Warning: This post contains spoilers for “The Toll” episode of Ozark.
From the very beginning of his journey into the dark heart of the Ozarks, Ozark star/executive producer/director Jason Bateman approached the 10-episode crime drama as an extension of his feature film career rather than a return to episodic television. And he stuck to his guns right up until the final moments of the feature-length season finale, which brings the saga of Marty Byrd — the hapless financial advisor who dragged his family from their home in Chicago to the backwoods of Missouri to pay a debt to a drug cartel — to a full-stop conclusion.
“I didn’t want an obnoxious open ending,” Bateman tells Yahoo TV about the last scene of “The Toll.” Written by showrunner Chris Mundy, the episode concludes with Marty, having temporarily resolved the imminent dangers confronting him, sharing a tender reunion with his kids, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), while his long-suffering wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), regards him with equal parts love and uncertainty. “It always pisses me off when people are so presumptuous as to leave something dangling in the attempt to force the studio’s hand,” Bateman explains. “I wanted to make sure we treated this as a 10-chapter film and left it all on the table.”
It’s also no accident that the ending of the season finale visually echoes the ending of the season premiere, which also closes with Marty and Wendy trading conflicted glances. Those were the moments where Bateman says he was most dazzled by his co-star, both as a director and a fellow actor. “What anybody learns from working with Laura is that less is always more. You work with her, and it’s this great masterclass in how you can get things done without doing any ‘acting.’ That long lens close-up of her [at the end of the finale] where she’s looking at Marty and going through a range of emotions — Laura did all of that in about five or six seconds and then drops that one tear out of one eye. There could have been more obvious cliffhanger-y ways to go to black on the last episode, but I really commend Chris and his staff for ending it in such an elegant and restrained way.”
That said, Bateman is the first to point out that there are ways to continue the story should Netflix decide to send them back to work for what he pointedly calls a “sequel” rather than a “second season.” (UPDATE: Netflix announced a renewal on Aug. 15.) For starters, even though lethal drug cartel enforcer Del (Esai Morales) has been lethally dispatched by Ozark crime kingpins Jacob and Darlene Snell (Peter Mullan and Lisa Emery), that couple is still very much a force to be reckoned with. Their close-quarters execution of Del is one of the finale’s most shocking moments, especially since it occurs immediately on the heels of Marty appearing to broker a lucrative peace treaty.
“We had a day or day and a half to shoot that,” Bateman remembers. “I had a bunch of shots laid out, but as we got into rehearsing it, I talked with [Steadicam operator] Ben Semanoff about whip pans and hiding cuts in whip pans. I asked if we could link four cuts in four whip pans and he said yes. So I threw out my individual shots, and we hid these four different cuts to create the sense of it all happening in one shot. It adds impact to everything going on in that room.”
It also awards Mullan the chance to turn the quiet menace that Jacob has been radiating all season long up to 11. Bateman says that the Scottish actor, who made a big impression on him in the acclaimed miniseries Top of the Lake, was his first and only choice to play the part. “I was dead set on getting him, and figuring out how to deal with his Scottish accent was not going to keep me from it!”
Beyond the lingering threat posed by the Snells, other story threads that could be woven into the fabric for a second season include the business opportunity proffered by Marty’s proposed riverboat casino, as well as all the illicit cash that he still has yet to launder. “There are opportunities for us to build on if we were to go back for more,” Bateman confirms. “But it was definitely on purpose that we finished things here. The stakes of the whole show are the life of this family; if we get you to invest in their health, both physically and emotionally, then you’ve got the stakes you need to enjoy the show. You want to start with them, and then hit the finish line with them.”
Before it arrives at its appropriately quiet conclusion, “The Toll” features one of most disturbing scenes that Bateman has choreographed as a director. That’s the moment where faith-challenged Pastor Mason Young (Michael Mosley) — who has become a father, but lost his wife in the process — appears to sacrifice his infant child, Old Testament style, plunging the baby into the waters of the Ozarks.
If you’re a parent, you’ll probably have trouble breathing as Mason holds his son there for what feels like an eternity. “That wasn’t premeditated,” Bateman says, about the length of time that Mosley held the bundle (which, of course, didn’t have a real baby inside it) under the lake’s placid surface. “It really was a result of what felt right for the shot. Anything faster didn’t feel as impactful.” Then, just when you’re ready to reach through the screen to rescue that child yourself, Mason lifts him back out and holds him aloft — making it clear we’ve been witnessing a baptism, not an execution.
Bateman admits that the sequence was his way of unsettling the audience, something he previously did in his 2013 directorial debut, Bad Words, where children were also put in danger. Although, in that case, the “danger” was having epithets and insults hurled at them by Bateman’s aggressive spelling bee contestant rather than the threat of drowning. “If the pastor heard anyone thought he was killing his baby, he’d be mortified!” Bateman says. “What we did with the filmmaking was an interesting mislead, and hopefully a satisfying payoff.”
Ozark is currently streaming on Netflix.