Ozark Season 2: How four women saved the series from bumbling into mediocrity
Season 2 of Ozark should have had major problems, not least of which stemmed from a sniveling bunch of male characters that do little justice to the bleak fatalism of the location
"I know fuck about shit," says Ruth Langmore, played astonishingly well by Julia Garner, and she's probably right. But shit doesn't entail keeping the people she loves safe and maintaining a code of loyalty that would have made Don Corleone proud.
Season 2 of 'Ozark' should have had major problems, not least of which stemmed from a sniveling bunch of male characters that do little justice to the grit and bleak fatalism that emanates from the oppressive Missouri mist. It should have, but didn't, and that's largely down to four female characters that ripped the guts out of the show, unentangled the gibbering entrails, and recreated a wall of such impermeability, that to even peek over its rim would be a task only for the most fearless of us all.
Let's start with Wendy Byrde, whose performance as Kathy Jamison on 'The Big C' gave us a hint of the wellspring of strength that lies beneath the seemingly suburban exterior. In the second season of 'Ozark' she doesn't so much as erupt, as take the reins of the horse, ride it to the edge of a cliff, dismount, and push its lazy ass over. As her husband Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) seems to be coming to terms with the fact that his emotional gap year is coming to an end and starts dissolving into a puddle of guilt disguised as duty, Wendy comes to the fore.
Kicking ass and taking names as it were. While Marty runs around putting out glowing embers, it's Wendy who tackles the wildfires raging deep inside the Ozarks. She doesn't complain, expects no gratitude (except from the one person she knows it's worth coming from), and brooks no challenges. The Byrdes' deep dive into a matriarchy is exhilarating.
Then there's Ruth, who while might know "fuck about shit" is the young woman standing between Marty and a complete and utter cock-up. Unlike Wendy, Ruth's inner demons play on her lips, doing a quivering ritualistic dance that often reaches her eyes trying to force the tears from them. But do not, for even a military moment, believe that Ruth's demons make her weak. On the contrary, they may be the only vent she needs to expel the more human emotions that prevent mortal from being gods.
The love she has for her father Cade Langmore (Trevor Long) — and believe it or not, what she does feel IS love — does not misdirect her from the truth that he is a colossal waste of space. She doesn't kill him for the simple reason that Ruth is not a murderer (and yes she did rig the dock in season one that killed her uncles). What she is, however, is a person who will do what it takes to protect Marty and Wyatt Langmore (Charlie Tahan). She protects the former out of unbridled loyalty, and the latter because in him she sees a way out. Not for herself, but for a projection of decency that she hopes will tower over the perceived Langmore curse.
No, Ruth is not a murderer, in fact, in another warped reality, she would even be the epitome of old testament morality, a mountaintop monarch wielding wisdom and justice. In 'Ozark' she is one corner of a polygon of power that grows ever more captivating with each episode.
When it comes to Darlene Small (Lisa Emery) there is little that needs to be said. The character that disemboweled season one to set up season two has her knife unsheathed and her eyes ablaze through the entire 10 episodes. Darlene knows love, she truly does, and there is no deeper object of her feelings than her husband Jacob. But a trifling thing like love is not something that will stand in Darlene's way.
You see, Darlene is about roots, whether they belong to the Small family or the poppies that fill their fields of dreams. And roots are all about the future. The courage and adoration it took for Darlene to kill Jacob should not be underestimated...she too is not a murderer...she is a nurturer. When she gutted a nine-month pregnant Grace Young in season one she nurtured a point, and when she poisoned her darling husband she was nurturing her version of the future. While the looming menace of the Navarro drug cartel, the FBI, and even a bumbling Cade Langmore may have given the Byrdes pause for thought, it is the behemothic shadow of Darlene Small that holds the darkest foreboding. You can deal with criminals, but it's difficult to fathom the depths of one who kills for the "greater good".
All three of the characters we've spoken about thus far had all of season one to flesh themselves out and work on our neural pathways, igniting neurons, and forming memories. This is not an advantage Helen Pierce had. Played by Janet McTeer (another 'Jessica Jones' alum along with Lisa Emery) Helen is the lawyer to the cartel, the pivot between Marty Byrde's number magic and a 'legal' money laundering operation that would make them the envy of all their Mexican peers. If Helen played poker, she'd be a world champion, if she was a muse, the artist would leave the canvas blank. She gives nothing away, but every nuance seeps through her pores into a biological computer that processes, games, and delivers a judgment very rarely wrong.
She understands the human condition without finding the need to dabble in the messy human construct of morality and emotion. She is the archetypal observer, but with the power to propel events to their favorable conclusion. She sees through Wendy's seemingly placid demeanor with an ease that comes only from a deep understanding of what makes people tick. She tells Marty she "plays with words", but she does much, much more than that. She summons them and places them in an order so perfect that to infer any meaning from their structure other than that implied would be virtually impossible. Without Helen, sufficeth to say season two would have ended at the third episode.
To think that Ozark is written predominantly by men may come as a surprise, seeing the amount of power wielded by female characters. But then again, men do tend to worship the fiction of a powerful woman rather than have to deal with the reality of one. There can be no going back for Ozark in season three, the women will have to lead, because as far as one can tell, the only man on TV at the moment capable of handling this quartet of queens is Ray Donovan, and the last we heard, he's going to be way up in New York.