She’s not in the most scenes. She’s not connected to the most characters. She hasn’t been to Mexico or visited a drug lord in a maximum security federal prison. But Ruth Langmore is Ozark’s tragic hero.
First, let’s agree that Ozark is a tragedy. This writer has only seen five of the seven final episodes (which premiere April 29 on Netflix), but even if God Himself drops out of the sky and tells everyone to stop fighting, there’s no way the show ends with anything but ache. Too many people have died. Too many lives have been torn to pieces at the hands of Marty, Wendy, the drug cartels, and the corrupt officials, all of whom shirk human decency to forward their own ends. An epilogue of hope would only underline the venality this show has so mercilessly cataloged.
Which is not a criticism! Tragedies work when they make us care about the people inside them, and Ozark is excellent at shading its villains with conscience, regret, humor, and (when all else fails) a genius for scheming. Marty and Wendy (Jason Bateman and Laura Linney) really love each other, in that Macbeth sort of way. Their passion often blinds them to their mistakes, just like Wyatt’s (Charlie Tahan) need to have a parental figure in his life, Maia’s (Jessica Frances Dukes) desire to do work that matters, and Jonah’s (Skylar Gaertner) urge to prove he can exist without his family. They might do monstrous things, but none of these characters are monsters, and their humanity keeps them captivating.
But when it comes to pity and fear – the two responses that tragedies have been gunning for since Oedipus killed his dad – nobody outdoes Ruth (Julia Garner).
For one thing, she’s lost so many people. Her dad and her uncle. Wendy’s brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey). And most painfully of all, her cousin Wyatt. From the first season, Ruth fights to help Wyatt escape their life of crime, violence, and neglect. That’s not only because he’s sensitive and smart, but also because she loves him more than anyone in the world. That’s why each earlier loss is a step on her misery ladder, but Wyatt’s death is the final rung.
At the end of the episode “Sanctified,” right after she discovers Wyatt’s body, we see Ruth reach an operatic level of suffering. She’s like King Lear carrying Cordelia’s body. How could she be more bereft? How could we feel worse for her? And when we watch her screaming for vengeance, how could we not understand?
All the characters feel pain, of course. Wendy suffers incredible guilt after putting a hit on Ben’s life. But she had him killed to protect her own interests. It’s the same deal with Marty. He gets chance after chance to end the nightmare, but keeps choosing to extend it. It’s easy to be fascinated by these characters, but it’s hard to pity them.
And while Ruth is hardly a saint, she’s at least driven by compassion. She tries to protect Ben and Wyatt. She tries to protect Jonah when he comes to work at the motel. She even tries to protect the Byrdes when she thinks they care about her. More than anything, she’s trying to make a world where she can love and be loved in return. There’s a kindness in her crimes and a vulnerability in her choices that makes her seem nearly innocent compared to everyone else.
To put it another way, Ruth may be the only character on Ozark who would willingly lose something she wants in order to make life better for somebody else.
Or to put it a third way, Ruth is flawed, but she mostly wants peace. The Byrdes are flawed, but they mostly want power.
So when the best person on the show also loses the most, we can pity her. We can fear for her, and we can fear for ourselves, because wouldn’t we prefer to be more like Ruth than the Byrdes? Aren’t we worried that if we were in her situation, we’d also end up with our lover’s ashes in a cookie jar?
Nobody else on Ozark is designed to make us feel this much. Let the Byrdes keep their money and maybe even their kids. Ruth can have our hearts.
The final seven episodes of Ozark premiere on Netflix April 29.
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Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.