The End of 'Ozark' Arrives at a Risky Moment for Netflix

With the crime drama coming to a close, the streaming service says goodbye to another hit.

jason bateman in ozark
Netflix

From the beginning, Ozark promised there was a toll to pay. When the crime drama premiered on Netflix back in 2017, dropping ten episodes of blue-tinted, Missouri-based money-laundering shenanigans, it was clear that the Byrde family, particularly Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney), would eventually face harsh consequences for their actions. To paraphrase a meme from the show Ozark gets compared to the most: "They can't keep getting away with it." With the second half of the final season arriving this week, comeuppance feels as inevitable as the tight-lipped emoji grimace Bateman deploys in nearly every episode when he learns his latest scheme hasn't gone as planned.

That put-upon Bateman face, transported from the satirical playpen of Arrested Development to the bleak world of a violent prestige drama, has always been Ozark's secret weapon. His exasperation, underplayed in even the most gruesome scenarios, never gets old. It's a look that one has to assume Netflix executives were making this past month as the company's stock plunged nearly 35 percent  after the announcement that they'd lost 200,000 subscribers earlier this year, a move that knocked out about $50 billion from its market value. Whether you're running a streaming service or cooking the books for the cartel, that's not the type of monetary loss you quickly recover from.

In the wake of Netflix's financial woes, there's been near constant speculation about what the latest development could mean for the company. Is the reported $30 million price tag for individual episodes of Stranger Things a sign of bloat? Has the emergence of competitors like Disney+ and HBO Max simply made it more difficult for Netflix to grow? Did we finally reach the peak of Peak TV? It's easy to meet most of this finger-pointing and chin-stroking with a Bateman-esque shrug: the changes that are coming are already in motion and are based on decisions that were already made years ago. Remember the words Marty said way back in the Ozark pilot: "Money is, at its essence, that measure of a man's choices." You could say the same thing about a stock price. 

julia garner in ozark
Netflix

From a brand-building perspective, Ozark, a thriller about a financial advisor fleeing the Chicago suburbs for a resort town, was one of Netflix's smart choices. It earned the company multiple Emmys, reinvented Bateman's career, and helped mint a new star in Julia Garner, who plays the Byrde family's foul-mouthed helper. (Garner recently played the title role in Inventing Anna, one of Netflix's recent attempts to turn an attention-grabbing viral story into streaming gold.) Like Stranger Things and The Crown, Ozark was part of a second wave of hit Netflix dramas to emerge after the success of House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black transformed the company from a DVD-by-mail business into a Hollywood disruptor. Those other two shows are both gearing up for new seasons that will premiere in May and November, which will then be followed by their final seasons, signaling the end of an era. Ozark winding down is only the beginning of an even larger ending.

Devoid of science-fiction spectacle or historical pomp, Ozark has always been one of Netflix's smaller shows, a self-aware throwback to television's "difficult men" period. (The show coming to a close at the same time as an actual Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, feels like another telling coincidence.) There's a restraint to Ozark's visual presentation and a hard-nosed focus to its storytelling, which favors clockwork suspense over big twists. Created by Bill Dubuque (The Accountant) and Mark Williams, the show's pilot was noticeable for its shocking sense of constant escalation—a man getting thrown from a high-rise remains one of the enduring images—but, under showrunner Chris Mundy, it settled into more methodical rhythm punctuated by the occasional burst of gunfire or an electrocution. That mode reached its greatest heights in the show's third season, which locked into the conflict between Wendy and her brother Ben (an excellent Tom Pelphre).

Over time, those bodies pile up. Unfortunately in its fourth season, the series is now paying the price for having killed off many compelling supporting characters like heroin kingpin Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) or steely drug lawyer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer). The show enters its final seven episodes with a problem: How do you create credible foes and foils for the Byrde's in such a short amount of time? Cartel leader Omar Navarro (Felix Solis) gets a sister for the Byrde family to contend with, Ruth teams up with Jordana Spiro's returning local pal Rachel, and Wendy must face off with her judgmental, Bible-thumping father (Richard Thomas). These rivalries feel like temporary fixes, band-aids applied to a gaping head wound.

ozark
Netflix

Ozark is at its strongest when it dials up the absurdity of the central relationship between Marty and Wendy. The scenes between the two of them, and the moments when they have to negotiate terms with their increasingly independent minded children, have a sly comedic bent to them that the rest of the show often lacks. How funny should Ozark be? It's a tonal question that the writers never quite solved. In its best moments, Linney's willingness to go operatic, paired with Bateman's deadpan reactions, makes for compelling TV laced with spite and bile. If you've stuck around until the end, their unceasingly toxic repartee is the likely reason. For all its violence and mayhem, the pleasures of Ozark were often human-scaled.

In the future, it's unclear if a show like Ozark would be part of the Netflix portfolio. If the company is committed to cutting costs while serving up more tentpole-style offerings like Red Notice, comfort-food reality series like Selling Sunset, and anthology shows like Anatomy of a Scandal, could a relatively low-concept offering about a white-collar criminal fall by the wayside? The DNA of Ozark is tied to a period of TV that's defined by stressed-out people looking into a mirror and thinking, "I've done a bad, bad thing." As Netflix goes through its own period of creative introspection, saying goodbye to a show like Ozark might be one of the least painful parts of the process. After all, as the Byrde family has learned, some blood does wash off.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.