This is intended to be a spoiler light overview of the second season of 'Ozark,' but it assumes you are familiar with Season One, or have at least read our overview of it.
That first season hit the ground running. It started dramatically and hardly drew breath until our protagonists finally secured the deal which saved their lives - at which point everything went wrong. Since that breakneck speed could hardly be maintained, Season Two slows the pace a little as the characters come to terms with what happened and try to build new lives in the Ozarks.
If you know little or nothing of the Ozarks, and were under the general impression that the middle of the United States was simply flat open plains, you are no worse off than our questionable hero, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), when he was forced to relocate there in a hurry. The Ozarks are in fact a creditable mountain chain in Missouri and adjoining states, notable for the giant artificial Lake of the Ozarks, which has, as we are told repeatedly, more waterfront property than the State of California.
This was the first fact that popped into Marty's head when a gun was pointed at it. A successful financial planner, Marty had made two very obvious mistakes: taking on a Mexican drugs cartel as a client and bringing with him a partner stupid enough to steal from them. His life was spared in return for an undertaking to launder huge sums of money in the supposedly virgin territory of the Ozarks. It is only on his arrival there that Marty discovers that Missouri has its own well developed criminal culture.
The main plotline of the second season is the Byrde family's new strategy of trying to reconcile the cartel and local elements by establishing a profitable casino on a defunct riverboat. This means lobbying the local authorities, and Marty's wife Wendy (Laura Linney) brings the political skills she developed as part of the Chicago Democratic machine into play. Her understanding of how things really work proves just as applicable in the Republican inclined State of Missouri.
As a result, much of the focus of Season Two is on her rather than on Marty. Indeed, one of the overarching themes of the season is that there is something of a role reversal. In the first season there was much that was admirable about Marty, aside from his faulty moral compass. Faced with a series of apparently hopeless situations, he did not despair: he saved his family through his courage, his enterprise, his energy, and his quick thinking under extreme pressure.
Wendy, by contrast, was not very likeable in the first season. She betrayed Marty not once but twice. She eventually got with the programme when she realised she had no choice, and she proved a loyal and effective ally, but there was always a doubt about her. In the second season, she begins to establish herself as a player in her own right. She takes the initiative more and more. This is increasingly necessary because Marty himself seems to be losing his sharp edge. Is he suffering a little from some of the symptoms of PTSD after the non stop tension of the first season?
Something very similar happens with their children. In the first season, their daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) was in practice surprisingly helpful and co-operative in spite of being understandably upset by the abrupt relocation. It was their son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), a strange loner with an unhealthy interest in killing animals, who was the cause for concern.
The second season reversal sees Charlotte acting out, causing a dangerous division in the family that might have fatal consequences for them all when she ought to be well aware of the risk. Meanwhile, Jonah begins to exhibit precocious intelligence. Like many boys of his age, he becomes interested in his Dad's work - which is not necessarily a good thing when Dad is a money launderer, but Jonah shows that he has inherited much of Marty's talent, as well as his tendency to act secretively.
Jonah matures in part due to the positive influence of the Byrdes' initially unwanted housemate "Buddy," played by the always watchable Harris Yulin. At first only a rather inconvenient old man, whose unreconstructed attitudes grate with the cosmopolitan Byrdes, "Buddy" proves a loyal and useful friend in a crisis. He also reveals more of his own colourful past. One of the most powerful story arcs shows him becoming a sort of honorary member of the Byrde family.
The Byrdes have also secured the more fragile loyalty of local small time criminal Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), a member of a notorious clan of local ne'er-do-wells who sees Marty as the key to a better life for her young cousins and herself. Indeed, there are times when Marty seems to be a substitute father to her, which brings him into conflict with her actual father, Cade (Trevor Long). The poster boy for toxic parenthood, Cade is a manipulative bully whose response to his own failure in life is to try to drag everyone, especially his own family, down to his level.
An even more dangerous element enters the Byrdes' lives in the form of their new "liaison" with the cartel. Could there be anything more intimidating than an urbane and charming Mexican druglord who kills ruthlessly and without warning? Yes, a Chicago attorney when played by Janet McTeer. One of the most skilled British actresses of her generation, McTeer would probably be a Dame by now if she spent more time on this side of the Atlantic. In 'Ozark' she gives a masterclass in how to play a powerful career woman. As a modern manager, Helen Pierce leaves a lot to the discretion of others, which is actually more intimidating than specific deadlines and threats. When she asks for something indefinite, it better to give too much than too little, because it is clear that everything with her is a pass-fail test and one will only learn the result when it is too late.
Local crime-lord Jacob Snell (Peter Mullan) understands this perfectly, even if his impulsive wife Darlene (Lisa Emery) maintains a wilful obstinacy. However, it turns out that Darlene is a lot brighter than she appears. There is also a strange poignancy to their odd romance.
Given the strength of the cast, it is no surprise that the acting is of an extremely high calibre. Bateman, best known as a comic actor, especially in 'Arrested Development,' shows his ability to excel in a sustained "serious" role, but it is in this season that the show really unveils its big gun in the form of Linney, a first division cinematic star who brings a touch of class to everything she does. McTeer and Yulin are worthy of comparison, as is Mullan, a Scottish actor of great presence who is totally convincing as a "hillbilly" baron, a man totally at ease in his own environment. It was, however, Garner who won a well-deserved Emmy: for all her character's growing closeness to the Byrdes, Ruth maintains a tense uncertainty about which way she will jump when she is forced to make a big decision.
It is not the fault of the actors portraying them that some of the supporting characters are less successful. Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner) is not a credible FBI Agent and it seems unlikely that he would be allowed to do what he does unsupervised. Street preacher Mason Young (Michael Mosley) is yet another example of Hollywood's inability to write people of faith. After being set up as a rather engaging "tart with a heart" character in the first season, bar owner Rachel Garrison (Jordana Spiro) is rather thrown away in the second. Charles Wilkes (Darren Goldstein) seems too ineffective to be a major powerbroker. However, Wilkes' fixer Jim Rattelsdorf (Damian Young) is intriguing and looks as if he might be significant later.
The photography is of a very high standard. Most of the filming took place in Georgia for tax reasons, as is often the case now, with a few panoramic shots from the actual Ozarks spliced in. Only someone with experience of both places can say how much they really resemble each other, but the overall effect is pretty. The story maintains a good rhythm without the breathlessness of the first season. One of the strongest of a strong team of directors is Bateman himself, who won an Emmy for directing as well as being nominated for acting.
To be honest, the second season plot is not that exciting. There is the requisite number of sudden deaths, some more predictable than others, but not that much changes over the season. The Byrdes make some progress, usually two steps forward and one step back, sometimes vice versa. Looking back, the whole purpose of the season seems to have been to set up the new situation for the more dramatic third season.
Yet Season Two is still very entertaining in its own right, and it includes some powerful scenes. It is less a crime drama than a family drama. Indeed, the theme of the show seems to be a surprisingly conservative tribute to the power of family.
Dysfunctional as they are, the Byrdes are the Good Family in contrast with the Langmores, the Bad Family. Even Charlotte's childish and dangerous act of rebellion ends in demonstrating the strength of the Byrdes' more flexible bonds, while the tight knit Langmores are suffocating each other and reinforcing their mutual low expectations. We hope that Ruth at least can escape. Meanwhile, the Snells are a Patriarch and a Matriarch without a Dynasty, and even the formidable Helen has domestic problems.
It is surely not giving anything away to say that this theme of family strength will be developed - and tested - a lot more in Season Three.
Review: John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
He is also the author of ‘How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon. John has also written over 100 reviews for Television Heaven.
John's Website can be found here: John Winterson Richards
Published on December 15th, 2021. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.