The season begins with the money laundering Byrde family having reached a point of relative stability, emphasis on the "relative." Against the odds and after many struggles, their riverboat casino project is off the ground, or, rather, on the water, and their thoughts turn to possible expansion. Even their violent dispute with the Kansas City mob over unionization, the major threat at the end of the previous season, seems to have simmered down to an uneasy truce.
Things are obviously not going to stay this way. Apart from anything else, there would be insufficient drama for television if they did. New threats emerge, internal and external, and, as usual, the ones that come from within are the most dangerous.
Bonded by adversity, Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) are beginning to repair their battered marriage, and have actually agreed to counselling, even if we soon have reason to question the sincerity of their commitment to the process. They are moving in opposite directions. The stress and trauma of his recent experiences - and the new season brings worse - have made Marty a lot more cautious. Wendy, by contrast, is growing in confidence. Lobbying for the casino reminded her how much she enjoyed politicking, especially since she was pleased to discover her talents in this direction were undiminished by years of neglect and turned out to be very useful in a completely different environment. It seems that the skills she acquired working for the Democratic machine in Chicago are transferable to rural Republican-inclined Missouri. She is in fact rather beginning to enjoy herself.
The couple disagree more and more over expansion. Wendy favours an aggressive strategy where Marty is increasingly more of a manager than the buccaneering entrepreneur that desperation forced him to be in the first season. This rift over their future direction is made even more perilous by their failure to communicate properly. Both have got into the bad habit of acting on their own initiative without telling the other. At one point Marty is even working actively to undermine his wife's plans - which is potentially fatal when those plans have been approved by their employers and are therefore also the cartel's plans.
An unstable situation is made even more unstable with the arrival of Wendy's brother, Ben (Tom Pelphrey). The "long lost relative" who has never been mentioned before is often a very poorly contrived plot device to give an ailing franchise a bit more time, but not in Ozark. It is a prime example of good literary craftsmanship that, in another context and perfectly naturally, Wendy spoke of him some time before, and also of the distress his mental problems caused when she was younger. This is first class "foreshadowing."
So we are prepared when he shows up - except we are not prepared for how charming he is. Everyone likes him, even surly Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner). There are hints of an impulsive personality, but only gradually does it become clear that his mood swings go deeper than an occasional loss of temper. Remember that the Byrdes' lives depend on maintaining an image of total reliability and discretion. They remember. They cannot afford to forget it for an instant.
It does not help that they find themselves under much tighter scrutiny from three directions at once. Their immediate supervisor, Chicago attorney and cartel fixer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer) decides to spend the summer with her children in the Ozarks. How pleasant. Her real purpose is, of course, to keep a closer eye on the Byrdes. This does at least offer them the prospect of building a genuine friendship with Helen, especially since the Byrde children Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) seem to get on well with her daughter Erin (Madison Thompson). It is interesting to note how they seem far more mature than Erin, who has been kept in total ignorance of the true nature of her mother's law practice. One realises how quickly they have been forced to grow up - and how much stronger they are as a result.
Cordial relations are indeed established between the two families, but whether this makes any difference to the ruthless Helen is another matter. In any case, her severe insistence that Erin be kept in the dark about her business and the Byrdes' is obviously a ticking time bomb. Once again, Ozark presents the contrast between the healthy family, which argues but at least talks, and the dysfunctional one, where there is no honesty or real communication - and it turns out that, at least when it comes to their children, the Byrdes are the relatively healthy family.
Although she never lets it show, Helen is under increased pressure herself. So far the cartel for which she works has been portrayed as an all powerful organisation, but it is now under threat. It is engaged in a literal war with another cartel down in Mexico and is definitely getting the worst of it. This makes its boss, Omar Navarro (Felix Solis, enjoying himself), even more paranoid than usual. No one is above suspicion. He therefore begins to take more of a direct interest in the Byrdes. Cartel bosses tend to be arbitrary rulers at the best of times and one with his back to the wall is a doubly vicious, unpredictable beast. It is not good to be the particular object of his attention - as Marty discovers.
It hardly reassures Helen and Navarro that, at the same time, Marty becomes more of a person of interest to the FBI, who are trying to pressure him into making a plea deal with them. They go about it far more methodically than before. In place of the off-the-Reservation Agent Roy Petty, Marty now faces a deceptively formidable adversary in the polite, friendly fanatic Agent Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes). Her courteous manner leads Marty to the badly mistaken conclusion that he can "turn" her. She is in fact a true believer in what she does, like Inspector Javert in Les Miserables and for similar reasons.
She understands that the way to convict Marty is to follow the money - which is, after all, how the Feds finally convicted Al Capone, among many others. She seems to be Marty's equal in her attention to the details of financial transactions. Like a thorough tax investigation, she builds a sense of fear and inevitability that might prompt even an innocent man to seize on a deal just to get it over. This aspect of the plot is all too credible.
Even as he faces the triple threat of Helen, Maya, and Navarro, Marty's Kansas City problem has not gone away. The boss is open to reason, or at least bribery, but when his obnoxious son causes problems for Ruth, who is now Marty's right-hand woman in running the casino, things have the potential to spin out of control very quickly. Ruth has proved herself a loyal and dependable lieutenant, and the fact that Marty is willing to pay a high price to support her shows how much he values her.
Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery), who it turns out is by no means as daft as she might appear, nevertheless sees an opportunity to lure the Langmores away from the Byrdes. She is as arrogant and headstrong as ever, but there may be a deep understanding beneath and she appreciates things that newcomers like the Byrdes do not.
It is therefore fair to say that there is no shortage of tension and excitement in Season Three, but Ozark was never lacking in those. If the earlier seasons can be criticised for anything, it was that they could be very grim. There were few of the lighter moments that similar shows use to alleviate the darkness of the subject matter - possibly because Bateman wanted to distance himself from his image as a comedy actor. Nor was there really much heart to the Byrdes: we sympathised with them in their situation, but there was little to like about them as people. Their motivation, while understandable, was essentially selfish.
Season Three seems to have made the deliberate decision to address those shortcomings. There is a very welcome injection of dark humour, mostly thanks to the introduction of the Byrdes' ethically challenged marriage counsellor Sue Shelby, played by the superb Marylouise Burke (Series 7: The Contenders, Sideways), who comes close to stealing the show.
That she does not is due to the emotional power of Ben's more tragic character arc, which counterpoints the comedy. This gives Laura Linney the opportunity to stretch her big acting muscles and it is no surprise that she makes the most of it.
Ben's story also enables us to see the more of the vulnerable side of the emotionally guarded Ruth. If we met her, we might well find her prickly and unpleasant, but, from our more objective point of view as viewers, we see a lonely, frightened girl who is nevertheless trying to help others and we hope things will somehow end well for her. Frankly that seems very unlikely. At least Julia Garner picked up a deserved second Emmy for playing her this season.
The season ends on the cliffhanger of all cliffhangers. At the time of writing the fourth and final season, or at least the first half of it, is imminent. The third has left it in a strong position to go in several different directions. However, a Happy Ever After does not look to be among the viable options, nor does it seem right that there should be one. Yet a moralistic conclusion might be equally out of place. While the Byrdes are not exactly ethical people, it seems unfair to punish them for trying to survive in a difficult situation. In Ozark, there are no blacks and whites, just different shades of grey, and everyone is compromised to a certain extent, even Maya. The question is therefore not only whether the Byrdes can survive but whether they can, belatedly, find some moral strength within themselves to rise above what they are
Review: John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
He is also the author of ‘How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon. John has also written over 100 reviews for Television Heaven.
John's Website can be found here: John Winterson Richards
Published on December 30th, 2021. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.