When Netflix’s crime drama Ozark debuted last summer, audiences and critics alike quickly realized they were witnessing the streaming giant’s attempt to cash in on the current television craze kicked off by Breaking Bad. To be fair, the two shows are very much alike, but as season one made crystal clear, the Byrde family’s story wasn’t simply going to be a retelling of Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) downfall.
Instead, Ozark is very much the story of individuals who are already a part of a shady, occasionally murderous enterprise. Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) and his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney) may be an accountant and real estate agent by trade, but they knew what they were doing when their money laundering scheme first went wrong. Season one saw the pair, as well as their two children, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), paying for their mistakes. Season two is no different.
Within the first 10 minutes of the season two premiere. Marty finds the Blue Cat Lodge, one of his family’s money laundering operations, totally abandoned. A young lodge worker tells him everything is locked up and he can’t reach the owner, Rachel (Jordana Spiro). When Marty goes to see if his hidden cash reserves are safe, he realizes Rachel has stolen them and escaped.
Marty’s exasperation here is nothing new, and as season two progresses, it definitely won’t be the last time he discovers something has gone horribly wrong. All of this falls within the modus operandi of co-creators Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams, as Ozark makes no bones (aside from the ones belonging to the show’s ever-growing body count) about the fact that the Byrde’s story is not one of redemption. Even Breaking Bad, and to some extent, the spin-off Better Call Saul, tease viewers with the potential for their anti-heroes’ salvation. But the Byrdes? Their situation just isn’t going to improve, but at least they can quickly adjust to it.
This is where season two finally manages to set itself apart from its predecessor. Dubuque and Williams, along with David Manson in the writer’s room, spent a good chunk of Ozark’s debut cowering in the shadow of all the momentous crime dramas from the past decade. To be fair, this particular television subgenre is packed to the brim with amazing shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, thereby leaving current and future creators with an impossibly high bar to meet. But this time around, Ozark finally finds itself, especially now that Marty and Wendy have already come to terms with the turns their lives have taken. Even Jonah and Charlotte — and especially Charlotte — manage to accept their family’s status and embrace its possible fate.
Unfortunately, Dubuque and Williams’ writing suffers from the same issue that plagued season one (as well as most original Netflix series): unbearably slow pacing. While the first few episodes of season two are nothing like the drag employed by the first season premiere, which practically packed an entire season of television into a single hour, they still take their sweet time in getting to the point of the program. In their defense, enough major changes were wrought by last year’s finale that the writers were going to have to spend some time preparing audiences for what comes next, especially in terms of Cade Langmore’s (Trevor Long) release from prison and the struggle that ensues over his daughter, Ruth’s (Julia Garner) loyalty.
Despite this otherwise expected caveat, Ozark Season 2 shines once it finally settles in its groove. This is especially true of the women who play central roles in the Byrde family’s plight. Linney’s Wendy has always presented Bateman’s Marty with a comparable force, always challenging his calculations with plans of her own. And in season two, with their kids becoming increasingly involved in their criminal enterprise, Hublitz’s Charlotte rises to the occasion with far more gusto than her younger brother.
Much like the first season before it, however, the real star of Ozark’s sophomore outing is Garner’s Ruth, especially now that she finds herself being pulled between her profitable partnership with Marty and the Langmore family’s deeply entrenched sense of loyalty, no matter what it costs in blood or money. Between FX’s recently concluded The Americans and this year’s Waco mini-series, Garner has proven herself time and time again. She’s set to do the same in director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s upcoming Netflix mini-series Maniac, but let’s make one thing clear: Ozark Season 2 is her battleground, and she far out-charges the competition.
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Poor pacing and Breaking Bad comparisons notwithstanding, Ozark is, more than anything, a gorgeous series to watch. Between Derek R. Hill’s production designs, Ben Kutchins and Armando Salas’ cinematography and the generally bleak color pallette, watching the Bateman and Linney-led crime drama is like watching an ongoing sequence of beautiful paintings that just so happens to involve numerous illegal activities and plenty of death.
No doubt, the show’s high production value was likely a factor in its watchability, which subsequently put enough eyeballs on it to garner Bateman Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, as well as several Emmy nods for direction and cinematography. In that way, Ozark somewhat falls into the category of “prestige television for the sake of prestige,” which House of Cards has dominated for several years. And who knows? Perhaps season one will take a few of these trophies home, if not garner enough attention to remind voters that season two exists as well.