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‘Ozark’ Recap, Episode 8: Pieces of the Past

Where to Stream

Ozark

Ozark depends on momentum. Not as much as our old breakneck-speed friend Breaking Bad did, of course. Nor even as much as the show it reminds me of the most, Mad Dogs — Shawn Ryan and Amazon’s one-season wonder about middle-aged city slickers who get hopelessly in over their heads with a Latin American drug cartel in a verdant coastal environment where none of them belong. But Ozark did establish its métier as early as the pilot: Marty’s going to keep escalating things, or other people will keep escalating things for him, to the point where the series will burn through more major antihero-drama plot points in an episode than other shows do all season.

So it’s a curious choice, after the emotional explosiveness of the previous episode, to do what Ozark does in its eighth installment, “Kaleidoscope.” Rather than continue the escalation in the present, the show flashes back ten years, revealing what happened to set Marty, Wendy, and (surprisingly) Agent Petty on their respective roads to psychological ruin.

It’s all quite simple, really. After a catastrophic car accident that causes Wendy to miscarry, her already incipient depression — exacerbated by aging out of the job market for political consultants —spirals out of control. Partially out of a desire to do something to shake things up and improve Wendy’s situation, and partially because he’s had a ton of smoke blown up his ass about how brilliant he is, Marty responds to all this by accepting the offer of a certain would-be client of his firm named Del to take a trip to one of the many resorts he owns, free of charge. It’s a gift, offered in exchange for Marty noticing discrepancies in Del’s portfolio which indicate someone in his organization is skimming. These discrepancies also gave Marty the feeling that Del was not the humble ceramic-tile magnate he made himself out to be.

Marty allows himself to be talked into taking the money-laundering gig — first by a smooth-talking Del and then in a “let’s just do it and be legends”–type conversation with Wendy (a risk-taker and thrill-seeker as a kid, it turns out) that also doubles as foreplay for a rekindle-the-romance night in their suite. Then he and his partner Bruce get a lesson in who and what they’ve signed up for. The minute Marty and Bruce tell Del they’ll take the job, he fires their friend Louis on the spot, calling him a cheat and a thief and an FBI informant — then straight-up murder him, garroting his throat and carving out his eyeballs to “save for a rainy day.” (These would be the same eyeballs that arrived at the Byrde’s house a few episodes ago as a warning, carved out by the dude who threatened Wendy afterwards.) As best we can tell, Marty never tells Wendy this happened; they return home to the loving embrace of their then-little kids, but Marty already seems dead inside.

Agent Petty’s story is less complicated, but seems just as awful for him in its own way. He’s in a committed relationship with a witty and warm young doctor, and their rapport is just about as good as it gets. When Petty’s mom slips and falls on the steps one day, they even move her into their own home so they can help her recuperate. But the intense pain of the injury isn’t helped by her refusal to take prescription painkillers, presumably because of a history of alcoholism in the family. Petty, who can’t stand to see her suffer, begs her to go ahead and pop the pills anyway. Before long, she’s showing signs of addiction that the doctor can see but Petty, ever the loving son, cannot. Only when he drives her to some obvious hellhole where she has an appointment one night does he figure out the truth: She’s now an out-and-out heroin junkie. Petty bursts in, squirts her fix onto the floor, and beats her dealer to a pulp. She responds by basically disowning him, and saying if he ever comes near her again she’ll tell his bosses at the Bureau, who already dislike him because of his reluctance to go after terrorists instead of pursuing the cartel via low-level money men like the soon-to-be late Louis, that he assaulted her.

So there you have it — the origin stories. But the episode is called “Kaleidoscope” for a reason: All of this is presented mixed up and out of order, with no indicators like color or camera type to help us figure out what’s taking place when. All we have to go by are whatever context clues we’re attentive enough to pick up on. It’s an innovative and gutsy choice, one that demonstrates a willingness to trust the intelligence of the audience. (Seriously, telling a story out of sequence is a uniquely confusing tactic for some viewers; there’s a lot of people who couldn’t figure out Pulp Fiction, y’know?)

The problem is that this is pretty much the only innovation at work here. Yes, the depiction of Wendy’s depression is harrowingly familiar if you or someone you love has ever suffered like that, and on the flipside it’s just kind of nice to see Petty happy for a while. But man oh man, the flashback episode near the end of the season that explains everything, revolving around the tired devices of life-changing car accidents and those all-powerful TV miscarriages that determine the course of the bereaved woman’s life forever? This is one-hundred percent the idea behind the penultimate episode of The Leftovers Season One! That show was strong enough by then that we could ignore the clichés, but in Ozark‘s case this is a step backward it can’t really afford.

Moreover, I’m not quite sold on why Marty, the definition of a straight, square guy, would agree to launder money for one of the most lethal criminal organizations on Earth; “he’s cocky so he doesn’t believe he’ll ever do anything to put himself in danger” doesn’t really do the trick, since he could be cocky about any number of enterprises that wouldn’t potentially end with him in prison or dead. Del’s penchant for criminal-genius monologues isn’t any more endearing than it was the last time we saw him, or when his hillbilly counterpart Jacob delivers them. And while I supposed committing a brutal murder in front of his new money launderers — of their own friend, no less — will both frighten them and make them too complicit to squeal, it seems to me that there’s a high risk it’ll drive them nuts with fear and they’ll run to the feds first chance they get anyway.

Finally, without a corresponding Langmore flashback to match Petty and the Byrdes’, I feel like we’re only getting half a story anyway, no matter the structural shenanigans. A lot of this episode is set on the links where Del, Bruce, Marty, and Louis play golf; in that spirt, let’s take a mulligan on this one and start again in episode nine.

Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, the Observer, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.

Watch Ozark Episode 8 ("Kaleidoscope") on Netflix

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