Tom Pelphrey Wouldn't Change A Word Of This Ozark Scene (And Neither Would We)

There's a five-minute-long scene nestled in the heart of crime drama "Ozark" that includes some of the best acting I've witnessed in recent memory. In it, Tom Pelphrey's character — bipolar, newly unmedicated Ben — sits in the back of a taxi and feels his way through some heavy, heartfelt thoughts. It's a stunner of a sequence that shows Ben lament hypothetical tragedies he wakes up every day thinking about, and empathizing so deeply with strangers that tears start to spill from his eyes. When he finally cycles through all his profound, off-kilter thoughts, he answers a question the driver must have asked before the episode even started: "My day's been going good, man. How's your day been going?"

This scene, which unfolds in the season 3 episode "Fire Pink," is one of the most illuminating, considerate portrayals of an episode of mental illness I've ever seen. Ben is clearly unwell, but as he narrates his not-quite-logical thoughts, it's obvious that all his rash actions and nagging anxieties are driven by deep compassion. He talks about waking up thinking about a homeless guy who lives on the street near a gun shop, and imagines that man's own moment of lucidity with such specificity that he makes himself cry. He worries about his dad, and about a kid he's never met. It's the last episode Pelphrey is in, and he blows every other scene of "Ozark" out of the water in an emotional moment that falls entirely on his shoulders.

Pelphrey credits screenwriter Miki Johnson for the remarkable sequence, and tells Vulture he didn't improvise a single thing in the scene. The actor does note that some of Ben's repeated lines likely came from takes when he "was just looking for a purchase" in his performance. Purposeful or not, these repeated lines work beautifully to emphasize the intensity of Ben's internal-turned-external monologue, as when he says "he's just a guy" again and again in reference to the homeless man being hassled.

The scene has 'flawless emotional logic'

The actor describes the scene perfectly, saying that although Ben's rambling is illogical on one level, it has "this flawless emotional logic" to it. This is exactly what makes the moment stand out. Rarely have a script and performance ever captured the core truth and emotion of an illness like bipolar disorder and encapsulated all of it into a single scene like this one. For his part, Pelphrey calls Johnson's script some of the best writing he's read. He explains that his performance came down to honoring what Johnson had put on the page, saying:

I want to show up word-perfect because I cannot make this writing better. There's not a version of me improvising that scene that makes it better. The only thing that could happen with me improvising that scene is making it worse. She's the writer for a reason, and she's where she is for a reason, and so you just show up as prepared as possible.

The actor also speaks about how the performance came from a place of relaxed spontaneity once he'd memorized the script, which he clarifies is "the kind of freedom and opportunity that is only possible when the writing is that good." The result is an astounding five minutes of television that gives me — and surely many other viewers — sustained goosebumps. It also makes Ben's tragic demise by the episode's end so much more painful.

"I remember what my mind was before the thing happened that ruined my mind," Ben says at one point, talking only to himself while the taxi driver outright ignores him. He thinks he's talking about the possibly-imaginary homeless veteran's moment of mental clarity, but he's really capturing a part of himself without knowing it. He's shaping his own feelings about the slipperiness of self-control into extreme empathy because he can't come down from his manic peak long enough to understand that he himself may as well be the guy by the gun shop. Johnson was nominated for an Emmy for her writing on "Fire Pink," while Pelphrey garnered a Critics' Choice Award nomination. Both deserve that and more for their breathtaking work in this raw, vital scene.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.