“Ozark” is a show about balance. Initially, the balance had only two weights to consider: Marty Byrde’s (Jason Bateman) accounting finesse and emotional stability versus Navarro’s drug cartel’s 50/50 choice of killing Marty or allowing him to launder his money through of various businesses in the Ozarks.
As time passed, a bevy of other figures joined the scales, vying for the top weight: Wendy (Laura Linney), Marty’s wife, and her consummate disdain and desire to bend her new life to her will; Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), an Ozarks native whose intelligence and courage are constantly undermined by her socioeconomic background; Jonah Byrde (Skylar Gaertner), the son of Marty and Wendy, who learned to wash clothes from his father but has very ethical principles different from those of their parents. “Ozark” isn’t as flashy a production as “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men,” or even older shows like “The Sopranos” or “The Wire,” but he’s proven just as capable of writing, directing, and acting in other highest profile and prestigious dramas. These last seven episodes of the fourth season do not disappoint.
Navigating the delicate nature of power dynamics is integral to the characterization of Marty, and therefore the writing of the series. Navarro’s cartel and his associates commit crimes, occasionally dishing out extreme violence, forcing Marty to correct course. Jason Bateman’s performance as a calm and affable financial advisor is a study in emotional grounding. If Marty Byrde seems dull or dull to the audience, it’s because he’s the one holding this whole house of cards together. His body moves casually, but with a purpose. Half the time, when he’s off to commit a series of serious crimes, you’d think he was just on his way to buy eggs or put gas in the car. Bateman’s careful and reassuring presence brings the audience back to math: this is a story about the secrets that a spreadsheet can hold. Marty is the black coffee-eating hangover cure for Wendy’s wild and greedy villainy. This is true throughout the ending, and his character’s reward is fair and, like the man himself, sensible.
If Marty is the yin, then Wendy is the yang. In my review of the first seven episodes of season four, I said that Laura Linney was firing on all cylinders. Somehow, she steps up her performance in the second half of the final season. A serene, soft but emotionless glow illuminates her eyes when she is insulted by a loved one. As she mocks each other’s fears and anxieties, Wendy’s layoffs fall like anvils. Linney issues Doomsday-style censures, so harsh a firing squad would be kinder. By now, the public knows that Wendy Byrde was born and raised in an environment not unlike the Ozarks. Immediately the repulsion caused by the Ozarks gives Wendy an insane inspiration. Once upon a time in this culture, these values repressed, shamed and intimidated it. But she is no longer Wendy Marie Davis. This is Wendy Byrde from the Byrde Foundation, formerly a money launderer for the Navarro cartel, now a completely legitimate company. It’s not fair to call Linney’s performance a new standard-bearer for villainy, because what she’s done in this role has a Shakespearean richness to it, but it’s influenced by something unidentifiable. At times, Wendy’s actions seem tinged with genuine grief over the death of her brother, or driven by love for her children. She sometimes seems to act out of sheer spite or unmitigated greed. Scariest of all, and this is why Linney’s Wendy is such a hallmark of acting, sometimes there is nothing behind Wendy’s actions. She is an abyss, one that will cause lethal injury just by looking back at her.