The Many Baptisms of ‘Ozark’

Laura Linney as Wendy Byrde and Jason Bateman as Marty Byrde in ‘Ozark’ Season 3 (Courtesy of Netflix © 2020)

Editor’s note: There are spoilers from season four, the final season of “Ozark,” in this review.

Each episode of Netflix’s hit series “Ozark” features an ominous opening graphic: on a black background, a letter “O” is in focus, then a cross appears inside. A simple white image fills each of the four sectors of the circle, hinting at a different collection of terrors for each episode. One thinks of the four evangelists, often presented in the same configuration, or perhaps of the four living beings of Ezekiel’s vision. But it is an iconography of evil.

“Ozark,” the opposite of a morality tale, is a chronicle of a family’s descent, step by step, choice by choice, into darkness. Unlike “Breaking Bad,” which begins with the backstory of Walter White’s transformation from mild-mannered high school teacher to ruthless drug kingpin, “Ozark” begins in the media. Something went horribly wrong in equally mild-mannered Marty Byrde’s money laundering arrangement with a Mexican drug cartel, forcing him to relocate his family to the eponymous lake in Missouri to prove his mettle and save their lives. .

As the show’s four seasons swing between central Missouri American evangelicalism and cartel member Catholicism, “Ozark” features a number of baptisms, but perhaps none as significant as that of own children. teenagers from the Byrdes. As Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) tend towards adulthood, Marty (Jason Bateman) and his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) wonder how much of their work to share with them and whether or not to initiate them. They are not a religious family by any stretch of the imagination; if the Byrdes live by one belief, it’s “People make choices. Choices have consequences.” These choices and their consequences continually turn into disaster upon disaster.

Left to right: Skylar Gaertner as Jonah Byrde, Laura Linney as Wendy Byrde, Sofia Hublitz as Charlotte Byrde and Jason Bateman as Marty Byrde in Season 4 of

Left to right: Skylar Gaertner as Jonah Byrde, Laura Linney as Wendy Byrde, Sofia Hublitz as Charlotte Byrde and Jason Bateman as Marty Byrde in ‘Ozark’ season four (With courtesy of Netflix © 2022)

In this landscape of terror, God seems to be present only in bas-relief, against a background of evil, of absence of goodness. Pastor Mason Young (Michael Mosley), whose life is derailed by the Byrdes, makes this grim profession of faith to Marty: “There must be a God. Because there is a devil. I think you are the damn devil.” Having lost his wife, his church, and most of his faith, Mason takes his newborn son to the lake and submerges him underwater for a terrifying amount of time – nearly 30 seconds. When he finally picks him up and sees that his son is still breathing, Mason makes the sign of the cross on his forehead. Baptism in “Ozark” is a scary business.

Cartel boss Omar Navarro (Felix Solis) could say the same thing as he watches his infant son’s christening turn into a bloodbath via Zoom. The church is a battle zone in a brutal cartel conflict; everyone is killed except the priest and the baby. Navarro keeps his priest close, making regular confessions and including him in his business meetings.

The corrupt priest is a common trope, but Father Benitez (Bruno Bichir) is a more complex character, one who is actually trying to guide his violent flock to a more moral life. “I go”, he says, “where God is most needed”. In an episode called “Choose a God and Pray”, Benitez tells Wendy, “There is no peace without contrition, confession, absolution, and penance.” “I don’t need saving,” Wendy replies, “I’ll do it myself.”

Bruno Bichir as Father Benitez in season 4 of

Bruno Bichir as Father Benitez in ‘Ozark’ Season 4 (Courtesy of Netflix © 2022)

As the series progresses to its terrible crescendo, there is another baptism, this one peaceful, if tearful. Sam Dermody (Kevin L. Johnson), the Byrdes’ simple-minded dupe throughout all four seasons, is seduced by the hopeful promises of Wendy’s father’s church group. He rises smiling from the water of a motel pool, ready to start a new life, but it’s impossible to read Sam’s baptism as anything other than another empty lie he’s fallen for. In the economy of “Ozark” there is never new life without death attending, and baptism soon finds its corresponding echo. Sam’s boss, Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), the Byrdes’ most central associate rival, has a swimming pool installed on her land. There’s a fresh body buried underneath.

In the latest episode, the Byrdes’ darkest secret is uncovered by a private detective who stands ready to destroy them with the evidence. Charlotte, who has been in the family business for a long time, has already made her decision. But for Jonah, it’s a turning point. Will he join his family in violence? Chekhov argued that if a shotgun appears in the first act of a play, it should be fired at the end. Jonah picks up his gun in season 1 and in season 4 he shoots it. John the Baptist spoke of baptism by the Spirit and fire. But in “Ozark” there is only baptism by bullet.

Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore in season 4 of

Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore in ‘Ozark’ Season 4 (Courtesy of Netflix © 2022)

Critics and viewers found it to be an unsatisfying conclusion to the show, with the Byrdes free to continue their life of crime, unhindered by the consequences of their actions. After all, this is not a comedy, but a tragedy, in which the protagonists are expected to meet their downfall.

We are visually reminded of these expectations by an unusual object that is central to the action of the last season, a cookie jar in the shape of a goat’s head. The cookie jar contains the remains of Wendy’s brother, Ben (Tom Pelphrey), who dreamed of a simple life raising goats, but instead met a violent end after endangering the Byrdes’ operation. The Greek word for tragedy literally means “goat song”, a reference to an animal destined to be sacrificed to the gods. Ben is that unfortunate animal in “Ozark.” The gods to whom he is sacrificed? The Byrds.

Left to right: Kevin L. Johnson as Sam Dermody, Richard Thomas as Nathan Davis and Jane McNeill as Annalize in Season 4 of

Left to right: Kevin L. Johnson as Sam Dermody, Richard Thomas as Nathan Davis and Jane McNeill as Annalize in season four of ‘Ozark’ (courtesy Netflix © 2022)

Throughout the series, Wendy wears a simple piece of jewelry, a Pandora charm bracelet, empty of charms. But those stark white images of the episodes’ opening graphics become the charms, encumbering the channel with the chilling weight it carries.

Speaking to Pastor Mason, Wendy says: “That’s the thing no one tells you about evil. They make it look like there are two clearly marked paths with flashing signs pointing each path: sin, redemption. … But the truth is, evil comes when the straight path is so hidden, it seems like there’s only one way out.” Wendy has been down this path so many times that there really is is no other way out; what comes out of Pandora’s box cannot be put back.

“Ozark” leaves us with nothing more than the promise of more violence, more destruction, more devilish charms. For Wendy, like the rest of the Byrdes, there’s always room for more.

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