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For Ozark showrunner Chris Mundy, taking huge chances is part of the job. On the third season of Netflix’s crime thriller, which earned 18 nominations, including one for drama series, Marty and Wendy Byrde (Jason Bateman and Laura Linney) saw their already blurry moral codes challenged even further. But as the show’s writers pushed their characters into outlandishly dangerous situations, Mundy knew his actors were up for any challenges. “[The cast] makes us look really good all of the time,” Mundy says. A nominee himself for writing for a drama series, he spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about developing Ozark‘s twists and turns and the tough decision to kill off some of his favorite characters.
What was the biggest challenge as you began writing season three?
Coming out of season one, we had a lot of big plot things hanging. There was a lot of story that we were going to pick up. [At the end of season two], there were a few plot things hanging, but we really focused more on the emotional. The cliffhanger, as it were, was really Marty and Wendy’s marriage and them asking, “Who am I? Who am I married to? And is this the person I want?” And that’s really fun to dig into, but it’s a little tricky in that it doesn’t throw hard plot. We [had to] find a balance of a story that helped demonstrate that, and we then could get into all the stuff we really wanted to get into.
How do you develop the story over a season? Do you decide which characters will make major and drastic decisions and then write the story to lead up to those moments?
It’s a little more organic. We always have some big things that we want to hit, and so we’re always trying to work within that frame. And we found that the show doesn’t work if we don’t think of it framed through the marriage and framed through the family. We can just think of crime, and it’s just a bunch of stuff as opposed to something that has some emotional resonance. We usually find themes, and then we break it down by storyline. We spend a lot of time going through those things and naturally start seeing the intersections. It’s almost like you just keep throwing out ingredients onto the table and then figure out what it is you’re going to make with them.
You have three strong performers in Jason Bateman, Laura Linney and Julia Garner. Are there things you want to see those actors do, and does that guide the writing?
It guides the story, and it also makes you confident that you don’t have to overplay your hand in certain ways. When you want to go big, you can go big. Literally everybody is so good. It gives you more confidence that you can go for certain things.
Do the bad things that happen to your characters affect you emotionally, too?
I’ll say as a writer — and a fan — of the show, it’s really sad to see a character go. Part of the strength of the show is that we do [have to kill characters off], and so I understand it. If you look at [Janet McTeer’s character] Helen and [Tom Pelphrey’s] Ben, that was a whole lot of screen time for season three, and they’re both gone. And they were so good. On a personal level, it’s just been a really great group of people to work with. And Janet herself, she is smart and funny and lovely, and so we’re just going to miss having her around. And the same with Tom — he just stepped into this show, and it was like he’d been there from the beginning.
Is it also tough to write certain decisions and actions for your characters knowing they have to do particularly bad things?
We found that when we push these characters to their most extreme selves, it has usually worked out well for us. You know, there was a ton of debate in season two when Marty gave away the baby to Darlene about whether he would do that. We were like, “Will we ever look Marty in the eye again?” The audience didn’t seem to blink. These characters need to be in extreme situations to be able to figure out how to keep going forward. And if they’re not the kind of situations that are going to make us argue with each other in the writers room, then they’re probably not quite good enough for the show.
This season dropped at the end of March, roughly two weeks after the pandemic lockdown began. Did you see a surge in the show’s popularity because of that?
I definitely did feel it. In each of the first two seasons, I’ve gotten a fair amount [of feedback] right away, but this felt different. It’s funny; I think we all felt a little strange at first when it was coming out because it was just such a weird, scary and new moment. In retrospect … I mean, I know how thankful I’ve been for a lot of things I’ve watched during all this. I felt a little better [because] it felt like it was something people were glad to have. There’s definitely something about having the whole world locked up and desperate to watch something.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And The Odds Are…
Ozark didn’t exactly scream “Emmy frontrunner” when it premiered in 2017, but the Netflix drama proved it was not to be underestimated when the second season scored key wins in 2019 for director Jason Bateman and supporting actress Julia Garner. Gaining even more favor for its recent third outing, it seems best positioned to beat odds favorite Succession to the drama crown now that Game of Thrones is out of the picture. If the top prize doesn’t happen, look for Ozark to turn at least a few of its 18 nominations into wins — including a potential best actress trophy for Laura Linney, a four-time Emmy winner who’s yet to be recognized by the TV Academy for her work on the series. — MICHAEL O’CONNELL
Ozark is produced by MRC Television, which shares a parent company with The Hollywood Reporter.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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