Ever since The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad set the high bar for exciting new avenues of television storytelling, a bevy of TV shows about “bad men” have come our way. Some of these shows misunderstand what made these iconic series so compelling in the first place, while others use the creative freedom of the TV medium to use moral ambiguity as a jumping off point. The Netflix series Ozark falls into the latter category, and while the first season was a bit too stuck in Breaking Bad’s shadow to truly stand apart as its own towering achievement, the show’s second season not only settles into its own unique groove, it digs deeper into what makes a “bad person” through exceptional character work, including giving more texture to the women of the series, all the while the tension ramps up exponentially to result in a compelling yet unrelenting season.
One of the strengths of Ozark’s first season is that it presented a season’s worth of story in the pilot alone. Jason Bateman’s financial planner Marty Byrde discovered his wife (Laura Linney) was having an affair, found out his business partner was skimming from their Mexican drug lord client, and was forced to relocate his entire family to Missouri after said skimming was discovered and his partner was brutally murdered right in front of his eyes. The setup was that Marty promised to recoup his client’s losses and then some by laundering money in the rural yet lucrative vacation spot of the Lake of the Ozarks.
Twists and turns ensued, and while Season 1 ended with everyone a little more worse for wear, the Byrde family was oddly closer with each other than ever before. Season 2 picks up pretty much right where Season 1 left off, with Marty now brokering a deal between the dangerous Snell family and the drug cartel, all the while figuring out how to cover up his boss’s murder. The deal hinges on the creation of a casino, which allows the new season to delve into the local and state politics of Missouri—and boy does it. If Season 1 was about corruption on a street-level criminal field, Season 2 digs into the corruption of those in more “reputable” places of power.
This also allows Wendy (Linney) to find herself part of a much more interesting and complex arc. One of the issues I had with the show’s first season was that it seemed to be setting Wendy up as the “nagging wife” who won’t let her criminal husband do “bad/awesome things.” Season 2 levels the playing field—instead of Walter White and Wife, it’s the story of two characters on equal footing struggling to corral their empire. Wendy gets her hands dirty while also holding her own as a smart, capable woman, and her background running political campaigns allows her to get close to a local political bigwig. Together they work to secure votes and make back-room maneuvers that will pave the way for the opening of the casino.
Linney is terrific, showing deeper shades to Wendy’s character opposite not just Marty, but every other obstacle that stands in the way of the Byrdes’ prosperity and safety. Bateman shines again as well, using his inherent charm to deflect matters that should trouble Marty’s soul. A major theme of the season is the shirking of responsibility. When it’s pointed out that none of these bad things would’ve happened to other people had Marty not moved to the Ozarks, Marty counters that it’s not his fault. “People make choices,” he says, putting their fate in their own hands. This, of course, becomes harder to argue, as Marty gets deeper and deeper into trouble, dragging his family down with him.
Indeed, at heart Ozark Season 2 is a story about family in all its ugly glory: the Byrdes starts to crack as their children become more involved in the business and criminal dealings; the Snells attempt to hold on to their own power in the face of an international cartel; and of course there’s the Langmore clan, which offers up the season’s most compelling arc.
Julia Garner’s talent in the role of Ruth was clearly evident in the show’s first season (and fans of The Americans knew she was poised to be a big deal long before), but she serves as the shining star of Season 2. Not only is Ruth dealing with the fallout of her uncles’ death, but her incredibly dangerous father Russ (Marc Menchaca) becomes one of the season’s biggest threats when he’s released from jail. But Ruth tries to keep the whole thing together while caring for her cousins, managing Marty’s business, and dealing with her own internal trauma. Garner delivers a phenomenal and layered performance that vacillates between explosively confident and heartbreakingly vulnerable.
Ruth’s storyline is also one of inherited poverty, and Season 2 is at its best when it’s drawing a fine line between the life ahead of Ruth and her cousins, and the one afforded to Charlotte and Jonah Byrde. Moving from a position of extreme poverty to one of prosperity is extremely difficult, especially in rural areas, and Ruth understands the near-impossibility of her living a better life. Yet she fights tooth and nail to attain it, only to find herself backsliding due to forces both external and internal. It’s heartbreaking, and Ruth’s desire to see the clearly intelligent Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) go to college and break the Langmore curse is one of the season’s most emotional and engaging storylines.
Ruth isn’t the only bright spot of Season 2, and indeed if there’s one clear shift from the first season to the second, it’s the chance to see the women of the series shine in more complex and bigger roles. Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) finally gets fleshed out in a fascinating and terrifying manner, and Janet McTeer joins the cast in the juicy role of a Chicago-based attorney who represents the cartel. Although McTeer has a supporting role in the season, she makes such a compelling impression that you find yourself wanting to see her more and more. She’s equal parts smooth and ruthless, and it’s unclear whether she’s going to be an ally to Marty and Wendy, or their downfall.
As with most Netflix series, there is a bit of bloat in Ozark Season 2—mainly in the middle stretch—and the show is incredibly bleak and stressful. The tension never really lets up as obstacles continue to pile up for the Byrdes, to the point that watching this show can at times feel like drowning. Which, you know, isn’t super pleasant. It’s true that the increasing stakes make the successes all the sweeter, but Season 2 could have used with a few more wins.
However, the thing about Ozark is that if you’re in despair or upset about a particular scene or storyline, there’s a good chance your mood will change significantly pretty soon. Given the speed with which Ozark moves, this is a show that swings wildly and heavily from exciting to despairing to even a bit derivative at points, but it recovers more often than not.
There’s also the issue of FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner), though, whose storyline continues to be a bit of a drag on the proceedings of Season 2. The tension ratchets up to be sure, but his story is one that pales in comparison to those of Marty or Ruth or even the Snells, and his arc through the second season all feels a bit familiar and predictable.
But the bright spots shine bright, and the season ends on a high note that sets up a compelling third season should Netflix renew the drama series. Ozark is at its best when it’s not trying to be like Breaking Bad, and in Season 2 the show spends time building out its supporting characters enough—and gives Wendy far more to do—that it does feel confidently like it’s very much its own thing. That thing can at times be frustratingly stressful or filled with despair, but the strength of the performances, complexity of character, and willingness to pack a lot of story into 10 episodes ultimately makes the journey worth the heart palpitations along the way.
Ozark Season 2 premieres Friday, August 31st on Netflix.