An explosive second season full of twists, turns and shocking deaths has come to a close, and Cinematic Discussion is here to break it down for you! Let’s see what the Byrde clan got themselves into this time!
In the first season, we saw Marty Byrde, money laundering mastermind, fleeing Chicago with his family when the Navarro cartel threatens to kill him for his partner’s nefarious skimming ways. He offers to head down to the Ozarks and set up an operation to clean millions of their dollars, and they agree, but the clock is ticking on the lives of the Byrdes. After acquiring some local businesses, including a bar and a strip club, Marty appears to be on the way to succeeding, but wrenches are thrown into the works left and right. The Langmores, a local criminal family, try to steal his money and need to be put in check. FBI Agent Roy Petty is on his trail, desperate to prove his connection to the cartel and bring him down. The Snells, the family in charge of the local heroin trade, are a force to be reckoned with, but Marty manages to broker peace by offering for the cartel to distribute their product. But that peace is tenuous at best, and outright blown when Darlene kills Marty’s boss in the Snell home over a matter of disrespect.
On the home front, the Byrdes aren’t faring much better. Wendy had an affair and her lover was murdered when the cartel came looking for her, and the gap between her and Marty threatens to grow into a full-blown chasm, but something happens along the way. The more she sees opportunities to seize power and act immorally, the more she accepts their fate and seems to thrive on it, which strengthens their marriage. She even informs the kids of what their father does, showing them a huge sign of trust (or an assumption that they will all die, which always looms over each episode). Charlotte reacts to all of this the way you expect a teenage girl to react, and Jonah, always smarter than he lets on, is drawn close to Buddy, the new family friend whose house they inhabit (and who comes to their rescue late in the season, revealing his own checkered past).
There are a lot of things at play here, as the first season came to a strong close. Pastor Mason Young’s wife was murdered by the Snells and his grief almost caused him to drown his newborn son, Ruth killed her uncles in order to save Marty (showing that she isn’t like the rest of the Langmores and has larger goals in life), Rachel fled the scene with $100,000 of Marty’s laundered cash, and Marty’s new path to success revolves around getting permission to build a casino to use as the money laundering front. There are many moving parts and key players, so let’s take a look at a few!
Marty and Wendy Byrde
Season one saw Marty revealing himself to be capable of much more than Wendy realized, causing her to question the man she married after their escape from Chicago. Well this year, it’s Marty’s turn to be shocked at his spouse, as Wendy showed what she is truly made of and grew into someone who clearly deserves to be feared. Their mission this season is to open a casino to launder the cartel’s money, and Wendy will stop at nothing to accomplish this. Marty may think that he is always one step ahead with his shady dealings and quick thinking, but Wendy proves to be far more calculating than any of us ever thought she could be. She not only befriends a wealthy, shadow-dwelling Senator Charles Wilkes, and quickly bends him to her will before even he can do anything about it. Marty spends much of the season trying to keep his family’s heads above the rising swells of the river (not to mention trying to save Rachel from the situation her put her in, as he has clearly developed feelings for her), attempting to slowly train Ruth to take over all operations while he makes an escape plan, but Wendy would rather take root and exert control over the area, becoming quite villainous in the process. It is Wendy who burns the Snell’s poppy field, orchestrates Cade’s murder, and more. Poor Marty just looks lost, and his wife can’t even properly console him when he is floored by the fact that he was forced to murder Mason Young to save her life. Just what kind of person is Wendy? Clearly, we have overestimated one of the Byrdes while underestimating the other…
Jacob and Darlene Snell
The Snell family has controlled the heroin market in these parts for some time, and who knows what other nefarious cookie jars they’ve had their hands in over time. Season one closed with Darlene killing a high ranking member of the cartel, and this season they have to answer for that. They fiercely oppose giving up their land for the casino project, or being forced into bed with the cartel’s drug trade, and the power struggle doesn’t sit well with Darlene. While Jacob is more level-headed and tries to reason with her when he knows they are backed into a corner. Darlene’s temper gets them into trouble, even becoming the target of a cartel hit that her and Jacob luckily survive. She even forces Marty to give her Mason Young’s baby so she will have an heir to her empire. Jacob and Darlene are a cohesive unit, each willing to pay for the other’s mistakes, but it comes to an ugly head in the finale when Darlene poisons his coffee to make sure he can’t dig any more holes for her to climb out of, in her mind. Their final moment together is beautiful and sad, and now Darlene has to contend with this new and changing landscape without the husband that helped her climb the mountain to begin with.
Ruth is a character we hate to love, as her foul-mouthed, snappy wit and mean streak make her fun to watch, even when she is up to no good. Her arc has been great to watch, and this season she runs the gamut of emotion, always being played by one side to hurt the other. She wants to gain Marty’s trust so she can earn a bigger seat at the table, but her father demands she use that trust to steal a fortune for him. She is trying to shoulder the weight of having killed Russ, and seeks to balance that out by helping Wyatt get into college and escape the destiny of their family’s name. It is those good intentions that make her being waterboarded by the cartel so jarring to watch, and we’ve come to care for her much more than we expected to at the outset of this saga.
Continuing a prevalent theme this season of women in power, Helen, as the cartel’s attorney, proves she is not to be crossed in whatever way she deems necessary. She gives off an air of unlimited power, and one can’t help but feel like she is referring to herself every time she says “my client.” She isn’t afraid of the Snells at all, which is interesting because even if she knows the cartel would exact brutal revenge, the locals could still kill her if they wanted. She doesn’t even flinch when demanding that they burn their fields to save them from snooping feds, nor when she orders Ruth’s waterboarding and oversees it. Yet she is still humanized in small scenes with Wendy, discussing her kids and a desire to be back home with them. When she informs the Snells about eminent domain laws that would see the feds takeover their land, she drives a wedge in between Jacob and Darlene that gets Jacob murdered, but this clearly isn’t her first rodeo. She may have announced her intentions of returning to Chicago, but we clearly haven’t seen the last of Helen.
Agent Roy Petty
For a federal agent, there may be no less likable character on this show. There is no low he won’t sink to in order to try and turn people into informants and snitch on each other. Sure, that’s his job, but it’s alarming that he sees nothing wrong with turning a man gay in order to try and get him to rat out his own family, or enable a dangerous drug addiction to try and get Rachel to turn on Marty. He intentionally makes Ruth look like an informant, leading to her torture, and is happy to do so. All of this makes it that much more gratifying when Cade takes him out. Petty may be gone, but once the FBI finds his abandoned car, a whole new can of worms will be opened. But I, for one, will not miss him in the slightest.
Ruth’s father Cade has a habit of destroying anyone who is unlucky enough to be around him, no matter how much they care about him. After he gets paroled, he wastes no time in demanding that Ruth live up to her family name and rip Marty off to support him. When she can’t immediately come up with the money, Cade acts like she is nothing to him, despite being his own daughter. He belittles her, roughs her up and questions her savvy and ability to succeed in this world. He may think he’s teaching her some kind of lesson or toughening her up, but he is only motivated to help himself and seeing him gunned down by the cartel at Wendy’s command is one of the more satisfying moments of the show so far.
The senator who prefers to pull the strings in the shadows, Wilkes is used to having control and is yet another person surprised at how the arrival of the Byrdes disrupts his world. However, once he becomes involved in the plans to get the casino rolling, he quickly takes a shine to Wendy, thanks to her abilities and pure cunning. He tells her that sometimes you need to play dirty, and doesn’t have a clue that she’s already several moves ahead of him. Getting involved in the relocation of Mason Young’s baby is nothing he wants any part of, but he obliges while secretly offering to testify against Marty in exchange for Wendy’s protection. Though he tries to back out of the casino deal, Wendy tricks him into accepting laundered cartel money through one of his charities that he uses as his personal account. Wilkes connects the Byrdes with the people who eventually get his casino approved, but those same people pit him against the Kansas City mafia, which may be the last power play Wilkes had left at his disposal.
I thought the second season maintained the momentum from the first and build in some great character development along the way. Marty is in crisis, Wendy has stepped up big time, Ruth has revealed herself to be much more complex than expected, the Byrde children are more than just background fixtures, and many new elements came into play to make for a strong, engaging season. It gets compared to Breaking Bad in a general sense, but it can’t live up to that standard (which isn’t a criticism). It is a series that lends itself well to a binge, because it is more up front than challenging and doesn’t require much digestion, as you just hunger for more. The acting was good (and I’d argue that Laura Linney was great), the story was paced well as it peeled back more and more layers, and the direction was solid throughout. I am excited to see where the Byrdes go from here with Wendy stopping Marty’s plan to flee for safety in Australia, and the finale suggested many challenges still lie ahead for the family and those they entrap in their dealings.
Final Grade: B