Despite its pacing issues, Season 1 of Ozark was a dark, broodingly tense crime drama, which saw the Byrde family become embroiled with laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel (read our review here). Ozark’s premise, of an everyman resorting to a life of crime, elicited unhelpful comparisons with the seminal Breaking Bad, but the show’s thrilling conclusion promised higher stakes, as the Byrdes fully assembled their criminal enterprise. Although Ozark Season 2 continues to be an engrossing, well-acted crime drama, it lacks even more humour and urgency than its first outing and becomes a slog to finish.
Last season’s finale saw Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) establish an agreement between local drug lords the Snells and a Mexican drug cartel run by Omar Navarro: the cartel would become the sole buyer and distributer of the Snells’ heroin, while Marty’s proposed riverboat casino would launder the money generated by the arrangement. What seems to be a win-win deal for all parties was jeopardised when Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) shot Del (Esai Morales), one of the cartel’s crime lords, when he referred to her family as “rednecks”.
Season 2 picks up in the immediate aftermath of Del’s murder, with Marty struggling to keep peace between both sides. He meets with the cartel’s attorney, Helen (Janet McTeer), who gives him just six months to get the planned casino up and running. The creation of this casino is the season’s main plotline and it forces the Byrdes to get involved in Missouri’s political matters. Wendy’s previous political experience enables her to form a close relationship with influential political donor Charles Wilkes (Darren Goldstein). Any remaining morals go out the window for Marty and Wendy as they use blackmail, bribery and extortion in their bid to obtain legislative permission for their casino. This season also sees the whole family embrace a criminal lifestyle, with Wendy becoming an equal partner to Marty and even the kids, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), getting involved with their parents’ illicit business. Marty and Wendy are no longer normal people caught up in a bad situation; they’re openly awful, morally bankrupt individuals.
Elsewhere, FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner) continues his investigation into the Byrdes, enlisting the help of Blue Cat Lodge owner Rachel (Jordana Spiro) as an informant; the Snell family try to maintain power over the Ozarks as the cartel’s presence in the area increases; and Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) deals with the release of her aggressive father, Cade (Trevor Long), from prison, while looking after her cousins, and helping Marty manage his criminal activities.
Once again, Garner is the shining light of the show, delivering a powerhouse performance that really shows off her phenomenal range. In a season that really puts Ruth through the wringer, Garner compellingly conveys a no-nonsense fearlessness along with a touching vulnerability. Ruth’s endeavour to get her cousin Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) to attend university and avoid a life of crime is Ozark’s most emotionally involving and poignant arc. Her volatile relationship with her brutish father, who continually seeks to turn her against Marty, is also a source for some of the season’s most affecting, tense moments.
Bateman puts in reliably good work and Linney plays Wendy superbly, as she ruthlessly adopts her criminal duties. Yet, despite their strong performances, it becomes increasingly difficult to root for such unlikeable, insidious characters. There are no persuasive, fast-talking pleas from Bateman, which proved a highlight of last season, and little to actually admire or connect with in these characters. This isn’t helped by a relentlessly dour tone – Season 1 had a streak of black comedy running through it, but there’s no such moments of relief this time around. With next to no laughs, coupled with an unceasingly bleak aesthetic, Ozark’s depressingly grim approach becomes laborious.
Ozark ventures into darker terrain with plenty of jarring violence, one particularly hard-hitting torture scene and major character deaths, yet these events do little to push the plot forward. As seems to be the case for most of Netflix’s original drama series, Ozark Season 2 is simply too long, with the majority of episodes needlessly exceeding the 60-minute mark. While the main casino narrative has enough twists and turns to remain engaging, it could have been delivered a lot more succinctly.
One newcomer who does enliven proceedings is McTeer, who portrays cartel attorney Helen with a captivating menace and composure. She’s an enthralling presence and is one of the few characters who actually gives the narrative momentum through her threatening, antagonistic behaviour – it’s just a shame she only receives a limited amount of screen time.
Ozark’s sophomore outing is even more bloated and bleak than its preceding season. It’s once again salvaged by an absorbing, multi-layered performance from Julia Garner, but, after a rather bland season, it’s unclear where Ozark can possibly go from here.
Ozark: Season 1 and 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.