy (who is a fully committed con artist now) will face some incredible roadblock and find a solution, even if it places them in deeper trouble with one of their many dangerous new business partners — but once you accept that’s the format of the show, Ozark’s second season is just as gripping as the first, and standout moments and performances are scattered throughout, with emotional highs and lows coming from some unexpected places.
Wyatt Langmore (Charlie Tahan) is still deeply grieving his father, convinced Marty was responsible, so much so that even Charlotte Byrde (Sofia Hublitz managing to play one of TV’s most likable ‘moody’ teens) begins to suspect her dad is a killer. Elsewhere, widowed preacher Mason (Michael Mosley, who will break every shard of your heart) is quite literally going insane with grief after the murder of his pregnant wife — the baby was left alive for him to find and raise alone. The consequences of both will prove to be devastating in more ways than you can imagine, as the fallout of the Byrde’s somewhat toxic presence really starts to show.
Performance-wise, the cast is already so good and it’s clear they all believe in this show, heart and soul. Everyone brings absolutely everything to each scene and it’s hard to decide who to give special mention to, because each actor deserves it. Jason Bateman might at times be kind of an asshole in real life, and playing one on TV is his calling. He was revelatory last year; he raises the bar even further this time around. Marty is leaner, his affect colder, as he is buried brick by brick under the pressure of what he’s doing. His grip on his emotions finally begins to slip, and look out for Bateman giving about as raw and desperate a performance as he ever will. His direction, too, has come along spectacularly. Bateman has such an eye for framing and the way he uses light and shadow is really something else.
It always goes without saying that Laura Linney is amazing, but she really shines as Wendy Byrde. Wendy is just as manipulative and calculating as her husband, maybe even more so, since she’s kind, and genuinely likable, and she can express genuine sympathy and love in order to convince someone to take a bribe. Hell, Wendy can be sympathetic even when she’s threatening people. I’m kind of in love with her. Julia Garner about stole the show last year, and she goes full Oceans 11 heist on the thing, this time around. Ruth is the most sympathetic character on the show (and I’m including the Byrde children and an actual newborn), a victim of circumstance, trapped by generational poverty and misfortune and worse yet, smart enough to know she can do better. Garner is an absolute gem and it’s clear she knows Ruth in a deep and personal way. Just like last year, if there’s one reason to watch, it’s Ruth.
Standout amongst the newcomers to the cast is Janet McTeer as Helen Pierce, who serves as both the cartel’s lawyer and representative in Missouri, particularly now Del (Esai Morales) is six feet under. Helen is sure to give Ruth a run for her money with fans of ruthless, driven women, overseeing murder, torture and all manner of chaos and anarchy without so much a batting an eyelash. And special mention must go to the hopefully returning Jim (Damian Young). Jim’s presence on the show is dark, and his appearances so brief that he may pass some people by as Charles Wilkes’ deadpan aide, bodyguard and who knows what else. But, look out for Jim. There’s just something about him that I fell in love with quite quickly, particularly when he’s called on to put a certain smug FBI agent in their place.
It’s hard to really discuss the show in any detail without spoiling … I mean, literally, all of it. As was the case last year, each episode is just crammed with twists and shocks. The show never feels overly busy, but there are moments that will end the first act of an Ozark episode, that would be the pre-sweeps cliffhanger on any other show. I can say that Ozark has lost none of its edge, and the tension only ratchets up over the ten newest episodes, building to a conclusion that … well, I’ll leave you to see.
If I were pushed and had to pick one thing that perhaps didn’t quite land, it would be Cade Langmore (Trevor Long), Ruth’s father. Cade was presented as a man who terrified his family, even from inside a prison, but by Season Two he seems to have been scaled back to something much closer to his dumb, and now dead, brothers. The writers sort of explain this away in a subplot featuring Wyatt’s attempts to get into a good university, that focusses on the Langmores’ chronic inability to get out from under their shitty circumstances — Cade is just another product of how he was raised. But even this small point is me digging for something to dislike.
Ozark isn’t a background show, the kind you put on to listen to while you scroll Twitter. It demands rapt attention, with its rapid fire dialogue about the complexities of money-laundering, or just to keep up with who has double crossed who, and why. It plays with time and structure, opening an episode with the final scene, then cycling back to reveal what led there. In one particularly emotive opener, events crawl back in increasing increments of three to not only learn what leaves a season regular in very dire straits, but to examine some of the wider consequences of the Byrde’s meddling and scheming. But for your attention, it rewards you with a crime thriller that’s smart, beautiful to look at and just a genuine pleasure to surrender your weekend to.
If there’s one downside to streaming TV, it’s how quickly we work through each new season, leaving us desperate for more and acutely, painfully, aware it could be a year before getting to revisit these characters again (because there has to be more. I’m not above rioting). But, that’s more than made up for in rewatchability, which Ozark has in droves.
Ozarkis created and written by Bill Dubuque (The Accountant, The Judge), directed by Jason Bateman, and both seasons are available on Netflix, now.