‘Ozark’ Season 2 Weaves a Fine Thread of Corruption

Corruption runs throughout the second season of Netflix’s “Ozark.” Having nearly escaped a deadly downfall in the inaugural season, the Byrdes are now determined to find new avenues for tainted cash, even if they must dabble in the dirty waters of politics. Here we have one of the most alluringly twisted family dramas on television. The parents are money launderers and the kids are hustlers in the making, with a pristine, yet gothic rural setting. This is a crime drama where even in its moments of melodrama and bloodshed, it feels vivid and eerily plausible.

Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) and Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) remain beholden to their Mexican cartel bosses as the season opens, yet the stakes are not much higher. They have not informed the cartel about how they killed a mob honcho, but will have to confess soon as a Chicago lawyer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer ) arrives in Ozark to settle cartel business. The Byrdes soon come up with a new scheme: They will build a casino on land owned by their heroin-dealing associates, Jacob Snell (Peter Mullan) and Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery). If all goes as planned, the couple can launder money through the casino and make enough to then leave for good and abandon their criminal lifestyle. But to build the casino they first have to maneuver among political sharks to get the necessary legislation passed, which means bribes, blackmail and threats. Helping them with this particular department is a ruthless local political operative Charles Wilkes (Darren Goldstein), who shows Wendy the ropes when it comes to dining with and manipulating the local suits. But in this world everyone is after something, especially Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), the scrappy descendent of a line of criminals, now demanding the Byrdes teach her the fine art of laundering. FBI agent Roy Petty ( Jason Butler Harner) is also focused, but on catching Marty Byrde, even if it means breaking the rules.

“Ozark” pulls off the interesting feat of being engaging with main characters who are not altogether likeable. The Byrdes in this season remain cold, focused business operatives, except instead of running a Fortune 500 they are running cash for organized crime. But the showrunners brilliantly combine crime with politics in this outing, conveying a world just as corrupt as any cosa nostra environment. The first season was essentially a mob thriller, with more of an emphasis on the criminal underworld. Some of the best moments this season don’t involve gangsters at all, but Wendy’s introduction into a world of cutthroat wheeling and dealing. Wilkes guides Wendy through the local political scene, introducing her to who she needs to know, and what she needs to know about them. Soon she goes from following a politician like prey at a dinner party to hiring strippers to entrap the husband of a prominent figure, in order to secure a vote to change local casino laws. Season 2 is a much somber, darker offering than last season, with an ominous tone through out. A clear moment with bite shows Wendy approaching a senator to make the case for a law that would allow the Byrdes’s casino to be built, when the senator quickly dismisses her all she needs to do is offer money that is untraceable, “no need, just write a check,” is the quick reply. Violence also becomes a refined tool to exercise power. When the Kansas City mob catches wind of the Byrdes’s plans they send enforcers to threaten potential business partners. A foolish clerk who refuses to hand over Pierce a surveillance tape gets a bullet in the gut, left to suffer while a henchmen gets the tape, it is a brutally subtle moment.

At heart “Ozark” is about family and how it is hard to shake off certain legacies. A key storyline this season involves Ruth, who has to deal with her toxic father Cade (Trevor Long), getting out of jail and imposing his will. For Ruth the Byrdes represent a way out of her rusty, backwoods existence, while Cade is proud of their rugged outlaw ways and soon starts threatening Ruth about loyalty (while hinting that he needs her to get the Byrdes for all they’re worth). A serene drive where Cade asks Ruth if she would like a soda turns into him casually robbing a diner. This is who he is and where she comes from. The Byrde children, Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) and Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), are still affected from the events of last season, especially Jonah, but they too are evolving in interesting ways reminiscent of mom and dad. Jonah has started making money at school by doing other kids’ homework. Charlotte is becoming a weed dealer and carefully hides her earnings. In “Ozark” there is no such thing as innocence, and both Jonah and Charlotte are beginning to take on their parents’ knack for getting by through channels outside of law and order. Everyone is touched by corruption in this show, even FBI agent Petty, who recruits a certain associate of the Byrdes to become a snitch, but is not above breaking the rules himself to nab his prey.

This is all not to say there is no suspense in this second season of “Ozark.” Every episode has strong tension that builds. Turf wars begin as the Snells refuse to be taken for granted, in particular when it comes to their land, and soon they begin to scoff at the Mexican cartels and at a political hotshot like Wilkes (they eventually blow up his boat to make a point). Just when things seem to be getting safer for the Byrdes the storyline throws a riveting (but not unconvincing) twists, like a kidnapping involving Wendy in the grindingly suspenseful seventh episode. With quite a few episodes directed by Jason Bateman himself, “Ozark” grips by looking at crime purely as an enterprise based on numbers, product and distribution. The whole drug cartel culture is in essence capitalism in its purest form, and in “Ozark” nobody feels like a cartoon, but like ruthless business people dealing in a trade where blood is the ultimate down payment.

Ozark” season two premieres Aug. 31 on Netflix.