In this near-perfect world of secrets, lies and cartel bosses, Laura Linney and Jason Bateman have been compelling to the Byrdes’ bitter end – but it’s Ruth who’s the show’s real hero
‘I am in blood,” said Macbeth, “Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” In Ozark, Wendy and Marty Byrde are equally deep in blood. Indeed, the current and final season began late last year with the couple in the bathroom of a Mexican drug baron’s pretentious estate washing blood spatter they caught in their faces when the cartel’s lawyer (played by Janet McTeer) was terminated for doublecrossing them. Which, as anyone can tell you, is always a mistake.
But what makes Ozark compelling right to its bitter end is that the Byrdes rage furiously against their fate in a way that Macbeth does not. Popular culture in general, and crime dramas in particular, are littered with corrupted, blood-spattered souls who look into the abyss and imagine they are exceptions and that it will not consume them.
Wendy and Marty imagine they have the business savvy and people skills to pull off what he could not. They plan to reverse (in their family people carrier) out of Ozark’s sea of blood, rinse off the damned spots, return to Chicago and pass themselves off as an apple-pie American family unsullied by crime.
Their non-profit Byrde Family Foundation, swollen with drug money, will help them in this rebranding, and through it they plan to bankroll good causes such as, with bitter irony, rehab centres for heroin addicts. Even though the Byrdes – Marty played by Jason Bateman as a man all but emotionally lobotomised, Wendy played by Laura Linney as a woman unremittingly self-deluded and no less ruthless – are among the most evil couple since Birnam wood moved to Dunsinane hill.
Four seasons ago, Marty, a numbers guy with a flexitarian moral conscience, who had spent his career helping clients salt their ill-gotten gains away from the prying eyes of the IRS, and Wendy, a former political aide with a heart of permafrost, left Chicago for a resort in the Ozarks when things got too hot for them in the windy city. They took their children, Charlotte and Jonah, with them, effectively pushing their offsprings’ heads deeper into a world of secrets, lies and ancillary corpses. Which is not a move in any parenting manual you should read.
Once in the idyllic lakeside home – and, for all its depiction of the region as a hub of human venality, Ozark has probably given this bucolic land a real-estate bump – the Byrdes spend four seasons trying to outfox the Feds by laundering drug money through a bar and strip club, and ultimately a floating casino. Their main customer becomes Omar Navarro, head of a cartel who, like them, dreams of achieving the impossible, namely going straight. And, if the Byrdes can’t help him in realising this, they’ll be doing more than wiping somebody else’s blood off their faces, if you catch my drift.
All this would be enough for four series of thrilling drama, but there is more. The Byrdes and the cartel suppose Ozark’s locals to be biddable yokels, that Wyatt and Ruth Langmore are mere trailer trash and that bonkers poppy farmer and heroin producer Darlene Snell is just a hillbilly rube two shells short of a loaded shotgun. But those class prejudices are unfounded.
The development of the character of Ruth Langmore – foul-mouthed, pint-sized moral conscience-cum-business whiz – proves otherwise. If you’ve enjoyed Julia Garner’s performances as Russian-born German fraudster Anna (Sorokin) Delvey in Inventing Anna, or as the titular foil to a Harvey Weinstein-like sex predator in The Assistant, stop everything you’re doing and watch her as Ruth right now.
For me, there are just a handful of episodes left. Though Netflix’s business model is predicated, like the Mexican cartel, on hooking you quick and keeping you in a state of lucrative dependence, I’m refusing to binge watch to the finale. No doubt many gorged on the last tranche of episodes as soon as they dropped on Friday, and now have closure. But that’s no way to consume some of the most rewarding TV around.
In the new episode I’ve just seen (the first from the final tranche), Ruth – hard as nails and brittle as pressed flowers – is driving to Chicago to settle the hash of the Navarro nephew, who offed her cousin Wyatt, and Darlene for getting in the way of the cartel’s business model. While, in general, I’m opposed to murder, never has anyone so deserved to be offed as the oleaginous cartel pretender Javi Elizonndro.
As Ruth rolls into Illinois, she slips Nas’s 1994 album Illmatic into the CD player. As Nas raps his way through NY State of Mind, I realise why the episode is called Sleep Is the Cousin of Death. “I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death,” raps Nas, a line borrowed from Jacobean statesman and poet Thomas Sackville by way of Nightmare on Elm Street 3. In this nocturnal episode, no one sleeps, not only for fear of Hamlet-like bad dreams but because the life of crime requires 24/7 vigilance.
Ruth pitches up at an all-night diner and finds herself chatting to real-life hip-hop star Killer Mike. After paying her respects, she asks now middle-aged Mike whether Nas would have thought his tough earlier years in the projects worth enduring because they supplied the raw material for his beautiful record. “It always feels to me like he hates it and misses it all at once,” says Ruth. “And he’s only fucking 20!” Mike replies. A young, supposedly white-trash woman from the middle of nowhere USA, we are to suppose, feels a deep connection with a black rapper with a headful of rage.
It’s a beat-perfect scene that ends as the sun rises on a fateful day in which Ruth, one of very few sympathetic characters in Ozark, gets ready to avenge her beloved cousin’s murder. “Please come home,” pleads Three, her and Wyatt’s cousin, before she goes on her mission. “Wyatt would have hated you doing this.” But she doesn’t. Like Macbeth only more so, she’s in too deep.