By the time Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) carelessly murdered a cartel cell leader at the end of the first season of Ozark, the series had spent nearly 10 episodes methodically building to this explosive show of violence. In season two, the series dramatically quickens its pace, as if it’s brought a gun to a chess match. In the immediate aftermath of Darlene’s misdeed, Ozark finds financial advisor turned money launderer Marty Byrd (Jason Bateman) scrambling to maintain peace between Omar Navarro’s cartel and the Snell clan, a sociopathic bunch of heroin producers, while opening a casino for the cartel in the Ozarks and trying desperately to avoid F.B.I. detection. The entire season unfolds with an intensity normally reserved for a finale, as each new episode presents a life-or-death problem for Marty to resolve.
As it did last season, when Marty had three months to launder eight million dollars, Ozark relies on deadlines to ratchet up tension. Marty now has six months to open the casino—or else, as his bosses forebodingly remind him, “arrangements will be made.” These timelines are ultimately arbitrary, but they’re effective narrative conceits, as they transform every wrench, no matter how small, that’s thrown into Marty’s plans into a state of emergency.
Of course, the wrenches are rarely small on Ozark. Indeed, the stream of cataclysmic events that flows through this more adrenalized season makes it tough to believe that Marty has been in the Ozarks for only three months. Season two bombards us with a litany of seemingly climactic ultraviolence, including numerous killings and instances of arson, a suicide, the torture of one major character, the kidnapping of another, and one significant death. Ozark pulverizes viewers with plot, willing to risk our desensitization in order to emphasize the perilous nature of Marty’s illicit business.
The series, though, primarily harnesses its tension not from its often-shocking displays of violence, but from keeping Marty and his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), in pressure-cooker situations. A highlight of the new season is the great character work that springs from the couple having to deal with the possibility—and then the certainty—that they’re being wiretapped.
Of course, because this particular scenario is a matter of life or death, other season arcs come to feel superfluous by comparison. One head-scratching plotline finds the loathsome Snells considering adoption—or some other nefarious means of acquiring an heir. It’s unclear whether Darlene’s desperate need for a child is meant to make her more sympathetic or more revolting. Elsewhere, Marty’s teenage son, Jonah (Skylar Gaertnar), begins laundering small amounts of his own money, ostensibly as an emotional overture to his distracted father. If these subplots feel so conspicuously underserved, it’s because there’s a sense that Ozark hasn’t figured out how they’ll factor into any future emotional reckoning for these or any other characters.
More effective is when there’s a sense that the show’s characters are aware that some shoe is about to drop, which is all over Marty’s almost curious sense of resignation. The character is so wholly consumed by his casino bid, and by surviving, that he no longer knows how to feel. We get few glimpses of Marty and Wendy’s domestic life this season, but those moments are resonant: She senses her husband’s desensitization, then rebukes him—usually after Marty flippantly dismisses the horrors that surround them as a mere facts of nature. She’s so intuitive that she instantly picks up his slack, and another highlight of the season is watching Linney delight in sketching how Wendy so effortlessly comes into her own as a criminal mastermind, as in the way the character, at once insidious and appeasing, uses her political experience to help usher Marty’s casino bid through the state senate.
No less compelling this season is, of course, Marty’s other right-hand woman, Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), whose father, Cade (Trevor Long), has been recently released from prison. Ruth’s underdog charm and ingenuity are complemented in season two by a newfound vulnerability, as Cade, a domineering dirtbag, is capable of cowing his daughter in ways that no one else is. His influence on the usually indomitable young woman is another source of immaculate tension throughout the new season, with the series even going to far as to hint that he may eventually turn Ruth against Marty. Her fate seems caught in a tug of war between Cade, Marty, and her own ambitions, and watching Ruth figure out her own path through all the exploitation that subsumes her life and work yields some of the more suspenseful and emotionally distressing moments of the season.
Gone are last season’s hackneyed ruminations on capitalism, perhaps having been buried in the same hole in the ground alongside those didactic voiceovers from the show’s earliest episodes. In season two, Marty is less prone to self-victimizing, which was consistently the least interesting aspect of the character’s archetypical antihero persona. Which is to say that Ozark is conspicuously going about correcting past wrongs. As a result, it feels newly and brazenly confident, steamrolling through story at a pace that seems to reflect an active decision on the part of the show’s writers to find that perfect sweet spot between the arty and smart, unpretentious pulp.