‘Ozark’ Showrunner Chris Mundy Teases the Netflix Series’ Thrilling End

·13 min read
Netflix
Netflix

With the first half of his Netflix hit’s fourth and final season, showrunner Chris Mundy has initiated Ozark’s endgame, setting the stage for a last-ditch attempt by Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) to escape their money-laundering entanglements with the Navarro cartel while keeping their (and their kids’) heads on their shoulders.

Achieving that goal won’t be easy, given that the streaming series’ most recent seven episodes mired them in further lethal trouble. Their efforts to solidify their political power via a partnership with Shaw Medical Solutions didn’t go as planned. Their relationship with son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) took a nosedive, compelling him to work for their rivals. And their necks are still on the line courtesy of Javi Navarro (Alfonso Herrera)—who now controls the family business, and wants his hands figuratively (if not literally) around the Byrdes’ throats—as well as Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), whose wrath knows no bounds following the murder of both her boyfriend Ben (Tom Pelphrey) on the order of his sister Wendy, and another loved one who was executed right before this bifurcated run’s cliffhanger. Survival, much less triumph, has never looked more improbable.

‘Ozark’ Final Season Takes on Election Fraud and Big Pharma

This is nothing new for Ozark, which since its 2017 debut has found consistently inventive ways to keep its protagonists scrambling to avoid falling into abysses of their own making. With the end drawing near, however, the series is ramping up the mortal danger, all as it expands its critical purview beyond white-collar and working-class criminality to include Big Pharma malfeasance and political fraud. Daring to go bigger as it speeds toward its conclusion, the show remains one of TV’s true, thrilling standouts, led by towering performances from Garner and Linney, the latter of whom continues to craft an unforgettable portrait of ruthless ambition encased in a cocoon of marital and maternal justifications.

With the fourth season’s maiden segment now available, we sat down with showrunner Mundy to discuss the decision to split the concluding 14 episodes into two batches, Wendy’s fraying state of mind, the Byrdes’ current precarious predicament, and what fans can expect from the forthcoming finale.

First, the question I’m sure fans are itching to have answered: When is the second part of this final season debuting? And how far along are you with it?

We’re finished making it; that’s the easy part to answer. I don’t know for sure when it’s going to come out. I have a vague notion, and it won’t be a crazy long wait again. Netflix hasn’t announced it officially and figured it out. But the good news is that it’ll be sooner rather than later.

That sounds more like this year rather than next year?

Yes, I can say that with confidence.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p><em>Ozark </em>star Jason Bateman and showrunner Chris Mundy</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Kevin Winter/Getty</div>

Ozark star Jason Bateman and showrunner Chris Mundy

Kevin Winter/Getty

When did the idea to do a 14-episode final run materialize, and what was the reasoning behind it?

It really was a product of, I was talking to Netflix a fair amount about wanting to know whenever we were going to end. The one question I asked was to please let us know when we were writing the finale, so you’re not in that position of writing an ending that could be an ending if you don’t do more, and yet you could still keep going on if you’re going to do another season after it. We wanted a chance to definitively know that it was the end. I’ve been talking to them about trying to end it in five [seasons], and they weren’t sure if they wanted to do four or five, and Netflix is the one that hit upon the idea of doing four seasons but a longer order, with the idea always being that it would split. At the same time, when people go back and watch the 14 episodes together, it needed to feel like it’s one continuum. That was the real challenge: trying to make it all feel whole at 14, and at the same time making it feel like it began and ended in the first seven, and began and ended in the back seven too. That’s the little magic trick we were trying to pull off.

Is it common for a studio like Netflix to want to end a show like Ozark when it’s still this popular? I’d assume that type of thinking would come from the creative, rather than business, side.

I’m kind of approaching it more or less like you are, which is just a gut feel, because we haven’t talked about it that much. But my gut feeling is that they have an appreciation for letting things run the right amount of time for them, and creatively. I know for us, creatively, we didn’t think it would go past five. I didn’t want to be in the position of throwing more things in that were happening so the show could keep going. We knew where we wanted to end it. And knowing where we wanted to end it—at least emotionally; we didn’t know all the mechanics of it—it felt like somewhere in that four-five season range was kind of perfect. Luckily, 14 episodes was really a good number, as it turned out.

The new episodes end with everyone still in immense peril—except, of course, those who are no longer breathing. Did you always know you were going to conclude part one on this note, or did that come about during production?

We knew this was going to happen. We always start with the broad overview, and then once we feel like we’ve got a decent handle on that, we go back and start breaking things individually, episode by episode, with an eye toward the whole continuum. You think you have it right, but a lot of the time what happens is, stuff that was going to happen in episode five actually happens in episode three, and it screws everything up, and you’re re-outlining. But this was such a natural ending point—especially for Ruth, emotionally, and then her making a choice about what happens next, and what path she’s going to go on. It felt like a really good midpoint, and then we just needed to break everything around it to see if the balance felt right, and we hadn’t burned through so much story through episode four that we’d screwed ourselves up [laughs]. From the beginning, it just naturally looked like this, almost geometrically.

What can we expect from the season’s final half? Anything you can hint at in terms of Marty and Wendy’s conflict with Javi, or Ruth’s quest for vengeance against Javi (and/or the Byrdes)—or, can you at least give us an idea about the trajectory of the concluding installments?

I think the trajectory we’re looking at in the end is people making a lot more choices than usual. There’s been an element throughout the course of the show that the Byrdes were just reacting, trying to scramble to stay upright and alive. As we go into the back seven, it really becomes about what’s worth it. If we’re saying we’re doing this for our family, what are we really doing if our family’s falling apart? And for Marty to kind of look at his marriage with Wendy and say, when is unconditional love healthy, and when is it really not healthy? At what point should I choose something else over this marriage?

For Ruth, she’s got to decide: Is revenge against Javi, and against the Byrdes, worth blowing everything else up? Who is my family now? She’s kind of lost her family, and in a lot of ways, Marty has been the closest thing to a surrogate family for her, and she’s not reacting anymore; she’s making choices. So, I think in the back seven, it becomes a lot more choiceful as we roll downhill toward the end.

One of the things that stood out in the new season is the way these characters, despite being in a variety of partnerships, constantly and impulsively act on their own. Is selfishness a root problem that afflicts them all?

I think that’s actually a really smart take on it. I think there’s a selfishness and an immaturity to these people, and especially to Wendy. I think Wendy is very smart but she’s immature in a ton of ways, and rash because of it. And Marty, for all his pragmatism, doesn’t know people as well as he should, and doesn’t know himself as well as he should. There’s not as much introspection as there probably should be. I don’t think people are thinking about the whole, and the greater good, all that often. So, selfishness is at the core of it all [laughs].

Similarly, everyone talks about escaping their circumstances, and then don’t. Do you think, deep down, they aren’t really interested in leaving—especially in Wendy’s case?

I think there’s an element to Wendy that this is the most energizing thing that could ever happen, and that kind of adrenaline is addictive. Absolutely, I think if you were to give her a lie-detector test and ask her whether or not she really wanted this to all be over, she might say yes and she might not pass the test. I think Marty truly wants it to be over, but I think Marty has also, for whatever reason—whether it’s fear, or loyalty to Wendy, or whatever—never done it. He’s had things right in front of him that could have ended it. So I think he’s still got to figure out where his ultimate loyalty is: Is it to Wendy, is it to his kids, is it to himself, is it to law and order? What is it? I think he’s trying to figure those things out.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Wendy this season is her decision to make Ben a component of her PR narrative—and to almost willfully pretend he’s alive—which is far from a predictable response to his murder. How did that idea come together?

There’s a couple of parts to that answer. One, I think Wendy, having done the worst thing that she could ever do in her life by having Ben killed, could either retreat or double down. Laura and I talked about this a lot—I think she now has to win on the biggest level. This foundation has to happen, because if it’s not the biggest victory, the biggest escape, then she would have done the worst thing ever for nothing. I think it’s almost made her manic in that need to win.

That’s the big picture. And then the smaller picture—and this is something we explore a lot more in the second seven than we did in the first seven—is this idea that, with Ben out there and the story and the lie, is Wendy losing her mind a little bit? Is she going crazy? Or is she practicing a lie and saying it enough times so that eventually it becomes real? Is she talking herself into this other reality as a mantra, very practically speaking—like, I’m using it as PR, I’m going to keep saying it, people will believe it, and then we’ll just live in that lie? The line between whether she’s really losing her mind, or whether it’s all very studied, is something we toy with a bunch in the back seven.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore in <em>Ozark</em></p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Steve Dietl/Netflix</div>

Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore in Ozark

Steve Dietl/Netflix

I assume being able to do this sort of complicated psychological drama is aided by the fact that you have Laura Linney, who to my mind is doing the best work on TV.

I can’t even quantify what a gigantic gift it is, having Laura on the show. She’s so good, and she’s so good at portraying really complex things. Like I was just saying: This incredible grief at what Wendy did to her brother, and yet also using it in the most cold-blooded way to further things; and wanting to go off and do things through the foundation, but not even blinking at the terrible things she’ll do in order to do that; and then, still parenting her kids. Every single one of those things is in contradiction, and Laura portrays all of them without you ever seeing any of the acting.

We’re just lucky. With Jason, we’re lucky. With Julia, we’re lucky. With everybody on the show. And it’s the beauty of TV, too. We’ve all been together since the beginning, so you get to see how good it is, and you get to use everything Laura’s done as building blocks. Honestly, there are things that she and I talked about before we ever rolled film on episode one, season one, that are now coming out, such as about her background in North Carolina. The little way that, if she’s in a scene with her brother last season, or if she’s in a conversation with her dad, the accent comes out just the littlest bit. We’re just the benefactors of all that, and it’s pretty amazing to get to be a part of it.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Jason Bateman as Marty Byrde and Laura Linney as Wendy Byrde in <em>Ozark</em></p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Netflix</div>

Jason Bateman as Marty Byrde and Laura Linney as Wendy Byrde in Ozark

Netflix

As great as Jason and his male co-stars are, Ozark has developed into a series dominated by formidable front-and-center females. Was that evolution deliberate?

I’m really proud of the fact that I think these are some of the strongest female characters I can think of. I don’t think it was ever a conscious choice at the very beginning, saying we’re going to shove the women to the forefront. But what it does is, it allows you to follow the story. And when you’ve got Laura and Julia and Jordana [Spiro] in the first two seasons, and then Janet [McTeer] when she came on in season two—you see all that, and it’s just interesting watching these women dominate this macho male world. It’s something fun to watch, and when you have actresses that are that good, you’d sort of be stupid not to let them run. I think to whatever degree we deserve credit, it’s just for not being dumb enough to mute it in some way [laughs].

Do the writers have a quota when it comes to including the phrases “It’s fine” and “We’re going to be fine” in each season? It’s a hilarious recurring touch, since at this point, it’s obviously not all going to be fine.

[laughs] It’s something we joke about a lot. We said there should be a drinking game for every time they say something like, “We’re so close to being out.” Everyone would be bombed by the end of the season. So yeah, it’s a delicate balance, because the characters do believe it, and it is kind of true—but it’s also clearly not true. We don’t have a running tally, but we probably should keep one, because you’re right. I laugh at the same thing.

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