Poor Janet McTeer. Not since the Pacific breeze blew Steve Buscemi’s ashes into the Dude’s beard in The Big Lebowski have a character’s remains been so disrespectfully treated. At the start of the fourth series of Ozark (Netflix), Wendy and Marty Byrde, like a pair of Lady Macbeths, are washing the remains of cartel lawyer Helen Pierce (McTeer) out of their clothes in the bathroom of Mexican drug lord Omar Navarro’s palatial compound.
At the end of series three, Navarro’s hitman offed Helen, because she was working an angle contrary to the cartel’s interest (trying to take over the Byrdes’ money-laundering casinos). “They blow her brains out two feet from us,” Wendy tells her children later. “We had to wash pieces out of our hair.”
The long-awaited, Covid-delayed final season – with one tranche of eight episodes being dropped now and the final six to come later this year – rejoins Wendy and Marty on the journey they started three series ago. They left Chicago for a resort in the Ozarks, laundering money through a bar and strip club to fund the nonprofit Byrde Family Foundation into which they could funnel heroin money to do good things, such as bankroll rehab centres for addicts.
Instead of going straight, though, they sunk ever deeper into evil. By the end of series three, they were laundering drug money for the Navarro cartel through multiple casinos, partnering with the Kansas City mob to deal heroin, and luring the US army to raid and eliminate a rival cartel. Wendy kills her own brother to prove her loyalty to Navarro, helps his thuggish brother Javi dispose of the local sheriff who asks too many questions, and now plans to offer up her traitorous son Jonah to the FBI. Say what you like about Lady Macbeth: at least she didn’t have siblings to swell the body count nor sons to betray to the feds.
Laura Linney’s performance as Wendy is all the more chilling because her face says apple pie, but everything she does curdles into evil. Meanwhile, Jason Bateman’s Marty is a study in how far a pragmatic accountant can go into the depths of wickedness without the strain showing on his face.
If one of the great pleasures of Ozark is that strong women motor the storyline – not just Wendy, but hillbilly heroin farmer Darlene Snell and trailer-trash business whizz Ruth Langmore, not to mention daughter Charlotte Byrde, who dreams of whisking herself and brother Jonah to the Pacific north-west beyond their parents’ and the mob’s clutches – none of them is a role model. Even Ruth, who is Ozark’s token moral conscience, her every compunction subtly registered in Julia Garner’s impressive performance, is like everyone else: pursuing Ozark’s version of the degraded American dream – profiting from evil without consequence, then blowing town with a bank account swollen by drug money.
Once the Byrdes have washed McTeer out of their hair, they go to Navarro’s gaudy party (the crab alone cost $10,000), where Omar tells them he too dreams of going straight, without having to do jail time or be assassinated by his upstart nephew Javi. “I’m sorry,” says Wendy. “That’s impossible.” “Isn’t this exactly what you were doing with your foundation?” Omar asks reasonably. “You can transform yourselves into a pillar of society, but you won’t do the same for me.” “I’m sorry. It’s not doable.” The temperature drops several degrees. “OK, why are you still alive?” The scene is set for the final season: the Byrdes must help one of the world’s most wanted drug kingpins to walk free or they will go the way of McTeer.
The series premiere, The Beginning of the End, actually opens with one of those tantalising foreshadowing scenes that Ozark does so well. The Byrde family are driving to the soundtrack of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come – as if their troubles are behind them. It recalls the last scene of The Sopranos, in which the mob family are dining at Artie Bucco’s restaurant. We await some terrible denouement – machine gun splattering, ziti stuffed with explosives – but it never arrives. There was, rather, the realised possibility that against the odds, crime, indeed, can pay.
Ozark ironically inverts that Sopranos ending. A juggernaut barrels down the wrong lane of the Missouri black top towards the Byrdes, forcing Marty to swerve and crash. Was it an accident? Was Navarro’s hitman at the wheel of the oncoming truck? Do the Byrdes survive to do what the Macbeths failed to – escape their bloody pasts? Nothing seems more unlikely, but I’ve been wrong before.