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Midway through the third season of Netflix’s Ozark, a character is being tortured. That’s not a spoiler, because characters on Ozark are tortured or beaten up with greater frequency than they smile. In this instance of enhanced interrogation, the character faces the worst punishment the creators of Ozark can conceive: intense overhead lighting.
Is Ozark actually winking at the audience? Or just at me?
AIR DATE Mar 27, 2020
In its first two seasons, I’ve been fairly critical of Netflix’s Emmy-winning drama, with its pervasive somberness, its sluggish pacing, its poorly conceived supporting characters and, in particular, its dogged resistance to shooting in even partially illuminated rooms. A show that should have been an entertainingly pulpy thriller has too frequently played as a laugh-free parody of prestige TV.
Imagine my surprise to be writing this, then: The 10-episode third season of Ozark is a substantial improvement over the lugubrious second season, and although it still suffers from many of the show’s trademark inconsistencies, this is probably the best Ozark has ever been. At almost every turn, things point to a show that’s attempting to make refinements, which I can respect.
It’s been a long time since that dismal second season and even the show seems to be trying to ignore most of what took place. Six months have passed, and Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) Byrde have settled into a new normal. The Missouri Belle Casino is open for business and laundering for Mexican kingpin Omar Navarro (Felix Solis), with Navarro’s icy lawyer, Helen (Janet McTeer), as a constant and threatening presence.
With summer arriving, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) Byrde is working for her mother, and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) is accumulating cryptocurrency or something. Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), consistently the best part of the show, is running the casino on the floor and dealing with dangerously douche-y Frank Jr. (Power‘s Joseph Sikora), son of and liaison for a dangerous Kansas City mob boss.
Fraught with tension though the situation may already be, Chris Mundy and the Ozark scribes like to layer in levels of contrivance. It probably would have been enough that Navarro is in the middle of a bloody cartel war in Mexico and turning to the Byrdes to expand his legitimate business interests; or that the Byrdes are doing couples counseling to keep their personal union intact; or that Darlene (Lisa Emery) is still lurking on the periphery with a huge chip on her shoulder; or that the FBI has sent a pregnant agent (Jessica Francis Dukes’ Maya Miller) to perform an audit. There’s still room for new arrivals like Wendy’s troubled brother, Ben (Tom Pelphrey), whose Dances With Wolves name would be Does Stupid Things Constantly, and Helen’s sheltered teenage daughter, Erin (Madison Thompson), who arrives at Lake Ozark for the summer and immediately announces that she’s hoping to lose her virginity — a bad idea if you’re in a Friday the 13th movie and a bad idea here.
Ugh. Perhaps my greatest frustration with Ozark has been how it has struggled to introduce secondary and tertiary characters — I’ll never not be amazed at how much of the second season was wasted on the narrative void that was Charles Wilkes. Both Ben and Erin exist exclusively as ticking time bombs. Pelphrey’s actually pretty good, but “black sheep sibling with mental issues” is a TV trope, and Ozark steers into every single cliche. Erin, entirely unaware of what her mother does for a living, is there only as an oblivious contrast to the entirely too aware Byrde kids, a flimsy existence at best. Navarro, another big new character, is part of a Mexican drug-war plot that feels almost grafted onto Ozark from scenes deemed too predictable for Narcos.
But despite all that new dead weight, the third season has far more narrative clarity than the second, which spun the acquisition of a casino license across 10 bloated episodes and failed to illustrate any of the tactical ingenuity that made the Byrdes interesting in the first place. In my review of the last season, I begged for a return of Marty’s forensic accounting acumen and darn it if Benford’s law of anomalous numbers isn’t a key part of the season. Agent Miller is a smart and capable analyst herself, and she helps the show foreground Marty’s intelligence in a way that helps restore some of the causality the series had been missing.
Marty being good at his job is good for the series, even if every real Ozark fan knows that the show is and really always has been primarily about women — specifically women of a certain age — fighting to earn visibility in a genre that usually fixates on men. So although Bateman remains the show’s top-billed star, executive producer and season-opening director, Marty’s a straw man. Helen, introduced only superficially before, becomes a powerfully meaty role for McTeer, who keeps the character’s viciousness lurking under every line-reading. Darlene’s season arc has a bumpy start, but by the closing episodes Emery has made her unexpectedly relatable and dangerous. And Ruth, pulled between a slew of potential role models, remains my favorite character, with Garner capably following up her Emmy-winning season with another display of coiled rage, colorful swearing and heartbreaking bursts of child-like petulance to remind us of how young the character is.
Still, it’s Linney’s season through and through. Ben may not be a well-written character, but the emotions he brings out in his eternally patient sister never feel false, because Linney is so good. Ben sparks a fully inhabited rainbow of feelings from Wendy, and Linney’s performance, especially in the last couple episodes of the season, is good enough that she and Olivia Colman will be heading for a compelling Emmy showdown.
The Ozark team learned many lessons from the second season, but that doesn’t mean they’ve fixed the things I most enjoy making fun of. There is no indoor scene in Ozark that doesn’t feel like it was shot through the walls of a poorly cleaned fish tank, and there isn’t a single episode that couldn’t be trimmed by five or 10 minutes. As annoyed as I get by the algae-coated, sputum-filtered murk of the Ozark interiors and the overreliance on generic drone shots — at least textually motivated this time around — for exteriors, I appreciate that the season’s climactic scene takes place in broad daylight and sets up a fourth season that may actually intrigue me.
I don’t know that I’ve suddenly become an Ozark fan with these 10 episodes. But I’m getting closer.
[Producer MRC is a division of Valence Media, which also owns The Hollywood Reporter.]
Cast: Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner, Julia Garner, Janet McTeer, Lisa Emery
Creator: Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams
Showrunner: Chris Mundy
Premieres Friday, March 27, on Netflix.
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