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‘Ozark’ Lights Itself On Fire And Rises From The Twisted Ashes In Season 3

Ozark‘s third season steps up to the challenge often presented by third outings. This can be a crucial time, one when a series is called upon to sustain its own gimmicks, while nailing the right degree of fine tuning to keep things fresh. In the case of the series that’s both directed by and stars Jason Bateman, I’m pleased to reveal that gimmicks are intact, and tweaks are successfully made, mainly because Ozark sort-of destroys itself from within and begins to construct a new order. Curiously, the show does so by taking power away from his Marty Byrde and placing it, for better or worse, more firmly into the hands of the two leading females. This has varying results, since you’re probably aware that I’m talking about Marty’s wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), and his partner-in-crime, Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner). Marty can’t wrangle either of them when they’re not on his side, and this year, both of them push back in different ways. He can’t cope, and as a result, the show evolves into a more complex creature.

Don’t worry, the series still looks much the same, still awash in a moody, blue-tinged palette. It’s still gritty, and it’s a continuation of the same story after the Byrde kids came together with their parents to embrace their life as a crime family in order to survive, but things implode even more than usual. It’s messy but in a pleasurable way.

With Ozark, it’s important to note that while the writing can be sloppy, what keeps things afloat are great core characters. This season’s departure — the shaking up of the middle-class white dude who’s trying to support his family through an illicit empire — is where Breaking Bad, although still the superior show, would never have dared to attempt maneuvers. That’s because no one would ever root for Skyler, and Jane was nowhere near Ruth (who’s more like Jesse) levels of development. These ladies were limited by the writing, whereas (as I’ve said before) the female characters of Ozark are well-drawn against their overall backdrop. You might be thinking to yourself, “Oh god, she’s reviewing this season by making it about strong female characters.” Yes, I’m oversimplifying things because Ozark always has a lot going on, but this is truly the season where Marty can no longer tread water, and it becomes about these women.

Poor Marty, right? Not really. All he wants to do right about now is maintain his status quo as a money launderer without, you know, continuing to launder that cash. He’d like to pretend that he’s not really profiting off blood money (and we periodically see ongoing violent scenes involving the Navarro cartel down in Mexico), and Marty would prefer to think that his life is a normal one. He’s only making an honest living now while running a casino, right? Noooope. Marty thinks he can take his family legit, and I think we’ve all watched enough crime dramas to realize that’s not in the cards, especially when one’s already laundered several millions of dollars for a drug cartel.

Still, Ozark explores that question, and it does so in a surprisingly fresh way. The season picks up six months after the last round, and the Byrde-fronted casino is functional with Wendy behind a desk and Ruth running daily operations. Yes, my girl, Ruth, who had a truckload of card decks stacked against her from birth, is steadily inching toward running this whole world, if not for the endless set of obstacles that land at her feet.

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I shall not spoil what happens with Ruth, but Julia Garner’s gonna walk away with another Emmy, y’all. She’s still the soul of the show and spitfiring all over the place. Ruth arrives this season with full loyalty to Marty — remember back when she vowed to kill him? Good times — but she’s not a tool. She deeply cares for those around her, even when they don’t treat her well, although it’s safe to say that Ruth won’t stand for being placed into boxes. She’ll save Marty’s ass when necessary, and she’ll stand up to him when he acts like an ass. In between those tasks, she’ll attempt to feed that burning hole inside her soul and find some happiness. Garner’s so adept at a wide range of emotion, and she’ll break your damn heart at times. Ruth may be capable of vulnerability, but she’s a survivor. Never count her out, in a business or an emotional sense.

As for Wendy, yeah, you can guess that she’s not as shrewd or accurately calculating with her business sense as Ruth. She does some dumb things that make life worse for the family, but it’s still a sight to behold her drive for power, along with all of the conflict that’s been building between herself and Marty before this season. And you know, Marty kinda had it coming. As emotionally intelligent as he is when it comes to dealing with professional adversaries, Marty cannot function amid personal conflict. He turns into a damn robot. He even tried to only be a “business partner” with Wendy (after discovering her affair), but no dice. And even though he and Ruth actually are business partners, their relationship went father-daughter, so yup, that’s personal, too. Yet he’s extraordinarily bad at reconciling the professional when the personal is involved. So when either of these women challenge Marty in a substantial way (more than the standard disagreements than we’ve seen before), he simply can’t handle it, and that’s what propels Ozark‘s third season in a different direction.

Truly, it’s fascinating to watch Marty crumble. This is where he officially departs from Walter White, who wouldn’t stop making meth after all the money stuff was settled. Walt couldn’t give up control and power and go back to a life where he felt that his skills were professionally wasted. He wanted to “break bad” and felt purpose as a kingpin, whereas Marty would just like to settle into a mundane life again. That’s not going to happen for several reasons, especially because of Wendy and Ruth pushing for their own causes. Also, the FBI’s still watching, and the Navarro cartel’s breathing down his neck, and the Kansas City mob boss is in the picture. It’s rough.

Look, a lot of characters do a lot of idiotic things on this show. As a whole, Ozark is like a murder scene that detectives decided should probably (and poorly) clean itself up. But the characters are engrossing. They get under your skin, and it’s hard not to put yourself in their places. In addition, Ozark instinctively knows when to inject a molotov cocktail of a new player — like Wendy’s brother, Ben (Tom Pelphrey) — who ignites loads of new drama, and the show’s better off for it. There’s also a big payoff in the season finale, for which I genuinely gasped during the final few seconds.

Underneath it all, I believe that Ozark fans will love this batch of episodes, if for nothing else, for this reason: the world is metaphorically on fire right now due to a raging virus, and we can’t control anything. We can, however, take small comfort in this fact: we’ve all made mistakes (some bigger than others) in life, but at least none of us have stupidly uprooted our family’s lives after diving into a vast money-laundering scheme for a drug lord, right?

So, go ahead and enjoy Marty’s misery. He’s earned it.

Netflix’s third ‘Ozark’ season streams on March 27.

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