Ozark Season 4 Review: Part 1 Proves There's No Happy Ending In Sight

Ever since they "embraced" their life of crime, the Byrdes have had one foot out the door. Who can blame them? The alternative means accepting their bleak and endlessly dangerous existence. The better option, especially for Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), is to go forth with a bearable ending in sight. When their dangerous ordeal began, Marty was working towards a tangible goal: laundering $8 million for the Navarro cartel, lest they kill his family. Against all odds, he succeeded and the goal changed: launder $500 million for the cartel. Soon the number became obsolete and his target became opening a casino, then kickstarting a legitimate foundation. Somewhere in the chaos of it all, Marty realized that the goalpost would keep shifting and whatever happy ending he glimpsed on the horizon was quickly becoming a speck. He tried changing the narrative — duffels packed, fake identities secured, and plane tickets purchased. The Byrdes could take flight and live life on the run ... but his wife wouldn't have it.

Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) has her own vision of the future — one where they rule the world, dirty money and all. In her mind, the greatest threat to their lives can become an asset. At this point in their marriage, these two don't have much in common anymore (besides their penchant for running criminal enterprises) but here's something they certainly share: delusions of the future. Marty fantasizes about a clean break and Wendy imagines they can juggle lies forever. But, however they like to envision their future has no bearing on reality, a fact that's never been more true than in "Ozark" season 4. The series has finally arrived at the beginning of its end, something much more complex than the Byrdes expected.

In part 1 of its final season, "Ozark" is hellbent on doing what it does best — stressing out its audience. The dilemmas contrived not only put the Byrdes in danger but threaten the lives of everyone in their vicinity. Just as always, the series takes elements of melodrama and pulpy thriller, dresses them in the trappings of a prestige drama, and anchors itself with character intrigue so effective that four seasons in, it's still fascinating to pick these people apart. And though it is neither uncomplicated nor unflawed, the fourth season returns just as clever and binge-able as always.

No One Gets Out Clean

The characters of "Ozark" are at war with their world, caught between harsh reality and bright fantasies. Somehow, despite everything they've endured — despite the bleak nature of this blue-tinted show and the blood staining everyone's hands — they can't help but be hopeful. This isn't just Marty and Wendy we're talking about, it's everyone. Believe it or not, the first far-fetched fantasy of the future comes from Omar Navarro (Felix Solis), the drug kingpin who's loomed large over their lives for four seasons. Now more than ever, he demands to be their North Star:  "You don't win until I win, Marty," he says ominously. "Don't forget that."

So here's Navarro's big dream: he wants to walk away clean. Never mind the many years spent running the world's second-largest drug cartel, never mind the people tortured and killed, nor the damage done to both countries. Navarro wants the freedom to move between Mexico and the U.S. without being hunted. It's like a serial killer announcing plans to become a suburban househusband — it's almost laughable. But then you remember all that Navarro is capable of and reality becomes clear: this isn't a man who takes no for an answer, certainly not from the lackeys he can kill on a whim. So the Byrdes must achieve the impossible, what else is new? To sprinkle on some extra motivation, Navarro dangles a new dream before their eyes — should they accomplish this impossible task, he'll let them go. "Do this and you are free of your obligation to me," he promises.

But no ending is reached by accident. "Ozark" is all about domino effects — in the blink of an eye, small decisions butterfly into absolute chaos. When they anchored their dangerous lives in the Ozarks, the Byrdes set tragedy in motion and now, years later, they fantasize about walking away?! The final season harkens back to the past wherever it can, confirming the insanity of this fantasy: there is no walking away clean and there is no easy way out. Not for anyone, but certainly not for the Byrdes. "Ozark" isn't so much interested in their fantasies but in what they reveal of each character: what does it mean that Wendy's vision of the future hinges on power as much as it does family? What will she risk to secure it? And what of Ruth (Julia Garner)? The scrappy young criminal recently cut ties with the Byrdes in favor of her cousin Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) and his beau, Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery). Now she wants to build something of her own — but what must she sacrifice to do that?

As always, "Ozark" contrives impossible dilemmas for its characters (setting a drug kingpin free is just that start). To make matters oh so much worse, they toss in a few wildcards. Take, for example, FBI Agent Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes). When she was introduced in season 3, I wondered if they made her pregnant just to give the audience anxiety. This season, her new baby continues to be a source of concern, especially for her. Negotiating a deal for Navarro won't be as easy as he likes, and what's to keep the temperamental criminal from harming her? But the kingpin is friendly when compared to the new Big Bad of the season, Alfonso Herrera as Javi, Navarro's ambitious nephew. Quick to risks and often acting on impulse, Javi takes a special interest in the Byrdes. Tossed into a room with Marty, the polar-opposite personalities are almost hilarious — if we weren't so busy holding our breath in fear of his every reaction.

Not A Bang, But A Whimper

Because things can always get worse, the Byrdes are wildcards themselves. In a consistently mesmerizing performance, Linney is a terrifying force as Wendy Byrde, who's never been more loathsome. Despite it all, she's never hard to understand — Wendy clings to her family desperately, still haunted by the loss of her brother and her involvement in his murder. But she's not alone on that front. Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) has learned a truth about his mother so dark that he can't brush it aside. The teen once eager to be involved in his family's criminal dealings is now desperate for distance while Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) has reached a disturbing level of acceptance with her parents' actions. Tensions are high at the Byrde dinner table, but this is no time to be at war. And thus, the fourth season of "Ozark" has all the makings of another nail-biting saga: an impossible task, lots of enemies, life-threatening issues to juggle, and the family breaking apart at the seams. But something holds this season back from total success — its pesky little subtitle: Part 1.

By splitting the final 14-episodes in half, "Ozark" turns its supersized bang into a whimper. Though it marches towards the horizon, the show isn't quite ready to set its ending in motion, trapped by the dilemma of any two-part finale — where's the balance between action and restraint? Past seasons have been criticized for their sluggish nature but oddly enough, the pacing has never plagued the series more than in its shortest season. "Ozark" has mastered the art of toppling dominos just as others are set — but Part 1 hesitates. The fallout is being held back for the final seven episodes, leaving us with this incomplete season.

In the end, we could be worse off. The season is certainly treading water (stopping just before the Byrdes careen into chaos), but "Ozark" is still firing on all other fronts, with its winding drama and impeccable performances. It's slow goings but the build-up is tantalizing and the anticipation swells. Then, against all odds, the final episode of the season so masterfully sets thing in motion that you'll quickly forget the sluggish journey it took to get there — the binge model at work! So if this season is a whimper, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Part 1 spells out more horrors to come. It's still packed with tension-filled scenes ripe for explosion, it's still survival hanging by a thread with endless possibilities for disaster. It's still watching the Byrdes pull off the impossible time and time again, while being trapped between loathing their every move and rooting for their survival — it's still "Ozark," it's just a little incomplete.