Tom Pelphrey Resurrects Ben Davis for Season 4
The Byrdes, the Navarros, and the Snells have racked up countless casualties over four seasons of Ozark, but the death of Wendy’s estranged brother, Ben Davis, was perhaps the most tragic. Played by Tom Pelphrey (Mank, Outer Range), Ben became an immediate fan favorite when he joined the series in Season 3.
“I was a fan of Ozark before I had anything to do with the show,” says Pelphrey, who now finds himself nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his surprising return in the final season. Joining an established cast after two acclaimed seasons might seem like a daunting task, but the actor, who got his start on daytime television, had no trouble joining the family. “Everybody on that show does such an amazing job of creating this atmosphere where — I really mean it — after the first day, I felt like I’d been there with them the whole time,” says Pelphrey. “I felt like I belonged there.”
When Pelphrey’s Ben comes to the Ozarks, he forms special relationships with local grifter Ruth Langmore and his nephew Jonah, but his most complicated relationship is with his sister Wendy, played by the enduring Laura Linney. “One of the first Broadway shows I saw was Sight Unseen, starring Laura Linney. [She’s] just an actor that I really, really admire and look up to,” says Pelphrey. The two actors were able to build their complicated brother-sister chemistry with ease: “We just started talking about our lives and these characters, and within 5 or 10 minutes, I felt like we’d known each other for a very long time.”
Pelphrey’s character and performance were so beloved that, despite his death at the end of Season 3, fans were eager for Ben to return to Ozark for its final season, which he does, in unexpected ways. Missing posters featuring Ben are plastered all over the Ozarks (the handiwork of a nefarious Darlene Snell), and they haunt the Byrde family as they struggle to come together after Wendy’s ultimate betrayal of her brother. A clash of the titans ensues between Ruth and Wendy over Ben’s ashes, which find an unusual resting place inside Ruth’s goat-shaped cookie jar. In the episode “You’re The Boss,” Pelphrey returns as Ben’s final moments, where he apologizes to and forgives his sister, are depicted. Ben’s last words are: “This is a dream.”
Pelphrey first began acting in high school, after getting a little part in a school play, where he connected with the theater teacher. “When you’re a young person and you find the thing you’re finally good at, that’s a whole revelation.” He went on to get his big break on soap operas with Guiding Light, which became an education in and of itself: “You have these 60-page scripts and you’re doing one a day. On Ozark, you may be doing six pages a day,” he says. “I got an education [on] being in front of cameras. I got really good at just trusting my instincts and shooting from the hip.”
Ben Davis’s arrival in Season 3 brought a surprisingly vulnerable side to Ozark, as the character confronted his mental health issues in a high-stakes environment. His honesty and openness, and the care Pelphrey gave his character, struck a chord with viewers. “[If] there’s some element of healing, or feeling heard, feeling seen, having your experience honored in a way that they find believable or moving or relatable,” says Pelphrey of his fans, “that’s, to me, the coolest part of what we get to do.”