Netflix allows you to control not just what you watch, but how rapidly you do. You can stream their shows 1.25 or 1.5 times more rapidly than their creators meant them to be seen; an hourlong show becomes 45 minutes. (You can also slow Netflix down, should you desire.) It was only in watching the new batch of “Ozark” episodes — the first half of the drama’s last season, with a final set to arrive at a date to be named later — that I understood why someone might use them.
That’s not to say that watching “Ozark” is a misery to be sped through: The series, a perennial zeitgeist hit and Emmys presence, is all about delivering pleasure. It’s just that those pleasures solely exist in the realm of plot development — or, perhaps, plot intensification. This show began in a place of vacuous amorality and, in this fourth outing, restates once more that the people at the center of the frame are very, very bad. And very, very bad things happen to and around them, at a distracting rate that allows this show to hopscotch that — this deep into its run — it’s struggling to be about much of anything.
The show’s central Byrde family initially came to the Ozarks to get out of a jam, when Marty (Jason Bateman) was found to be skimming from the cartel for whom he laundered money. He set out to solve his problems in as aggressively extralegal a manner as possible. Now, he and his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), are wealthy casino owners with yet more enemies; as the season begins, they must overcome emotional and pragmatic setbacks, including the deaths of a family member and of an attorney who leaves behind loose ends.
All of this generates incident. But little has the heat of real drama. A revealing moment comes in the first episode, when Marty and Wendy, over glasses of wine, trade off a list of what they need to accomplish in order to get out of their latest bind. “We need large numbers of money, and then we need to buy all the people,” Marty says. Other objectives, somewhat more specific than getting lots of money and bribing folks, get traded: Marty notes they need to convince a local drug kingpin to stop selling heroin. “Of course we do,” Wendy says, sarcastically and mirthlessly.
This moment speaks to the ways in which Linney’s Wendy is among “Ozark’s” few genuinely intriguing inventions: Under the cover of an unassuming mom and wife along for Marty’s crazy ride, Wendy treats the acquisition and wielding of underworld power as a to-do list to be completed with a cool head and a glass of red at the end of the day. But it also suggests the show’s willingness to let itself off the hook, to comment sarcastically on the outlandishness of its story rather than attempting to make it human-scale, or to find the people inside the contrivances of Marty and Wendy. The show itself is checking boxes as it runs through the gauntlet Marty and Wendy face down and evade before moving on to the next.
Julia Garner’s performance as an ambitious local young person tied up in the Byrdes’ business stands out all the more because what’s around it leans so heavily on an outsized bleakness. “Ozark” can feel like watching “Breaking Bad” in the NFL RedZone, the viewing option that delivers each and every touchdown on in-season Sundays. It’s chaos and gunshots without anything but the most glancing nod to a moral reckoning; it’s everything that people enjoy about high-gloss, expensive TV, without the parts that act as ballast. (This extends to the show’s visual sense, so dimly lit and murky as to suggest that “Ozark” believes moral ambiguity can be better achieved through lighting than through writing.)
The show nods here and there to what it is that Marty and Wendy want beyond to survive, and it’s there things genuinely pick up. Wendy, especially, wants to obtain real power so that she can “give back” in the nonprofit space, laundering her reputation with laundered money, a vain and deluded goal but also one as old as America. (Linney, excellent as ever, sells a monologue to this effect.) And both she and Marty put on a show of being concerned for the wellbeing of their children (Sofia Hublitz and Skylar Gaertner). These parents cannot quite shed the image of themselves as “typical” that their actions belie in the 23 hours a day that are not family dinnertime. In moments, one sees the version of “Ozark” that has a sense of these people, beyond their capacity to withstand extreme tension. But they’re too fleeting to dwell on. Better, perhaps, to embrace the ride, to speed on to the next kill.
Season 4, Part 1 of “Ozark” will be released on Netflix Jan. 21.