In the End, 'Ozark' Always Put Family First
For its series finale, Netflix's hit crime drama served up one last grim punchline.
Major spoilers for Ozark up to and including the Season 4 finale follow.
There's a great joke in the opening minutes of the Arrested Development pilot that succinctly sums up the worldview that Ozark explored over the course of 44 episodes. "What have we always said is the most important thing?" asks Michael Bluth, the overwhelmed businessman and over-protective father played with dry precision by Jason Bateman. "Breakfast," says his son George Michael (Michael Cera). Michael quickly corrects him: "Family." George Michael nods slightly, his head still resting on an air mattress, and replies: "Family, right. I thought you meant of the things you eat."
In its final moments, Ozark reasserted the supremacy of family, specifically the way it can corrupt an individual over time. The Byrde family—father Marty (Bateman), mother Wendy (Laura Linney), older daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), and younger son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner)—moved from the suburbs of Chicago to the Ozarks region of Missouri with the hopes of starting a new chapter in their lives. They made investments in local businesses like the Blue Cat lodge, which they laundered cartel money through, and made new friends like Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), who they recruited into their illegal operation. Over the course of four seasons, they secured their fortune while slowly ruining the lives of almost everyone they ever came into contact with. That's the power of family.
The comparisons between Arrested Development and Ozark have always been easy to make. Beyond the presence of star, executive producer, and occasional director Bateman, the grim Netflix crime drama has always circled some of the same topics as the beloved comedy series: the morally bankrupt core of American business, the rampant self-deception of the wealthy, and the way elites cling to "family" as an excuse for their unethical behavior. (Relevant: A key Ozark Season 4 plot has Bateman saying he wants his "kids back.") Where Arrested Development has meta-jokes, pratfalls, and Ron Howard voice-over narration, Ozark offers up murder, piles of cash, and grim proclamations about fate. But both shows made a similar critique of modern American life: the game is rigged.
I thought about Arrested Development a surprising amount during "A Hard Way to Go," the series finale written by showrunner Chris Mundy and directed by Bateman, because in its final scene Ozark essentially ended on a gag. Through a series of complex maneuvers, Marty and Wendy secured their future by pushing cartel boss Omar Navarro out of the picture, striking a deal with the FBI to keep their money-laundering businesses afloat in Missouri, establishing a charitable foundation that would make them significant political players (a la the Kennedy's or the Koch's, who both got name-checked), and returning to the Chicago suburbs with even more money than they left with. Unquestionably, they won.
The cost? Sacrificing their last loyal ally Ruth by giving her up to Navarro's vengeance-seeking sister, who finally learned her brother Javi was gunned down by Ruth, and turning their formerly sweet boy Jonah, who learned how to launder money under his father's tutelage, into an icy killer. As Marty and Wendy arrive back from their house after a victorious gala, they once again unwind with glasses of wine to reflect on all the pain they've caused in their pursuit of prosperity and stability. Then, they notice a broken window. Washed-up cop Mel (Adam Rottenberg) waits outside holding the goat cookie jar Ruth purchased back in the beginning of the Season 4 episode "Let the Great World Spin."
The jar, which contains the remains of Wendy's brother Ben (who Wendy had killed to protect the family's interests), was selected because Ben dreamed of owning a farm with goats one day. Mel, armed with evidence that could bring the Byrde dynasty crashing down, finally has the upper hand. But then Jonah appears wielding a shotgun, ready to protect his parents and the life they've built together. He cocks the rifle and fires as the series draws to a close. One last act of violence for the road, kid.
Yes, like much of Ozark, the ending was bleak, cynical, and brutal. But, in execution, it had the rhythm of a punchline to a sick joke, one that the writers set up back in Season 3 when Jonah went after attorney Helen Pierce with the same weapon and failed to pull the trigger. At that point, Jonah was still trying to find his way in the world, still grappling with right and wrong. In the last episode, Ozark more or less did away with shades of gray or the twinge of ambiguity. The ending, with Wendy earnestly explaining "money doesn't know where it came from," could not have been more literal. The scene may have cut to black before Mel took a bullet to the head, but there's little room for Sopranos-esque post-finale debate. No possibility for a "it was all a dream" theory here.
Is there something admirable about the "These People are Bad" approach? In the abstract, yes. In the past, shows like Ozark have used bits of subtext and the occasional writer-ly flourish to humanize irredeemable monsters, attempting to draw sympathy when scorn might be more appropriate. Candor and clarity can be refreshing. Still, there was a hollowness to Ozark's final stretch. On a narrative level, all the pieces clicked into place and the important set-ups (like the cookie jar) got their pay-offs. The writers circled back to the car crash that opened Season 4, which recalled the chaotic crash from Season 1 stand-out flashback episode "Kaleidoscope." The storytelling remained focused on granular tasks, soul-sucking compromises, and the occasional moment of emotional honesty.
On a thematic and structural level, Ozark showed its work, taking great care to dot the i's and cross the t's. That attention to detail often made the series pleasurable on a scene-to-scene basis. But, taken as a whole, the show could be thuddingly obvious and the finale was indicative of that, passing off its cold-blooded insights on familial ethics like they were profound truths. In its best moments, the writing was exciting, tense, and surprisingly funny. Still, depending on your tolerance for cosmic cruelty, you might reach the end of your Season 4 binge and have a different Arrested Development quote pinging around your head: "I've made a huge mistake."