The Subtle Way Ozark Kept A Dead Character (Sort Of) Alive

Netflix's "Ozark" isn't exactly overflowing with likable characters. The crime-ridden series follows a family so complex that from certain angles they quickly become the villains of the story. Across four increasingly dire seasons, the Byrdes have gone from suburban sweethearts in over their heads to fully-fledged criminals — blackmailing politicians, swindling wealthy innocents, and even getting in with Big Pharma — all for the sake of laundering money for a very dangerous drug cartel. There were certainly times when Wendy's (Laura Linney) formidable attitude was a thrill and Marty's (Jason Bateman) ability to talk himself out of any situation was admirable, back when it was easier to cheer them on. But since arriving in the Lake of the Ozarks, the Byrdes have indirectly gotten people killed, derailed many lives into the ground, and even called in a few hits of their own. And while their morally gray decisions are abundant, there's one loss that really makes the case for showing how far this power couple is willing to go.

The Byrdes cross a line

Tom Pelphrey's Ben Davis blew into "Ozark" like a whirlwind, a brand new character in the third season who quickly carved a space for himself as the emotional core of the Byrde clan. This was no easy task; we were well established with the characters by this point, but ever the wild card, Ben went from a potential threat to someone fans desperately wanted to find happiness somewhere far, far away from the chaos. But right from the start, there was something inevitable about Ben's death. He never stood a chance of surviving in the Byrde's world. Wendy's brother suffered from severe bipolar disorder and mid-way through the season, decides to go off his meds. Having the reality of his sister's involvement with a dangerous drug cartel thrust upon him is obviously overwhelming, and when one breakdown goes too far, Wendy makes an unforgivable decision to let her brother be killed by the cartel. Although the third season's penultimate episode, "Fire Pink," marks the end of Ben's life, his story lives on.

Ben is a very special case, and unlike other deaths that the Byrdes simply walk away from, this one will hang over them until the very end. Knowing Ben's loss would leave a permanent mark, "Ozark" showrunner Chris Mundy took special care to give the character's memory a physical form in the final season. The second episode of Season 4 sees Julia Garner's Ruth Langmore shopping for a cookie jar that will eventually become the home for Ben's ashes. Mundy explained to Vanity Fair why including Ben's "physical presence" after his death was important:

"I think episode nine of season three [Ben's death] is the saddest thing we'll ever do. We didn't want to act like it's forgotten in the world. We wanted a physical presence to represent him, and our production designer designed that. We wanted it to be kind of strange and striking, so you could feel him. And it stays in our [show's] life till the end. And I don't know, it just felt really important."

Mourning Ben Davis

Ben's death looms large over the Byrdes in the first half of the final season. His ashes immediately become a crucial totem for Wendy, who spends the season guilt-ridden but desperately trying to push forward. Meanwhile, the loss of his beloved uncle serves to push young Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) over the edge. After discovering the truth of his mother's involvement, Jonah turns his back on the family. He opts to share the loss with Ruth instead, stealing Ben's ashes from the family mantle and giving them to her. As he explains to his mother, "She loved him. She'll keep him safe." Naturally, once Ruth has settled Ben into his new cookie jar, Wendy arrives for a screaming match, demanding they be returned. The inimitable Ruth Langmore has a gun in hand when she confronts Wendy and the ashes stay with her.

Beyond being the cause of strife, Ben's death is a catalyst for Ruth splitting ties with the Byrdes, too. Quickly coming to understand what Wendy did, Ruth ends their partnership and strives to build something of her own instead (and Jonah later joins her). As for Wendy, the loss of her brother seems to hint at a dangerous deterioration. She spends the first seven episodes of the final season weaving a new narrative around Ben's death, claiming he's gone missing after a long battle with addiction. It's disturbing to see her lie at all, but it goes well beyond the point of necessity as she keeps up the charade outside of the public eye. Even Marty begins to wonder if his wife can differentiate between her lies and the truth, which Mundy explains was a very intentional track laid throughout the season:

"There's a subtle thing that we keep doing to a degree in the back seven episodes more than the front seven, of trying to get a handle on Wendy's sanity. Is she going a little bit crazy? Is she starting to practice the lie of Ben being missing, so that eventually, if you say the lie enough, then you start to believe it yourself? Is she just rehearsing or does she really believe it? And having a totem to Ben felt really important to feel that, for the audience."

As we approach the final episodes of "Ozark," Ben's death will no doubt continue to hang over the series as Ruth mourns her many lost loved ones, Jonah's resentment for his mother grows, and Wendy continues to fall apart.

The second half of the final season of "Ozark" arrives on April 29, 2022.