The first series of Ozark (Netflix) was a tightly wound thriller about Marty and Wendy Byrde (Jason Bateman and Laura Linney), a professional couple forced to move from Chicago to the Missouri Ozarks after they got entangled in a drug cartel’s money laundering scheme. Sticking to the Breaking Bad formula, it showed the formerly middle-class family coming to relish their criminality. Considering its subject, it was surprisingly credible, anchored by excellent performances from Bateman and Linney. If there is a formula for prestige television, it is murderous gangs plus domestic strife, and Ozark served up plenty of both.
Having established the Byrdes in their new environment, the writers didn’t seem to know what to do with them, and the second series was flabbier. It wouldn’t have been the first drama in recent years to run out of imagination before it ran out of budget. So it’s a relief that for Ozark’s third outing, it seems to have got its mojo back. It begins six months after the end of series two, and the Byrdes’ riverboat casino, The Missouri Bell, is up and running, a legitimate enterprise relieving holidaymakers of their dough. Looking after things day to day is Ruth Langmore (Julie Garner), an anxious cobra of a manager, alternately charming and vicious, especially when it comes to local small-time mobster Frank Jr (Joseph Sikora).
Marty and Wendy have more to worry about. Wendy previously worked in political strategy and craves more money and power. “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” she tells her husband. With a few calculated risks, they could wind up running things. She sees an opportunity to go into bigger business with the Novarro cartel, who are under pressure from an ongoing drug war, and seeks out their lawyer, the steely Helen (Janet McTeer), to assist. Marty is happy with things as they are, seeing a path to stability, especially for their children, out of the chaos of their recent past. Marriage therapy sessions are failing to reconcile them on this or their other problems. Whatever else might be said for becoming a large-scale money launderer, it strains the conversation over the lasagne.
Ozark mostly makes up for any deficiencies in originality with its crisp execution. The leads are superb, especially Linney and Garner, and the direction keeps things at a high point of tension, lit so dimly that even the sun seems depressed. The deep, looming score helps, too. Given that the Byrdes are never more than five minutes from cataclysm, they remain remarkably well put together. The difference between how the Byrdes present themselves and the objective reality of their situation gives the programme a restless energy. We will follow them down the rabbit hole, even though it can’t end well, and it’s to the writers’ credit that the characters remain plausible while they take more and more extreme decisions. You might be able to evade the FBI and rampaging drug gangs. Escaping your family is another matter entirely.