I’ve watched season three of “Ozark,” a Netflix series I’ve been on the fence about since it premiered. A loose spin on “Breaking Bad,” it’s about a family laundering money for a drug cartel — and kind-of-sort-of getting into it. Here are a few of my observations (careful; there are spoilers scattered throughout):
1. Season three is the best season of the series so far. The story line arc works pretty well, with seeds planted early on that bloom in the later episodes. The build is nicely done, so that the final third of the season is shaking with energy and tension. I mean, it’s all preposterous — The cartel leader is all about the Byrdes! The kids know everything! — but my suspension-of-disbelief mechanism was more than willing to help me move past all that.
2. One critical reason the new season is so pleasin’: Laura Linney. Her Wendy Byrde has a lot more to do this time around, as she moves against her husband and deals with her brother’s mental-health issues. And Linney makes it all fly (Byrde; get it?), bouncing effortlessly from shrewdness to sarcasm to fury to grief to dry comedy (the latter when she is painfully honest with her kids). Dryly Comic Linney may be my favorite Linney, although those scenes with her brother on their short road trip were very fine indeed. These are the first episodes where I felt the actress was truly having a good time with the role.
3. The female characters in general are more interesting and entertaining this season. Janet McTeer is a lot of fun as the cartel’s super-efficient attorney. Her good taste and intelligence are just pretty packaging for her cutthroat spirit. McTeer’s American accent, too (she’s from England), is flawless. Lisa Emery — OMG. She is endlessly entertaining as Darlene, the show’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” figure. She is by turns amusing, creepy, and scary, often in the same scene. Whenever she appeared, I paid special attention. And Marylouise Burke as Sue, the Byrdes’ therapist? She provides a critical dollop of comic relief, as she starts taking money from Marty AND Wendy to make each one look better during the sessions. Sue is ambitious, fearless, and, alas, doomed.
4. On the other hand, I found Julia Garner less effective as Ruth this season than in the past, even grating at points. I know, I know, we all love her and she’s the next big thing, and she won an Emmy for this role, etc. But for the better part of the season, she seems to be playing the same note over and over again. By the end, though, she manages to bring a little more than just profane bluster as her relationship with Wendy’s brother, Ben, becomes more intense.
5. As Ben, Tom Pelphrey delivers a remarkable turn. The character is bipolar, and he goes off his meds and falls apart — a somewhat clichéd plot at this point, for sure. It seems as though every portrait of a bipolar person on TV generally has the same arc. But Pelphrey brings something extra to it. In one haunting sequence, Ben sits rambling semi-nonsense in the back seat, the camera on him but not his driver. He’s fixated on the darkest interpretation of what he has seen at his sister’s home. The irony is that he is absolutely correct. And yet, and yet. There’s no place for the truth or a moral compass in the Byrdes’ world.
6. That sequence of Ben rambling is one of a welcome number of times during season three that the writers took their minds off of the suspense to deliver little illustrative, in-between moments — something the best dramas do. They let the characters breathe. The “Ozark” characters — both the regulars and the season’s guests — seemed more fleshed out this season than before, thanks to those moments. Likewise, the season is shot with more imagination than in the past. The camera lingers longer on the strangely shaped houses and offices, letting them contribute to the overall mood.
7. The final twist, featuring Felix Solis as the mercurial cartel leader Navarro, was [chef’s kiss] perfection. Now Marty and Wendy are in deeper than they realized, partly based on a lie about having the FBI in their pocket, and Ruth may no longer be there for them. Assuming Netflix renews the show, I’m in for season four for absolute sure.