To say that “Ozark” continues to surprise is an understatement. When “Ozark” began, there was little fanfare for the crime drama. The tonal shift for Jason Bateman was notable, and Laura Linney continued to showcase her range. Julia Garner became the breakout star many pegged her to become. Few could have predicted that “Ozark” would quickly become an Emmy favorite. Yet as Season 3 begins, “Ozark” continues to tread new ground for its talented cast. Bateman, Linney, and Garner make up a powerful trio, and the show finds even more gems this year. These performances continue to make “Ozark” must-watch television for both casual and awards-minded audiences. Despite the quality on-screen, the darkness at the center of the show makes for a tense yet unrelenting experience that will turn some away.
At the start of the season, we finally get a glimpse of the Byrde’s (Bateman & Linney) running their casino. Ruth (Garner) runs the floor as a pit boss, and uneasy ties are abundant. Navarro (Felix Solis) applies pressure to the Byrdes, via his lawyer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer). The KC mob continues to push buttons as Frank Jr. (Joseph Sikora) and Ruth continues their rivalry. The FBI continues to hunt Marty, with Special Agents Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes) and Trevor Evans (McKinley Belcher III) watching their every move. The Byrdes even face internal pressure from their revenge-minded Casino partner Darlene (Lisa Emery). To make matters worse, Wendy finds an unexpected visitor and wildcard on their doorstep when her brother Ben (Tom Pelfrey) arrives in town.
“Ozark” thrives as it ratchets up the tension. This season, allies and enemies seem poised to rip each other apart at every turn. Not only does this create a riveting story, but “Ozark” makes characters feel the consequences for their actions. It might seem simple, but no one feels immune from the danger at every corner. You will fear for your favorite characters throughout the season, likely more than once.
The performances reach new heights for everyone involved. It’s impossible to watch this season and come away unimpressed by the women of the show. Linney offers the most emotionally complicated performance of her career. Her ability to key into ambition, anger, fear and unbelievable sadness creates a breathtaking array of emotions. Bateman’s choice to unplugged and relate his frustration works well within the season. If he played every decision as big as the other performers on screen, “Ozark” would feel overcrowded. Garner keys into new angles for her character, giving her a true chance to repeat as an Emmy winner.
Even with the stars of the show delivering some of the best work, Pelfrey and McTeer steals the season. Pelfrey creates a wildcard element that the series desperately needed. His raw emotion overtakes the screen because of the reserved and controlled performances all around him. While other characters need this control to survive, his tornado-like performance forces everyone to break. He also gives wildly emotional and evocative turns in nearly every episode.
McTeer hits the other side of the spectrum with a viper-like approach. You can feel her calculating her opponents and allies’ worth at every turn, but she never shows vulnerability. Remarkably similar to Robin Wright’s turn on “House of Cards,” McTeer gets the most out of every scene. McTeer makes for an interesting foil to the Byrdes, not only because she’s ambitious, but because she’s an undeniably better player at this game.
The directing team, led by Alik Sakharov and Jason Bateman, keeps a consistent tone and pace throughout the season. Bateman kicks off the season with excellent table setting, but Sakharov puts an exclamation point on the season. Editors Cindy Mollo and Vikash Patel know when to splice together action setpieces, but are at their best when they give room to the actors. The feeling of tension comes from their work. The blue hues from cinematographer Ben Kutchins continue to set “Ozark” apart stylistically. Fellow cinematographers Armando Salas and Manuel Billeter maintain stylistic similarities, but every episode features unique shot selections. “Ozark” gives its artists plenty of room to express themselves yet never feels like it steps away from a cohesive vision.
Despite all of the positive things going for “Ozark” in Season 3, everything feels drenched in sadness. Few moments feel truly funny, and it can be challenging to juggle characters reeling from emotion. Unlike “Better Call Saul” or “Stranger Things,” there are few moments you will actively cheer for the characters. Instead, the mood forces the audience to confront the weightiness of the material at every turn. This remains the weakness in “Ozark,” which may prevent it from winning Best Drama. It’s tough to sit through dour content, let alone dour content that uses every minute of its ten-hour runtime.
“Ozark” should remain an Emmy favorite, as the crime drama takes another step forward. Utilizing its incredibly talented cast, “Ozark” delivers thrilling a story and heart-pounding action. Simple and evocative, “Ozark” forces you to ponder the darkness and normalcy of violence in our culture. A self-serious tone prevents it from reaching all-time great heights, but the Byrde family saga stands out in the current television landscape.