If “Ozark” was ever a contender for the title of “Best Crime Drama on Television” then it long ago seceded that mantle to “Better Call Saul” (another crime drama finishing its run this year, albeit in a much higher quality). “Ozark” was as frustrating as it was excellent, often alternating between choice bits of drama (mostly between Jason Bateman and Laura Linney’s excellent lead characters and performances) and repetitive, haphazardly-conceived plot lines that seemed to mistake “plot intensification” for “plot development.” The final season of “Ozark” was no different, introducing so many new plots that it never had time to really play around with or (seemingly) even enjoy them. Too often, it just felt like a joyless Road Runner cartoon where the Byrde family was about to meet certain death, but escaped through some combination of their own guile, good fortune, nonsensical character reversals, and increasingly unlikely scenarios.
Still, I do think this series can lay claim to the title of “Best Netflix Series” ever, but that’s mostly due to a lack of competition as nearly all their once-promising dramas went on for too long and eventually had lousy final seasons. “Ozark” was a little bit less so…
“Worst” Season: Season 4…It’s not good when a show has its worst season as its last season. [Just ask such formerly acclaimed series as “Mad Men,” “The Good Wife,” “Dexter,” “House of Cards,” or others that have seen their once-mighty legacies greatly diminished.] Still, an objective measure of the seasons has to admit that the fourth and final season of “Ozark” is too scattershot, too sloppy, too contrived, and just keeps throwing out new plots in a way that feels borderline-desperate for attention, almost as if they’re afraid their audience will be bored if they have a second of introspection or like they’re seeing what will stick to the wall. Even the final episode introduced as much as it resolved, including an ending that might’ve felt like a cliffhanger for any other show. Questions could abound like: Did the series really need the annoying new P.I. character? Did we need major plot lines for both Navarro’s obnoxious, sleazy nephew and that unwelcome nephew’s mother (introduced in the final six episodes)? Did most of the moves Wendy made really make sense? Why do Marty and Wendy keep going out of their way to help Ruth stay alive when she keeps screwing them over? Jordana Spiro’s Rachel is reintroduced so late into the fourth season and after approximately 500 subplots have happened, isn’t it kind-of a stretch to ask the audience to care about her again? Or possibly even remember who she is?
[Spoilers for final episode] Yet I have to admit that the final episode is satisfying. Unlike most viewers, I never really liked Julia Garner’s overrated Ruth Langmore that much (the Jesse Pinkman of “Ozark,” in that she’s a very repetitive character that kept screwing up and escaping somehow), and thought her death not only made sense but might’ve even been necessary for the finale. Even better, the Byrde family had a satisfactory conclusion–I know some feel they “got away with too much” but they had been basically tortured and stressed-out the entire series, so why don’t they deserve a break from their ulcers? The overdue deaths of dumbass Wyatt Langmore (a target for Darwinism if there ever was), Darlene Snell, Javi, and grating P.I. Mel were the highlights of the final season. “Ozark” might have a comically-high body count (surely the FBI would be curious about a county where 90% of the local residents seem to die before social security age), but the final episode managed to end things with a satisfying conclusion. Grade for final season as a whole: C+ (the first half is a bit weaker than the second half)…Grade for final episode: B+
3. Season 2…You can really begin to feel the overall structural problems with “Ozark” in this season. There’s a lot going on at all times, and the repetitive nature of the Darlene Snell, Wyatt Langmore, and Ruth Langmore characters begins to make itself apparent. [There’s only so many scenes where Ruth can tear into Marty, and he essentially just shrugs it off like he’s her adoptive father instead of her boss in a criminal enterprise.] The death of Jacob Snell (surprisingly affecting and set to the perfectly-chosen Glenn Campbell song “Wichita Lineman”), Harris Yulin’s memorable performance, and the introduction of Janet McTeer’s icy cartel lawyer Helen are some of the standouts for this season. Also, this season clears the path for season 3 to be so good by taking away many of the “deadweight” characters like Rachel leaving, and the deaths of Pastor Mason and FBI agent Roy Petty. Grade: B-
It was a real coin toss between seasons 3 and 1 for “best” season…
2. Season 1…Although I think season 3 is slightly better, this season is still very, very good. It sets up the distinct world of the series, the cinematography of the series is gorgeous and soaked in dread (never has a middle-American lake looked so bleak and menacing), the pacing of the series hasn’t yet gotten so fast that it feels like nothing matters (the death of Wendy’s lover in the first episode is genuinely shocking), and Jason Bateman’s performance is note-perfect. The final moments of the season where Bateman’s Marty Byrde feels isolated and soul-dead while on top of a trampoline but is reunited with his family might be the most touching of the entire series. Grade: A-
“Best” Season: Season 3…You could definitely make a case that season 1 is better than season 3 (to me, they are much closer in quality than other reviewers are admitting). But season 3 is arguably more impressive for pulling the series back from the brink of mediocrity in season 2; once shows have a disappointing season 2, they rarely self-correct. Season 3 has the devastating arc for Wendy’s brother Ben, increased tension as the cartel fights a war, a slower pace so that we really feel the dread (the death of the Byrde’s marriage therapist is chilling here but would’ve barely rated in plot-slammed seasons 2 and 4), grating Darlene and Wyatt taking a backseat so that it’s relatively easy to ignore them, and standout work from Tom Pelphrey (Ben), Janet McTeer’s frightening Helen, and perhaps especially Laura Linney. The final moments shouldn’t be as shocking as they are (they make sense in context), but are a testament to how well-directed and assembled this season truly is. Grade: A-