Ozark exists in a state of constant crisis, and that continues to be true in its superbly suspenseful second season. Things are always ready to go to hell in Netflix’s crime drama, with every decision made, and every solution found, only leading to unexpected new dangers. It’s a pulse-pounding treatise on the quicksand-like effect of lies and wrongdoing—the more you try to claw your way out, the more (as a famous Godfather once said) you’re pulled back in, increasingly suffocated by a lack of options and the moral and spiritual rot gradually infecting your every fiber. Survival is everything and yet costs everything too, leaving everyone with nothing but grief, terror and the sinking feeling that there’s no escape from the actions that have been taken, and the people they’ve become.
Suffice it to say, then, that things don’t get better in this return engagement of Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams’ series (now streaming)—except, that is, with regards to its storytelling, which boasts a methodical crispness and ferocity that surpasses even last year’s maiden ten episodes. Credit for that goes to many in this most merciless of shows, but in particular to a collection of actresses led by the magnificent Laura Linney, whose tour-de-force turn is as good as anything she’s done in her illustrious career, and embodies the proceedings’ cutthroat spirit. There’s deft complexity to her cunning gestures and deeds (both big and small), as she segues on a dime between kind and nasty, genuine and conniving. And there’s greatness in her use of sweetness as a weapon, as in a first episode confrontation with a funeral director in which a seemingly innocuous “Mmm-hmm” serves as a demand, with the promise of an even more amiably chilling threat behind it.
Linney’s Wendy Byrd is the standout in what has quickly turned into one of television’s finest ensembles, and her charming, sociable demeanor is expertly matched with Jason Bateman’s Marty, whose mounting guilt and anguish are now driving him into emotionally remote, amoral territory. Playing even further against type than before—such that one regularly expects him to make witty comebacks, only to find him delivering coldly calculating responses—Bateman is a man afraid of the black hole at his core. Like the rest of the Byrds, he has good reason to despair, since when we last left him, his plan to build a riverboat casino with the aid of local heroin dealers Jacob (Peter Mullan) and Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery), all in order to launder their drug-cartel employer’s money, had hit a snag when Darlene impulsively murdered cartel bigwig Del (Esai Morales).
Season two picks up in the immediate aftermath of that calamity, with Marty and Wendy trying to salvage their gambling project—and thus save their own lives, as well as those of daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner)—while contending with cartel lawyer Helen (Janet McTeer), whose arrival in the Ozarks spells further trouble.
Similar to Wendy, Helen supplies menace with a smile, although few outright pleasantries—she’s all business, and quickly comes to suspect that the Byrds are less than trustworthy allies. She’s fundamentally right, since their entire purpose is to extricate themselves from a de facto hostage situation of their own making. However, they initially prove reliable partners for the cartel, exploiting Wendy’s campaign-manager skills to help convince conservative politician Charles Wilkes (Darren Goldstein) to aid the passage of a bill that’ll allow the casino to go forward. Such wheeling and dealing puts Wendy back on familiar professional ground, but there’s no stable terra firma to be found anywhere in Ozark, and Wilkes proves merely one of numerous obstacles in her and Marty’s eventual path to freedom.
The promise of liberation keeps driving the couple forward, even as a ceaseless stream of complications dims any glimmers of hope—a notion conveyed by a visual palette that’s all icy blues, browns and blacks, and compositions that separate and isolate characters. Around every corner, a new catastrophe awaits, waiting to end their lives.
Unhappy with their cartel arrangement, the hillbilly Snells—and especially Darlene—are routinely ready to blow things up. Rebellious Charlotte wants emancipation from her clan, while book-smart Jonah takes the phrase “like father, like son” to heart. FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner) is still hot on their trail, and enlisting Rachel (Jordana Spiro)—who recently took off with $300,000 of the cartel’s cash, all so she could become a junkie on the lam—to do his dirty work. The Kansas City mob winds up involved in the Byrds’ casino scheme, thanks to the intervention of ailing (albeit feisty) Buddy (Harris Yulin). Recently-widowed pastor Mason Young (Michael Mosley) is also in the picture, preaching on the sidewalk with his infant son in tow, and as furious and desperate as everyone else in this frosty place.
And then there’s Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), whose allegiances are split between surrogate father Marty, whom she tried to kill and then decided was a potential savior, and her recently paroled dad Cade (Trevor Long), a man whose rabid-dog wildness is only exceeded by that of Darlene. Striving to get cousin Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) admitted to the University of Missouri, running a strip club, and navigating a narcotics underworld for which she’s only somewhat prepared, Ruth remains both tough beyond reason and surprisingly vulnerable. Alongside Linney, McTeer and a terrifically feral Emery, Garner helps transform Ozark into a portrait of ruthless women seizing control of their own lives, no matter the interests of their male counterparts, who like to dismiss such maneuvering as mere “undermining.”
Ozark’s characters are drawn in multiple, often contradictory shades, and its plot is intricate without ever becoming muddled. Moreover, unlike The Handmaid’s Tale and its preposterous torture-porn-for-progressives second season, the series’ widespread suffering is tethered to legitimate, ambiguous questions about parenthood, sin, salvation, the often arduous choices required to keep clans together, and whether safety comes from running (including from yourself), or from staying true to who you are, and embracing the power you derive from your (real, and criminal) family. It’s a domestic drama-cum-crime saga that’s terrifyingly incisive about human impulses and failings, and men and women’s capacity for depravity when boxed into a corner.
The hell in which the Byrds and their compatriots find themselves is a distinctly man-made one, and not everyone gets out alive by the end of Ozark’s sophomore season. Nonetheless, as McTeer’s Helen says, “There are no victims here—just volunteers.”