As illustrated by an opening-scene car ride that takes a turn for the calamitous, there’s doom lurking around every corner in the first part of Ozark’s fourth season, which has been split in two, with seven episodes debuting on Jan. 21 and the final batch reportedly arriving in late 2022. Escape is a perpetual mirage for the Byrdes, whose life of laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel in the Ozarks is akin to being stuck in quicksand—the more they struggle to extricate themselves from their dire predicament, the farther they sink. And sink they most certainly continue to do in this preface to the show’s finale, their every maneuver intended to secure their freedom and yet only accelerating their plummet to the bottom.
Ozark is a saga about many things: familial pretenses of normality and happiness that mask irresolvable dysfunction (rarely has “it’s fine” been a less assuring phrase); the insatiable hunger for wealth and status, and the misery it causes; the folly of believing that the right result can be achieved by making wrong choices driven by bad rationalizations; the uneasy tensions between egotistical parents and resentful kids; the corrosiveness of guilt and shame; and the way in which powerlessness begets desperation and, consequently, dangerously foolish conduct. Most of all, though, season four of Chris Mundy’s stellar crime drama is about selfishness. Without fail, its entangled characters thwart themselves through rogue action, with tragedy and misfortune a constant thanks to individuals’ beliefs that they know best—and, thus, should spontaneously act on their own whims, any purported collaborative plans be damned.
There’s plenty of go-your-own-way behavior in these penultimate episodes of Ozark, which pick up in the aftermath of last season’s finale, when cartel kingpin Omar Navarro (Felix Solis) chose to assassinate his lawyer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer) and maintain his affiliation with Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) Byrde. His reason for making this choice is simple: He wants the Byrdes to facilitate his exit from his narcotics empire by striking a deal with the FBI—via Marty’s on-the-take agent Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes)—that allows him unfettered travel between America and Mexico, free from the threat of arrest or assassination. As far as orders go, few are as tall as this one, but with no way to decline this demand, the Byrdes set about making it come true, all while contending with Omar’s striving nephew Javi (Alfonso Herrera), whom everyone knows has his sights set on the Navarro cartel throne—and who doesn’t care much for Marty and Wendy.
“Your greatest threat will always come from the inside,” cautions Omar to the Byrdes, and that’s made plain when they return to Missouri and discover that Wendy’s decision to have her bipolar brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey) killed—because he was a loose cannon destined to destroy everything they were trying to build—has not only royally pissed off Ben’s girlfriend Ruth (Julia Garner), but angered and alienated son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner). No matter sister Charlotte’s (Sofia Hublitz) stabs at bringing him back into the fold, Jonah defiantly opts to work alongside Ruth for Darlene (Lisa Emery), who’s still grossly involved with Wyatt (Charlie Tahan), and whose heroin operation is in trouble due to a falling-out with KC Mob chief Frank Cosgrove (John Bedford Lloyd). Jonah and Wendy’s frayed relationship is a source of persistent friction, although it’s not the only complication for the Byrdes, who must additionally deal with the homicidal activities of Javi (and his ongoing tensions with Omar), the dissatisfaction of Maya (who doesn’t like being a pawn in this cartel game), and the arrival of pesky private investigator Mel Sattem (Adam Rothenberg), who needs Helen’s signature in order to settle her divorce case.
Marty and Wendy’s marital rapport is also less than stable, courtesy of the latter’s guilt-stricken efforts to make Ben a part of their sales-pitch narrative for a trio of local rehab clinics they’re setting up with Shaw Medical Solutions, a Big Pharma outfit whose new CEO Clare Shaw (Katrina Lenk) wants to turn over a new leaf in the wake of opioid scandals created by her brother and father, and yet who nonetheless agrees to get into bed with the Byrdes and the cartel. To a tragic degree, Ozark’s characters convince themselves that doing the dishonorable thing will lead to an honorable outcome. It’s a portrait of self-delusion (or, at least, greedy self-justification) on a mass scale, and its corrupt soul is epitomized by its myriad instances of cutthroat men and women fuming, intimidating and threatening from behind cheery smiles and polite gestures, their every laugh and compliment laced with poison.
Expertly directed by Andrew Bernstein, Alik Sakharov, and Robin Wright, Ozark remains a show drenched in blue-gray darkness, its exterior iciness in tune with its subjects’ internal frostiness. It continues to feature one of the best ensembles on TV, here led by Julia Garner as the furiously lethal—if, deep-down, also tender-hearted—Ruth, and by Laura Linney as the mercilessly ambitious Wendy. Over the past five years, no one has done better work (on any screen) than Linney, whose thrilling performance is a masterpiece of pragmatic ferocity and kill-them-with-kindness scheming and duplicity. The series has long been a showcase for titanic female presences, and that’s still the case as it establishes its end-game plot, which touches upon pharmaceutical-company malfeasance and election-fraud treachery as a means of further expanding the scope of its critique of unchecked modern avarice.
There’s endless talk in Ozark about the desire to flee the criminal world for a blissful past, or uncharted future, of domestic tranquility. The overarching impression left by the series, however, is that those dreams are just another lie—a feigned attempt at appearing well-adjusted that’s designed to conceal a more genuine, ugly craving for money and influence. In other words: they may say they want out, but their moves imply a longing (need?) to stay exactly where they are, in the murderous, amoral muck. By the conclusion of this run of episodes, the Byrdes have made inroads into becoming national political power players. Regardless of such strategic triumphs, though, they’re no closer to liberating themselves from their mess than when they began.