Major spoilers for Ozark: Season 2 lie ahead.
From Narcos to Breaking Bad, crime dramas have gained a reputation for using shallow female characters as little more than emotional fodder for male stories. Frequently minimized as damsels in distress and exasperating nags, women within the genre exist almost exclusively to portray girlfriends, wives, mothers, and victims.
Season 2 of Netflix’s Ozark, however, champions female stories through all 10 of its episodes with an array of women that rivals the ensemble complexity of HBO’s The Sopranos.
Covering the good, the bad, and the ugly of cartel fallout, these five Ozark ladies exemplify the best the series has to offer.
Actress Julia Garner deserves more than an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Ruth Langmore, a Missouri native who is dragged through the worst of this season’s fallout. Ruth’s story takes root in multiple plot lines, allowing Garner to explore a complex, fully-formed human being.
Multifaceted Ruth challenges the one-dimensional stereotyping of women in crime dramas.
Thanks to her relationship with Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), Ruth faces the horrific presence of the cartel in the Ozarks on a survivalist level. Following a gut-wrenching waterboarding, viewers watch as Ruth attempts to keep herself aligned with the right people and learn the skills needed to have her own cards to play.
Simultaneously, Ruth navigates the ever-evolving, personal politics of the Langmore family. Although Ruth’s complicated relationship with her father is a monument to dysfunction, it pales in comparison to her relationship with her cousin, Wyatt, for whom she acts as a stand-in mother.
In a surprising finale scene, Ruth admit to Wyatt that she killed his father (her uncle) in order to survive the events of Season 1—bringing her criminal and personal lives into collision.
Both a protective maternal presence and an ambitious criminal, Ruth challenges the one-dimensional stereotyping of women in crime dramas by proving you can have your cake and run from the cartel too.
Wendy and Charlotte Byrde
This mother daughter duo is what Lady Bird would have been like if Greta Gerwig had skipped the coming-of-age narrative and opted for an absolute nightmare. Grappling with the realities of the family’s money laundering antics, Wendy and Charlotte struggle to integrate their respective coping strategies.
Wendy and Charlotte exist as independent forces capable of influencing the story’s overarching narrative.
Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney), far from your typical mom, spends Season 2 as Marty’s equal by politicking in a way that could make anyone miss Season 1 of House of Cards. Despite genre history, Wendy’s smooth maneuvers are neither overly effective nor excessively sexualized. She exists in a real space.
Her love for her children, dishonorable talents, sexual appeal, and careful calculation operate within a revolving door that allows Laura Linney to really sell Wendy’s decision making—particularly her finale verdict that the Byrdes won’t be leaving the Ozarks anytime soon.
Alternative to Wendy’s leaning in, Charlotte Byrde (Sofia Hublitz) spends the latter half of the season fighting to get out. Unlike Meadow and AJ Soprano of The Sopranos, Charlotte doesn’t blindly accept what her parents have decide to do. Instead, she takes ownership of her autonomy as a young woman and makes moves to escape. It is unclear if Charlotte will make good on her promise to leave the Byrde family. However, her aggressive moves towards emancipation develop her capacity to maneuver effectively in future scenarios.
Rather than acting as set dressing for a male protagonist, Wendy and Charlotte exist as independent forces capable of influencing the story’s overarching narrative—with or without male permission.
Darlene Snell and Helen Pierce
These villainesses are two very different sides of the same coin.
On one hand, you have the unhinged madness that is Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery.) Yeah, that chick who out of nowhere took out the main antagonist of Season 1 for “disrespecting” her home.
From shaving a 13-year-old’s head to murdering 22 people with fentanyl to make a point, Darlene is chaos personified. (The Episode 9 murder of her husband seals the deal on her irredeemability.)
Ozark’s evil women prove that motherhood isn’t a one-size-fits-all trait of redemption.
On the other hand, you have Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer), the cartel’s Chicago-based lawyer. Similarly evil, but far more level-headed, Helen protects her client with a chilling exactness akin to a demonic Olivia Pope. Her torture sequences are grippingly deliberate, calm, and unhurried.
Darlene and Helen spend most of the season at odds, but with one important matter in common. Both Darlene and Helen express a fierce maternal instinct to protect and care for their children.
However, unlike Serena Joy of The Handmaid’s Tale, Ozark’s evil women prove that motherhood isn’t a one-size-fits-all trait of redemption. Babies or no babies, Darlene and Helen are bad actors whose femaleness won’t undermine their antagonistic performances.
The future of Ozark is fantastically female
Going into Season 3, all of these Ozark women are still on the chess board. Ruth remains entrenched in Marty’s dealings. Wendy and Charlotte are (for now) still on Team Byrde. Darlene is settling in with baby Zeke. And, although she has returned to Chicago, there is no way Helen is out of the picture for good.
If renewed, Ozark is set for a compelling return that should continue to effectively explore the female side of the crime genre. The success of these characters will (fingers crossed) encourage more behind-the-scenes female inclusion as well. (Currently, the director’s chair and writers’ room remain dominated by men.)
Moreover, one can hope that as Ozark‘s creators receive critical praise for mastering female narratives, they will reconsider the diversity of Season 3’s cast. Sure, this story takes place in Missouri, but PoC stories exist everywhere. And based on these five killer performances, tons of other media, and common sense, representation isn’t a concession—it’s an asset.
Ozark: Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.