Spoilers ahead for Ozark season 4.
Who did you overestimate this season? I use the word “overestimate,” because Ozark, the prestige-adjacent Netflix drama about a Chicago family lured into laundering money for a drug cartel, has already played with making the underestimated its heroes. Take Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), whose petite frame, mop of white-blonde curls, and grating Southern Missouri accent stamped her as non-threatening until her brilliance could no longer be ignored, and she ascended as Marty Byrde’s (Jason Bateman) right-hand woman and eventual rival.
But as much as Ozark has enjoyed how easily we underestimate certain characters—women, in particular—the show is ultimately about who we overestimate and why. Who is it we expect might do the right thing, only to pull the trigger on their worst inclinations again and again? Can these people be redeemed, if we continue to believe in them? These are big questions for a drama to grapple with, and I’m not convinced Ozark, in its entirety, does an artful job of addressing them. But I do think the finale episode offers some answers about who we overestimate, why, and how that traps us. (For me, this season? I overestimated Clare Shaw. But we’ll get there.)
Let’s start at the beginning of the finale, aptly titled “A Hard Way To Go.” Much of season 4 has meandered as it attempts to tie off a dozen loose ends, but “A Hard Way To Go” opens with immediate intensity: Ruth is burying Nelson (Nelson Bonilla), the Navarro cartel hitman sent to spy on the Ozarks operation, at the bottom of her unfinished swimming pool. After tapping her shovel to smooth over any disturbed dirt, she lifts her gaze to meet that of Wyatt’s (Charlie Tahan), her cousin who died at the hands of Javi Elizonndro (Alfonso Herrera). (You’ll recall that Ruth recently killed Javi, Omar Navarro’s (Felix Solis) nephew and the cartel heir, in retaliation.) This Wyatt is an apparition, of course, but that doesn’t make the sad smile he gives her any less gut-wrenching. You can practically hear him say, It never ends, does it?
And end it does not, as Marty pulls into the drive to interrupt her grave-digging with a plea of his own. His wife, Wendy (the exquisite Laura Linney), has checked herself into a mental hospital in an attempt to prevent her father, Nathan (Richard Thomas), from taking their kids back with him to North Carolina. Wendy might be a terrible parent, but she refuses to let her children suffer at the hands of Nathan, an alcoholic who beat and manipulated her as a kid. Marty has finally reached a breaking point as he attempts to simultaneously assuage the cartel, the FBI, and his family, so he plays his nastiest card: If Ruth doesn’t help him win back his kids, he’ll tell the cartel that she killed Javi. Backed into a corner, Ruth agrees.
At the house, Marty meets with Camila, Omar’s sister and the Byrde family’s ally as they attempt to a) kill Omar and b) fulfill their deal with the FBI. They sketch out their plan, which involves a cell transfer in which Omar will “escape” only to get gunned down, and Camila will take over the cartel, so long as she continues making regular payments to America’s finest law enforcement agency. But Camila wants to meet with the FBI first to soothe any doubts, and Marty agrees. Meanwhile, Ruth confronts Wendy at the mental hospital, where she tells her she’ll try to get the kids back on her side. But if she fails, she can’t be held accountable for it. (Losing her children’s allegiance is on Wendy, folks.) Wendy agrees, and Ruth finally admits she’s sorry for letting Ben (Tom Pelphrey), Wendy’s brother, out of the same exact mental hospital last season. If she’d have left him alone, despite his suffering, he’d still be alive.
“Just how bad is it in here?” she asks Wendy.
“Bad,” Wendy says.
“But it’s bearable, right?”
Wendy shrugs. “Everything’s bearable.”
More on that later.
Ruth withdraws a gun from her safe and visits Nathan in his motel room at the Lazy O, with the premise of toasting Ben’s life and death. For the first few minutes of their conversation, Ruth plays into Nathan’s misogyny: They discuss Wendy’s “reputation” for promiscuity as a child, a trait Nathan clearly resented while ignoring Ben’s own oat-sowing and penchant for “loose women.” “Well, you beat her,” Ruth says, with a sweet smile. After Nathan’s face falls—“How’s that?”—her eyelashes flutter. “You won! You got Jonah and Charlotte! And for what it’s worth, every beating that I ever got from my daddy, I knew it was my fault.”
But we know the act won’t last long, and within minutes, Ruth’s switched off the doe-eyes. “You don’t even fucking want them, do you?” she asks. Increasingly agitated as the conversation grows frosty, Nathan admits his real intentions: He only wants custody over Charlotte and Jonah to punish his daughter. “She was a slut and an embarrassment,” he says. As he turns to place the whiskey bottle on ice, Ruth pulls out her gun and shoots a glass on the counter, exploding it into pieces. Charlotte (Sofia Hubliz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) come running, and Ruth demands Nathan tell them the truth behind his custody battle—or she’ll shoot him in the dick. (This show has a thing for dick-shooting.)
Chastened by this revelation, the kids go to visit their mother at the mental facility. They share a touching exchange, in which Wendy admits it’s her fault, not Ruth’s, that Ben is dead. “He would have gotten us all killed. But we should never have been there,” she says, as Jonah—the child most broken up by Ben’s loss and Wendy’s betrayal—stares at the floor. “But the truth is Ben is dead because I am selfish, and I trapped him.” Finally, Jonah meets his mother’s eyes.
She continues: “Your dad and I were trying to build something for all of us, and I promise I will not trap you inside it.” I find this line particularly fascinating, given how this episode ends. But I promise—we’ll get there.
They all leave the mental hospital as a family, Wendy having accomplished her task of getting the gang back together. As she climbs into the passenger seat, she shoots Marty a sweet, almost bashful smile. “You really didn’t have to threaten Ruth,” she says, as if it’s the most romantic gesture her husband has ever attempted. In the Byrdes’s love language, it probably is.
Finally, we reach the moment first foreshadowed at the beginning of season 4, when the Byrdes are cruising home to the tune of Sam Cooke, only for a semi-truck to drift into oncoming traffic. Marty swerves to avoid the collision, and their car goes soaring, flipping multiple times until it comes to a smoldering, deadly still. Marty climbs out first, along with Jonah and then Charlotte, but Wendy is unresponsive.
I’ll be honest. There was a moment where I thought this might be how the story ended. It would be fitting, in a twisted, ugly way. Season 4 has spent many of its best Marty-Wendy scenes emphasizing the dynamics of their marriage: Wendy pushes for control, and Marty acquiesces, in part because she’s erratic, but also because he loves her. (Keep in mind that, in Ozark’s pilot episode, Marty spent the first half obsessed with the fact that his wife was cheating on him, and the second half desperately trying to protect her.) Whether or not it’s true, he feels, by now, that everything he’s done this season—going to Mexico, cooperating with the FBI, threatening Ruth—is for his wife. And everything she’s done is in a deranged attempt to buy the family its freedom, instead digging deeper and deeper into a hole from which they can never climb out. It would be sick, though appropriate, for her efforts to end so anti-climatically, so tragically, and for Marty and the children to be left alone to face the consequences. But I should have known that, no matter how unrealistic it might be, the Byrdes would escape the car crash uninjured. If we as an audience haven’t been convinced by now that they’re untouchable, watching them flee their mangled minivan without so much as a scratch will do the trick.
After Father Benitez (Bruno Bichir) warns Marty and Wendy that Nelson is missing and Omar wants to see them, Marty visits Ruth to confirm Nelson’s at the bottom of her pool. He offers to give her a new identity after Omar’s assassination, but she refuses: “I like my name.” So he invites her, as the casino’s new ownership, to meet with the cartel and FBI, where they’ll hammer down the details of their laundering arrangement.
Shortly after, Omar tells Marty and Wendy that he knows his sister, Camila, was behind the attempt on his life, and he’s prepared to order a hit on her in retaliation. The Byrdes agree to help, in order to maintain the ruse. Back along the lake, Ruth shares a sweet scene with her family members, all but one of them—her cousin Three (Carson Holmes)—imagined. (The others have fallen, one by one, to the Byrdes’s machinations over the seasons.) In hindsight, I should have known this moment would serve as our emotional farewell to one of the show’s best characters. Ruth is ready to move on. But the Byrdes will never let her.
Next, the FBI-Belle-Navarro-Byrde meeting commences at the Byrdes’s funeral parlor. They agree on the plan: Omar will be transferred and killed. Camila will take over for the Navarro cartel but maintain payments to the FBI. Ruth and Rachel (Jordana Spiro) will launder the cartel’s money through the Belle, with the support and clearance of the FBI. Everyone agrees, and it seems like—maybe, finally—the Byrdes are in the clear. Wendy says too-da-loo to her abusive father, buying his silence with a donation to Ben’s missing-person fund. When she returns home, her family is already dressed for the night’s gala, and it serves as a symbolic gesture: Wendy has her husband and her kids back, and they’re all on her side, no matter the horrors she’s done.
The evening is a flurry of champagne and gowns as the Byrdes dance under the donations flooding into their foundation. “So we’re bulletproof,” Wendy says, a little dose of on-the-nose dialogue in case the car crash wasn’t a strong enough indicator of their invulnerability. Feeling haughty, Wendy cuts ties with Senator Schaefer (Bruce Davison); she no longer needs to aid him in election fraud so he’ll get Omar off the SDN list. But Ozark won’t let Wendy fly high for too long. As Omar is transferred and shot in the chest, Camila materializes at the gala, interrupting a conversation between Marty, Wendy and Shaw Medical CEO Clare Shaw (Katrina Lenk).
And here is where my own instincts failed me. Marty and Wendy might have underestimated Clare’s ingenuity, but I overestimated her humanity. Sure, she agreed to fund her Purdue-adjacent pharmaceutical company with drug money, but that I read as a move of desperation rather than corruption. But it’s as if Ozark is cackling in the face of such naive assumptions: Of course she’s just as corrupted as the rest. When Camila starts digging deeper into the night Javi died, threatening a gruesome death for anyone she discovers is lying to her, Clare crumples like a dollar bill. She’s afraid, yes, but she’s also calculating. Her eyes shift and her lips twist as she steels herself to admit the truth: “It was Ruth Langmore.” She’s not so terrified that she can’t lie on behalf of the Byrdes—remember, she’s got a contract set with them—but Ruth? Ruth’s death she can live with.
The Byrdes panic, but Camila warns that if they do anything to warn their friend, she’ll kill them and their kids. Marty and Wendy try to arrange a plan, but there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, they can do, and they know it. “I’m scared I’ll lose you,” Wendy tells her husband, as if this might finally be the thing they can’t survive, the thing that will tear them apart. But as she herself told Ruth earlier this episode, “Everything’s bearable,” and Marty’s known it for a while now. “You won’t,” he tells Wendy, embracing her. “You won’t.”
And so Ruth’s fate is set. She drives home to discover Camila waiting for her, and the new cartel matriarch—dressed all in black—shoots the redneck wildcard, clad in white. She bleeds out, alone on the dirt road.
After the gala wraps, the Byrde family returns home, and Marty and Wendy exchange “I love you”s before ambling into the house to mourn. But, of course, there’s broken glass on the floor, and waiting outside for them is Mel Sattem (Adam Rothenberg), the detective they recently had reinstated to the Chicago police force. No matter how badly Mel wants his job back, his conscience won’t let him ignore the Byrdes, and he finally has evidence of their wrongdoing: He’s clutching the goat-shaped cookie jar that holds Ben’s ashes, and therefore his DNA. With such a trump card, he can derail all of their attempts at freedom. The Byrdes offer to pay him any amount his heart desires, but he’s sickened by their excuses. “You don’t get it, do you?” he says. “You don’t get to win. World doesn’t work like that.”
It’s right that Wendy should be the one to shut him down, with Linney’s signature prim delivery. “Since when?” she asks. And so the camera pans to Jonah, standing near the house and aiming a shotgun at their home invader. (Fans will recognize this as a callback to prior seasons, in which Jonah demonstrates his unnerving skill as a sharp-shooter.) In a truly chilling directorial choice, both Marty and Wendy smile with pride. The last shot of the series is of their faces, watching Mel as if daring him to run. The screen goes black, and we hear a single shotgun blast. The credits roll. Ozark is finally over.
“Money is, at its essence, that measure of a man’s choices,” Marty Byrde told us in the first episode of Ozark season 1, though, really, he was talking to a pair of potential clients at his financial firm. With this argument, Marty laid out the show’s central thesis: Those corrupted enough to make the grotesque decisions, those most willing to warp their humanity to play in the mud, will reap the rewards of a twisted system. But every choice comes with a consequence, and with its final seconds, Ozark re-establishes that the Byrdes will never be free of theirs. Ruth is dead, but both Rachel and Three will want to know what happened to her. Mel is dead, but the Chicago PD will investigate his disappearance. Camila is in charge, but she’s no less ruthless than her brother, and eventually she’ll call upon the Byrdes for more than a casino. And what about the FBI? What happens when they tire of their deal?
Beyond all these plot points that ensure the Byrdes will remain in the crime cycle, the finale reminds us that such destruction is a family affair. Over the course of the show, both Jonah and Charlotte sought an escape from their parents, the former through Ben and later Ruth, the latter through emancipation back in season 2. In the finale, Wendy promises she won’t “trap” her children inside the beast she and Marty have built. But of course she will; she already has. She trapped them the moment the family moved to the Ozarks, arguably long before that, when Marty first began his work for the cartel.
I’m not convinced Jonah was the right person to pull the trigger in this final episode; he’d spent the majority of season 4 furious with his parents, and I’m not sure he’d be sucked back in quickly enough to murder an innocent man. But Ozark clearly disagrees: This is the bond of blood, and more importantly, the bond of money. Jonah’s had a taste with his laundering work for Ruth and the Snells. That addiction sucks everyone in and destroys all in its path. From the beginning, Marty and Wendy never had a real escape route, but the most heartbreaking revelation is this: Neither did their children. Ozark’s finale might not be the satisfying end we wanted, but it does capitalize on a core truth.
I overestimated Ozark’s characters, just as I overestimated the show’s arc toward resolution. But really, isn’t that the point? No matter how much we yearn for freedom, no one escapes unscathed—if they manage to escape at all.
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