“Once I know that someone is going to die, I want to give them as long as possible to process it... well, once I know for sure that they’re going to die. I mean, I’d hate to make the phone call to tell someone they’re going to die and then change our minds. That would just be disrespectful.” That’s showrunner Chris Mundy displaying the characteristic kindness that permeates the otherwise brutally bleak world of Ozark, Netflix’s drug-smuggling, money-laundering, all-in-the-family crime drama that recently concluded its third season with a startlingly bloody cliffhanger.
The series’ body count is rivaled only by its tally of gaming commission violations. But to hear the show’s cast and creatives discuss working on the project, it sounds as idyllic as an idealized summer-stock production. “There are days we’re out there, it feels like, *Oh yeah, we’re just having a picnic with our friends, we just happen to be filming for 12 or 13 hours,*” Mundy says.
When Ozark began its first season, antihero Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) was caught up in a money-laundering scheme, while his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), was entangled in what appeared to be a typical suburban, ennui-driven affair. The premiere episode climaxed with Wendy’s boyfriend’s body hitting the sidewalk under a downtown Chicago high-rise. From there, things escalated exponentially: The couple put themselves at the mercy of a Mexican drug cartel, and moved their family — including daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) — to the Ozarks, where, in quick succession, they acquired a failing lakeside resort, a seedy strip club, a cash-strapped mortuary, and a sinking riverboat casino.
Bateman’s Marty managed to establish himself as an unlikely country crime boss in the first two seasons, but in the third season, Ozark’s central female characters — played by Linney, Julia Garner, Janet McTeer, and Lisa Emery — took control of the chaos. Collectively they stole, scammed, murdered, and generally spat in the face of the law with greater élan than any of their male counterparts ever did. And Mundy says there was a simple reason that the women of Ozark got their moments in the punishing Missouri sun. “There wasn’t any forethought in an activist way. It just felt very organic,” he explains. “We were aware at a certain point that we had this wealth of strong female characters and actors, so really as writers, it was just not being dumb enough to screw that up.”
“I really love how Chris and all the writers write women. It’s something special,” says Garner, who won her first Emmy in 2019 for playing Ruth Langmore, Marty’s reluctant partner in crime. “You forget that everybody in Ozark is not a good person. The writers are amazing the way they make the characters so multidimensional and likable, and you forget that the characters are pretty atrocious people.”
It took Linney’s character a season or two to go from merely adulterous to downright atrocious, but from the beginning, Bateman (who is also an executive producer for the series) and Mundy considered the four-time Emmy winner their ace in the hole. That said, they didn’t know exactly where Wendy’s ride would take her when they cast the actress. “As far as what the character arc was going to be, I had no idea, nor did Laura, nor did Chris. We did know that we weren’t interested in this just being the wife of Marty. Laura would be very overqualified to play a character like that, and it would be a complete waste of her talent, her presence on set, and her leadership ability,” says Bateman, who pitched the show to Linney and encouraged her to call Mundy to talk about where Wendy’s story might go.
They must have said all the right things, because, as Mundy relates, Linney took a leap of faith and joined the production when very little was on the page. “Even before we started filming the first episode, we were talking with Laura about her character, talking about the way we were seeing her, what her backstory was. Laura really helped inform us, as writers, of who Wendy is, the way that character is struggling with who she is. Laura understands her so well, and she’s always adding insight to things that we’ve created. She helps us understand it better ourselves.”
Linney — who just received her second Emmy nomination for playing Wendy — is quick to throw credit back to Mundy. “It’s a really unusual situation — at least I’ve never had this before — where there’s a showrunner who is so on the side of his actors, and supports us and understands that the more information we have, the better the work will be,” she says, before admitting that everyone knows when to keep secrets, too. “We all sort of walk in on the day of shooting with shit-eating grins on our faces. Scripts are given out at different times, and department heads get scripts before the actors do. I remember I was watching the head of our hair department read the script one day, and she was so upset by something that happened that she just threw the script on the ground and screamed,” she recalls with a laugh.
Bateman, who won an Emmy for directing Ozark last season, is every bit as excited as Linney when he gets new scripts. “When I talk to Chris before we start filming a new season, I’m honestly just listening to him as a fan, not as an actor or producer, to hear what the plan is,” he says. “It’s all up to him, as far as the writing goes — wherever he wants to take the story and whatever he wants these characters to say... and whoever he wants to kill.”
But after countless crooked casino deals and cartel-ordered killings, the cast’s natural chemistry remains Ozark’s bellwether. “Like the characters in the show — the moments of control and disarray are constantly changing in the Byrdes’ marriage, in the family, in the danger, in the business — we’re all just constantly handing the ball back and forth to one another without ever really speaking about it as characters or as actors,” Bateman says. “There is a bit of an ease that I think you feel watching the show. As tense as it is, there is an innate flow to what you’re watching. No one is trying to wiggle off and do a solo. It just seems like everyone is there to make the same project.” Sounds almost like a picnic.