Like almost every other show on Netflix, “Ozark” follows the “If Only BBC” rule. (Meaning things would have been a lot snappier if they’d lopped off two, three, even four episodes. Unless we’re talking about the new seasons of “Arrested Development,” in which case full cancellation is the only answer.) The first season started off with a hell of a setup. Early episodes were packed with grit and speed like some godsend of modern noir. Season 1 soon lost its way, not sure just how Southern Midwest gothic it wanted to go. That same schizoid attitude, a little from here and a little from there, prevails in Season 2.
After the Byrd family decamped from upper-crust suburban Chicago to Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, a backwoods recreation spot for the Budweiser and a speedboat crowd, to set up a money-laundering operation for the cartel that the family’s mild-mannered accountant dad Marty (Jason Bateman) was caught swindling, the show had an identity crisis. That first batch of ten episodes settled for an uneven blend of marital discord between Marty and wife Wendy (Laura Linney), short-attention-span ethical debates, fish out of water humor, and half-in half-out suburban crime family shenanigans with an overlay of dreamy doom—you might be forgiven for thinking you were watching “The Sopranos” by way of Branson, Missouri. The new season does little to dispel that sensation.
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In the jumbled premiere episode, the Byrds are not far removed from the panicky dance they were doing when we last left them. The Snells, that shotgun-happy and moody clan of heroin dealers, are still proving to be nearly as great a danger to the Byrds as the cartel. The kids, dangerously foresight-averse teenager Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and creepy-cool, younger prodigy Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), are not buying mom and dad’s thin reassurances and are stashing a little money of their own away, just in case. Even though Marty’s soulful young lieutenant and Ozark translator Ruth (Julia Garner) is more in the Byrds’ camp this time—no more messing around like with that electrified dock—the rest of the trailer-grifter Langmore family is little but trouble. Ruth’s paroled dad Cade (Trevor Long) skulks around the periphery plotting to get the Byrds’ cash stash, emotionally abusing Ruth and scheming like some latter-day Pap Finn. At the same time, the comically perverse FBI agent Petty (Jason Butler Harner) stalks the Byrds like some deranged outtake from “Twin Peaks.”
All the while, the cartel is hovering around the margins, a shadowy flotilla of black SUVs and silently murderous Mexicans always at the ready to strike them down should things go poorly with their money. In case it does, they’ve brought down from Chicago the kind of Lakeshore Drive enforcer that the Byrds, he an accountant and she a political fixer, would recognize as one of their own. Helen Pierce, played by Janet McTeer with an ice-veined sleek savagery that could power two seasons of “American Horror Story,” is deposition-clear about the repercussions should the Byrds fail to open a casino within six months, “I’ll kill your fucking children.”
That’s right, the Byrds have to open a casino in order to keep the laundering operation running at full steam. That funeral parlor, strip club, and lakeside bar Marty bought in the first season just won’t cut it, revenue-wise. He still has the properties, though one suspects it might be more so that the showrunners have a set number of backdrops to cycle between. Since “Ozark” functions primarily as logic problems for crooks, a couple big roadblocks stand in the Byrds way. The obvious one is the Snells, who aren’t crazy about selling their ancestral land to “those Mexicans.” They still resent having to kill one of their own in reparations for the cartel boss that the tweaky matriarch Darlene (Lisa Emery) blew away in a fit of pique, to the irritation of her husband Jacob (Peter Mullan, effective but slightly hammy), who dispenses Biblical bon mots as cover for the wheels turning in his larcenous mind. The new, and possibly more terrifying, wrinkle is the Missouri legislature, a gaggle of right-to-work union-busters with one hand on the Bible and the other outstretched for a donation.
Transparently a reason to give Wendy more skin in the game—her half-reinvention as a real estate agent wasn’t the best fit—the introduction of politics to the show also helps add an additional layer of cynicism to what the Byrds are doing. If it were just the casino driving the plot this time, there wouldn’t be much to the season, just another obstacle for Marty to quick-step his way around. But once Wendy starts working the benefit circuit in Kansas City and Jefferson City, doling out cartel cash to right-wing millionaires like the generically sleazy Charles Wilkes (Darren Goldstein), it signals another devolution for the Byrds. “What are his politics?” Marty asks, falling by habit into a mentality where such things mattered. “Not ours,” Wendy assures him, with less guilt than might be imagined.
This season hinges on that twist. Until then, Marty had been moving with blinders on. While Wendy fretted about implications and the future, Marty swatted aside like flies questions about the morality of what they did, arguing that those they were hurting had willfully chosen that life and so were responsible for their fate. Once Wendy starts doing some serious moral compromising of her own, and a late-season twist sends the normally stolid Marty into a dark spiral of self-doubt, Bateman’s usual deadpan is twisted here from comic frustration to downward-spiral despair.
That possible reversal comes not a moment too late. While less of an issue than in the first season, “Ozark’s” plot-padding remains an issue. Too much time is spent spinning the story in circles that are more repetitive than revealing. We know little more now about the Byrds’ new home than we did last time out, with the show’s writers refusing to do much of anything to build out their world. The new wrinkles of character and story, like throwing Wendy back into the gladiatorial combat of a state legislature or wrangling the Kansas City mafia into the mix, are outside additions and so do little to enrich the setting.
After ten more episodes, ‘Ozark’ has finally figured out that what matters in this show is not how the Byrds can keep dancing so narrowly away from death. Hanging over everything is the possibility that quite soon they will have accumulated enough sins that it will be difficult to continue even caring whether they live or die. [B+]