There’s a point in most long-running serialized dramas where the writers are stretching to find some new external pressure to put on its central characters. Maybe this necessitates a location change. Maybe you get a recognizable actor to play the Big Bad for a season. Or maybe you just keep doing the same thing over and over again and hope no one will notice. With the third season of the Netflix original series Ozark, however, the conflict is turned inward. Season 1 began as the story of a man forcing his family on the run while telling them the bare minimum about his criminal dealings; Season 2 found Marty (Jason Bateman) bringing his family in fully on his money laundering empire; and Season 3 now explores what happens when the heads of that empire—Marty and his wife Wendy (Laura Linney)—are at odds over how to proceed, and begin actively undermining one another. The result is a fresh source of drama and character conflict dripping with deep-rooted emotion, which also in turn ups the stakes of the series significantly. In short, Ozark Season 3 bets big on itself and wins.
The new season of Ozark picks up pretty soon after Season 2 ended. The Byrdes have successfully opened their riverboat casino and things are going quite well. Or so it seems. Marty feels uneasy about laundering through the casino without knowing for sure that he’s not being watched, while Wendy advocates aggressive expansion. Their relationship is strained—they’re even seeing a couples therapist. But it’s revealed early on that Marty is paying this therapist to ensure things go his way.
Marty and Wendy don’t just disagree about how to proceed with their money laundering business, they’re actively going behind each other’s backs to get what they want. This creates intense and dangerous conflict, as their boss Omar Navarro is in the middle of a deadly cartel war in Mexico—a war that he’s losing. Desperation leads to increased danger, and the danger is both internal and external for Marty and Wendy this season.
Indeed, the FBI still plays a role in the plot in Ozark Season 3, and the Byrdes’ casino is beleaguered by the KC mob boss’ son Frank Jr. (Joseph Sikora) who butts heads with Ruth (Julia Garner), who’s now running the floor of the casino. Speaking of, fresh off her Emmy win for Best Supporting Actress last year, Garner remains a standout in this series. Ruth’s foul-mouthed spitfire attitude is still an absolute delight, but Garner continues to flesh out this character with complexity and a moving vulnerability that makes her one of the most interesting characters on the show. Ruth’s arc in Season 3 isn’t quite as dynamic as her role in Season 2, and one particular subplot doesn’t quite click the way the show wants it to, but Garner is a highlight nonetheless.
But back to those external pressures. Helen takes a far larger role this season, and Janet McTeer seizes the opportunity to add far more complexity than we’ve seen from the character thus far. Darlene still has baby Zeke (Lisa Emery), and Wendy wants him back. And to make matters even more complicated, Wendy’s charismatic yet volatile brother Ben Davis shows up unexpectedly. Actor Tom Pelphrey fills the role of Ben, and man is he a stick of dynamite. This is an emotionally charged role and Pelphrey is more than up to the challenge, delivering a truly star-making performance. I think he may come away the show’s MVP this season.
But these external problems pale in comparison to the marital strife between Wendy and Marty, which is center stage for Season 3. This gives both Bateman and Linney an opportunity to show new shades to their characters, and both unexpectedly rise to the occasion. Bateman’s Marty Byrde faces the most immediate danger he’s been in since the beginning of Season 1, while Wendy has a newfound confidence and ownership over their illicit venture. This doesn’t square well with Marty’s risk-averse attitude, and it’s a joy to watch Wendy step up and challenge Marty’s plans of attack.
In many ways Ozark Season 3 is a marriage story. Sure the stakes are far higher for the Byrdes, but we’re witnessing the consequences of a lack of communication and even a lack of respect between these two relationship partners. They become so strained that you wonder whether their marriage can survive this entire ordeal—if they manage to get out with their lives intact, that is.
And that’s where Ozark excels. The story isn’t all that unique, but the core cast of characters is a fascinating bunch, and the intensified focus on the marital strain between Marty and Wendy provides a new layer of stakes. Season 3 overextends itself a bit by throwing in two or three too many characters and subplots, and the story lags when focused on those with less engrossing storylines (looking at you, Darlene and Wyatt).
But for the most part, Ozark Season 3 manages to maintain the level of tension this show is known for while adding a layer of emotional stakes in the form of Marty and Wendy’s fractured relationship. Those who weren’t crazy about the series to begin with are unlikely to be magically won over—Ozark Season 3 is still very much Ozark—but fans of the series are sure to once again get wrapped up in the cavalcade of complications (and twists) that ensue, especially as the season reaches its explosive final episodes.
Ozark Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix.