For most of Breaking Bad, Walter White insisted that his ascension into a fearsome kingpin was the only way to make sure his family was provided for after a terminal cancer diagnosis. No matter what atrocities he committed—an exhaustive list that includes ordering a child to be poisoned and watching Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend choke to death on her own vomit without intervening—Walt could always point back to family as a moral justification for his actions. In fact, it wasn’t until the series finale that Walt finally acknowledged the elephant in the room: He became Heisenberg for himself, and he liked it.
On Ozark, the Netflix crime drama that feels like an algorithmic response to the popularity of Breaking Bad, Jason Bateman’s Marty Byrde began laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel to protect his family. (In fairness to Marty, the only reason he was put in this precarious situation is because his business partner was caught skimming money from the cartel, which wanted to tie up loose ends.) But over the course of four seasons, Marty’s desperate bid for survival in the Lake of the Ozarks has evolved into an insatiable lust for power that’s left a string of bodies in its wake. Marty said it himself in the series premiere: “Money is, at its essence, that measure of a man’s choices.” And those choices paint an ugly portrait of not just Marty, but also of his wife, Wendy (an excellent Laura Linney), whose cutthroat ambition for the family business has led the character to emerge as the show’s equivalent to Walter White.
As Ozark headed into its final batch of episodes, the Byrdes were still hoping to walk away from the criminal underworld by brokering a deal with the FBI. The plan was for the head of the Navarro cartel to act as an informant for five years in exchange for freedom from prosecution. (The deal was originally presented to Omar Navarro before he was put behind bars by a rogue FBI agent, but has since been passed on to his power-hungry and trigger-happy nephew, Javi.) But when Marty’s former protégé Ruth Langmore shoots Javi in retaliation for killing her cousin Wyatt, the cartel is left with a power vacuum that puts the Byrdes’ FBI deal in jeopardy. As much as Marty and Wendy want to manage everything around them, there will always be forces outside of their control—a theme further conveyed by the fourth season’s opening with a flash-forward in which the family is involved in a serious car crash.
The question of whether the Byrdes can get everything they want—and who might get caught in the crossfire—is the driving force of the final season. If the Byrdes are able to wipe the slate clean, they plan on becoming political players in the Rust Belt, having already established a nonprofit foundation with big-name donors including Clare Shaw, the CEO of a prominent pharmaceutical company. (Of course, the Byrdes’ supposedly philanthropic efforts are tainted from the onset, as the arrangement with Clare is contingent on her company buying opium from the Navarro cartel.) That the Byrdes could move so seamlessly from money laundering to influencing national politics is indicative of another philosophical nugget Wendy shares in the series finale: “Money doesn’t know where it came from.” But while money may not be capable of judgment, people certainly are.
If there was any hope that the Byrdes would retain some semblance of humanity during their chaotic ordeal, Ozark’s bleak, brutal ending effectively squashes it. In the series finale, “A Hard Way to Go,” the FBI deal is back on with Camila Elizonndro, Omar’s sister and Javi’s mother, who took over the family business after putting out a hit on her brother. Meanwhile, Wendy’s father, Nathan, leaves town after giving up his pursuit of custody of his grandchildren, Charlotte and Jonah, and locating his missing son, Ben, who was last seen with his sister. (What Nathan doesn’t know about Ben’s disappearance won’t hurt him.) But just as everything seems to be falling in place for the Byrdes as they bask in a successful foundation fundraiser, Camila presses Marty, Wendy, and Clare about Javi’s death. “If you know something about the day my son died that you haven’t told me, I will forgive you this one time,” Camila says to Clare, sensing frailty. “If I found out later that there’s something you aren’t telling me now, well, I’ll have someone slash you from your cunt to your chin.”
With that [clears throat] creative persuasion, Clare cracks and gives up Ruth. In cold, practical terms, Ruth becoming the target for a new cartel boss doesn’t affect the Byrdes’ bottom line. But Marty has formed a close bond with Ruth, who has practically become a second daughter to him. Camila has backed Marty and Wendy into a corner—if they try to warn Ruth, their children’s lives will be in jeopardy. Ultimately, the Byrdes sit back and let Camila enact her revenge, shooting Ruth at her trailer home that’s in the midst of being transformed into a swanky lakeside property. It’s a tragic end for a character who rose through the ranks from a petty criminal with a wounded soul into a shrewd, successful businesswoman. (If it’s any consolation, Julia Garner should have the Emmy nomination in the bag, if not her third win.)
On its own, Ruth’s death fractures whatever core of decency the Byrdes had left, but the finale still had one more trick up its sleeve. When the family heads back home, Marty and Wendy are confronted by Mel Sattem, the ex-detective turned private investigator who looked into Ben’s disappearance until the Byrdes pulled some strings to get him rehired by the Chicago Police Department. Mel puts enough pieces together to realize the couple have been hiding Ben right under everyone’s noses: His ashes have been stored in a goat-shaped cookie jar. (Ben wanted to raise goats on a farm before he disrupted the family business enough that Wendy signed off on having her brother killed.) There’s just enough DNA evidence left in the jar—the local crematorium the Byrdes own is outdated—to implicate them. “Name your price,” Wendy pleads. “You can change your life. You can change anyone’s life you want.”
Indeed, the Byrdes have amassed a ton of wealth at this point in the series, but Mel is no longer swayed by it, believing—not inaccurately—that their money is “toxic.” The fact that you can connect the dots between managing a cartel’s finances to rubbing shoulders with politicians and CEOs is entirely the point: With wealth comes power, and the Byrdes wield plenty of both. But whether it’s an FBI agent going rogue to arrest Omar or Mel trying to establish some form of justice for Ben’s death, there will always be individuals standing against them because it’s the right thing to do. “You don’t get to win,” Mel tells Marty and Wendy. “You don’t get to be the Kochs or the Kennedys or whatever fucking royalty you people think you are. World doesn’t work like that.”
“Since when?” Wendy coolly responds.
At that point, we hear a shotgun being cocked; Mel turns around and finds Jonah pointing the weapon at him. Seeing the youngest member of the family prepared to shoot Mel after spending the entire season loathing his mother over what happened to Ben underlines the moral rot that has festered within the Byrdes. What’s even more unsettling is how Marty and Wendy respond to their son’s actions—not with disgust or horror, but a glint of pride.
While “A Hard Way to Go” fades to black before the confrontation reaches its conclusion, Mel’s fate is hardly ambiguous—we hear Jonah pull the trigger. Considering the show racked up an impressive body count from its very first episode, it’s only fitting that Ozark would end with one more act of violence. For viewers rooting for the Byrdes to succeed in spite of their many flaws, perhaps they’ll be pleased that the family, for all intents and purposes, get away without any legal repercussions. But while the nuclear family remained intact, virtually everyone surrounding them wasn’t as lucky. And after all the moral compromises Marty made with the justification of keeping his family safe, Ozark wraps up with the rest of the Byrdes stooping down to his level. (In many ways, Wendy had long surpassed him.)
For his part, showrunner Chris Mundy described the show’s ending as “all about the choices of who’s family and who’s not,” and if there’s a larger takeaway from the finale, it’s that these types of decisions are inevitably intertwined with Marty’s philosophy about money as the measure of a person’s choices. Across four seasons, Ozark illuminated the real cost of chasing the American dream, and whether such success matters when so many lives are destroyed in the process. Clearly, in their final moments, the Byrdes were content with the bed they made for themselves, which makes the family’s journey all the more harrowing. Ozark might have started out as a Breaking Bad imitator, but it ended as an American Horror Story.