Note: The following contains spoilers for the “Ozark” Season 4 Part 2 finale.
Planning a satisfying TV show ending is difficult, especially when a vast majority of the characters you’ve introduced throughout the series are dead. But luckily “Ozark” showrunner Chris Mundy had already come up with a version of the series finale ending way back during Season 2 of the Emmy-winning Netflix series.
“There’s a line in the opening episode of Season 2, where Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) are on the dance floor and it’s like his black tie gala and you catch up to it a later in the episode,” Mundy told TheWrap in a recent interview about the series finale. “They’re talking about the places they could move if they run away, and at one point Wendy suggests Hyannis Port and he’s like, ‘What are we the Kennedys now?’ and she’s like, ‘Oh please. What do you think it was starting out as a bootlegger in the real world, actually?’ So we lay it in then, and there’s a direct callback to it at the very end. We layered in the aspiration knowing that we might try to write to it, to a degree.”
That one scene and that dialogue led to a discussion that would put Mundy and the writers on a path towards the series finale’s final scene.
“I mean, we’re writing to multiple things, but we talked about it in that scene a lot and what it would mean and how much the family’s going to hold together or not,” Mundy said. “And then, as the seasons went on, especially when we knew it was ending and when we were talking about Season 4, the arguments would be over how much judgment to impose on the Byrdes and how much they needed to be punished or not. So all those good philosophical arguments.”
As it turns out, the answer to that argument is up to interpretation – on the one hand, almost everyone the Byrdes know and liked is now dead or gone. On the other hand, they still have each other and now wield an immense amount of political influence.
“I knew there was going to be a version of them winning, but the way we think of it is, they win in one way but they’re trailing a karmic curse forever,” Mundy said of the final scene. “So, they win, but that shadow is chasing them forever.”
The showrunner sees that scene – in which Mel the P.I. (Adam Rothenberg) confronts the Byrdes after their foundation fundraiser with evidence of Ben’s (Tom Pelphrey) murder, only to be shot by Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) as his parents look on with pride — as a coda of sorts to the real ending of the series.
“In a weird way, I always just thought of it as almost like a coda. So the show ended with Ruth on the ground and the Byrdes on that stage. That’s the show. And then, the other felt like one last little thing. Hopefully you would cheer and then wonder why the hell you cheered. That was sort of the goal,” he said.
Speaking of, Ruth Langmore’s (Julia Garner) death is perhaps the most heartbreaking death on the series (and that’s saying something), but it wasn’t always the plan. When Mundy and the writers outlined Season 4, Ruth originally survived. Then Netflix ordered four more episodes.
“We had originally broken the end of 10 episodes, and we had the whole season broken and we’d even started writing it, then the order changed from 10 to 14. We knew it was going to be split up so that people were going to experience it where Episode 7 was going to end and Episode 8 was going to be a beginning again. So we kind of had to tear apart our whole season break and add story that felt like it was part of what we were doing and not just tacked on. So some things morphed a little bit when that happened.”
In that original 10-episode plan, Javi (Alfonso Herrera) died at the very end of the series and Ruth survived. When the season was expanded, Mundy explained that Javi’s death was moved up, his mother Camila’s (Verónica Falcón) role was expanded, and it became clear that Ruth wouldn’t make it out alive.
“It just kind of kept becoming clearer and clearer that that was the way the most truthful story laid out,” Mundy explained. “Then we kind of hated the fact that that was the most truthful story. We talked about versions of it where she was alive and had moved out of state and we find her halfway across the country and all sorts of things, but it was during the break of the final seven where we started to realize that the story we’d been telling for 43 episodes really was pointing to that other end, and then there was a lot of impassioned arguing from everyone.”
Read on for our full interview with Mundy in which he goes further on Ruth’s death, how he went about crafting the final season, the conversations that went into that final scene, whether Marty and Wendy actually love each other and if an “Ozark” spinoff is still on the table.
TheWrap: Take me back to Season 1. What were the discussions about the end of this story like at that point, if you guys had any?
Chris Mundy: Season 1 we really didn’t have any at all. Honestly, we just wanted to get to the end of Season 1. And it was really about maintaining momentum but also emotionally building that family coming back together, or certainly Marty and Wendy coming back together. Some of the writers get very superstitious, like people in a writers room won’t decorate their office because they’re afraid to put stuff up. It’s like, if you think you’re gonna be permanent then you’re gonna get canceled. So no one was talking beyond Season 1. Once Season 1 ended, and even before we premiered, we felt pretty good about it. so then somewhere between Season 1 and 2 is when you allowed yourself to think about the end.
So what were those conversations like at that point? Was anything specific?
There’s a line in the opening episode of Season 2 where Marty and Wendy are on the dance floor and it’s like his black tie gala and you catch up to it a later in the episode. And they’re talking about the places they could move if they run away, and at one point Wendy suggests Hyannis Port and he’s like, ‘What are we the Kennedys now?’ and she’s like, ‘Oh come on.’ So we lay it in then, and there’s a direct callback to it at the very end. We layered in the aspiration knowing that we might try to write to it, to a degree. I mean, we’re writing to multiple things, but we talked about it in that scene a lot and what it would mean and how much the family’s gonna hold together or not. And then, as the seasons went on, especially when we knew it was ending and when we were talking about Season 4, the arguments would be over how much judgment to impose on the Byrdes and how much they needed to be punished or not. So all those good philosophical arguments.
Now take me to Day 1 of the writers room for Season 4. Did you guys start at the end and work backwards? Did you build up to the ending that occurred? How did that kind of play out?
The short answer is we kind of started immediately with all the things that we knew we’d promised by the end of Season 3. So the emotional toll of Ben’s death is the big one. Obviously the void that’s left with Helen’s death – we knew we had to have a pretty direct pickup. Between Seasons 2 and 3 we were able to jump six months, but between 1 and 2 we had to have a direct pickup and it was the same thing here. We’re like, ‘Let’s just deal with all the things that we’d be irresponsible if we weren’t leaning into.’ So then immediately it was like, ‘Well, what are we driving toward at the end?’ I was pretty clear about what I thought the ending for the Byrdes was going to be, and we argued over it a little bit but pretty quickly it was like, ‘It’s going to be some version of this.’
The tricky thing became, we had originally broken the end of 10 episodes, and we had the whole season broken and we’d even started writing it, then the order changed from 10 to 14. We knew it was going to be split up so that people were going to experience it where Episode 7 was going to end and Episode 8 was going to be a beginning again. So we kind of had to tear apart our whole season break, add story that felt like it was part of what we were doing and not just tacked on. So some things morphed a little bit when that happened.
What was the biggest addition when that happened?
The biggest addition with that expansion happened with Javi’s mother, with Camila, who probably would not have been a big story point, if at all. Javi’s death would have taken place really late in the season instead of being like – when it happens in the first episode of this back seven [episodes], it’s like an instigating thing and in the old version it was going to be a thing where everything topples quickly at the end. So it’s like ‘OK, let’s really explore what just got blown up right here,’ and that became a big part of the back seven [episodes].
So as part of that original plan, who killed Ruth or was Ruth alive at the end of the season?
When we first got to the writers room, she was going to be alive. That sort of evolved toward the end. It just kind of kept becoming clearer and clearer that that was the way the most truthful story laid out. Then we kind of hated the fact that that was the most truthful story. We talked about versions of it where she was alive and had moved out of state and we find her halfway across the country and all sorts of things, but it was during the break of the final seven where we started to realize that the story we’d been telling for 43 episodes really was pointing to that other end, and then there was a lot of impassioned arguing from everyone (laughs). All of it was coming from the same place. It’s all from really caring about the show. The argument kind of became, ‘Do you do what’s right for the show or what’s the best outcome for the character, in a way?’ It’s almost like, ‘What’s our responsibility? How much are we protecting them or how much are we just letting them be swept up into the world and this is what the world did?’ I mean, I know it’s all make-believe and we’re making it up, but it did kind of feel like that’s the momentum of what we created. The internal emotional logic of what we created sort of dictated that and you almost wish it didn’t.
Did you have Netflix bursting and saying, ‘Excuse me, we want the Ruth Langmore spinoff. What are you doing here?‘
God bless them. They were really great and in fact, we always turn in outlines of everything. We were pretty far down the road already on all of it so I was like, ‘I’d really like to just write the script and show you.’ It was gonna be in super early so they would have time to revamp everything. I would rather them read it to feel it rather than it feel like a plot point instead of something that you like experienced as part of the story. So they let us do that. And they reacted really well and they rolled with it. I was very grateful, I must say.
As soon as she pulls that trigger, it feels like her fate is sealed in a way.
It feels like a tragedy in that way. To me it’s like almost like a prophecy. In the storytelling, we talked a lot about how we wanted people to be surprised by things but then when they thought about it, they were actually the most logical thing. Hopefully this is one of those examples, if we’re lucky.
What was what was Julia’s reaction when you broke the news to her?
I kind of walked her through the back four [episodes], because I didn’t want to just say it. And she kept saying, ‘Oh, that this is getting dark.’ I’m like, ‘Hold on. It gets worse.’ And then, at one point she stopped and she’s like, ‘Wait am I about to die?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah …’ It was on the phone, I was in L.A. and she was in Atlanta, but we talked for like 45 minutes or an hour just about all of that and she was really, really great about it. But like, sad. She said to me, ‘I’m never going to play this character again,’ and I’m like, ‘No.’ She’s so good. The reason we can talk about Ruth like she’s someone we know is entirely because Julia is so good, you know?
It’s all the more upsetting when you get to the final scene, where the Byrdes are told, ‘You don’t get to win,’ but of course they win. Tell me about coming to that specific conclusion.
I knew there was going to be a version of them winning but the way we think of it is, they win in one way but they’re trailing a karmic curse forever. So they win, but that shadow is chasing them forever. So I knew I wanted that to be the ending, and it was just a matter of, I really wanted it to have some punch. In a weird way, I always just thought of it as almost like a coda. So like the show ended with Ruth on the ground and the Byrdes on that stage, that’s the show. And then the other felt like one last little thing. Hopefully you would cheer and then wonder why the hell you cheered. That was sort of the goal, and then people could disagree about what they think about it.
I knew pretty early on, like long before we knew what was going to happen with Ruth. That little coda we had early in the breaking of Season 4. So then it was great because we could layer in Mel’s – there’s two different times where he sees and talks about that cookie jar. And we knew that we needed to get him off the show with at least one episode in between the finale so that people had kind of forgotten about him. So it allows you to really pick the pieces of architecture to layer it in so it wouldn’t just be out of left field.
Jason directed the pilot and also the series finale, and there’s that callback with Jonah and the gun. I’m curious about that collaboration and you guys working together on this ending.
It’s been really great. Our tastes matched up 95% of the time and we kind of had a standing rule, especially in the editing room, where if we disagreed and one of us felt really strongly about something, then you could just invoke it and the other person would be like, “Okay, yeah, fine. Yours.” And we actually held to it through five years. It would have been weird if he didn’t direct the end, because he created the look of the show, he was there from the very beginning. So it was nice to have it be all of us at the very end. But that moment we discussed at insane length, I must say.
I can imagine. All of the shots with their faces and everything, it’s key to what taste you want to leave in the viewers’ mouths.
Exactly. It’s funny, I’ve been asked by a couple people are we supposed to not believe that Mel died. And it’s like no, that wasn’t actually the intention. I hadn’t really thought that people would have that reaction. It’s more just not to get too thrown into the reality of that bloodshed at the end. That taste would’ve been very different if you kept filming there [after the gunshot].
Another big question I had coming to the end, especially with this season, is with Marty and Wendy – do you think that they really, truly love each other or are they just bound by blood at this point?
Yeah, I really do. I mean, I think it’s complicated. But I think the test of this last little bit was to the realization that they did. We talk a lot about unconditional love in the back seven, and whether or not it’s actually healthy, and I think what they’re realizing is when push comes to shove, they do love other. I think Wendy’s biggest fear around Ruth dying is if Marty would feel so bad about it that he blames her and doesn’t love her. So I think they do. I don’t think they’re as demonstrative as they should be, but I think they do. Now they’re dragging around a curse, but they’re not dragging around the pressure that they might die at any a minute. So I’m guessing it would come out more in the future than it did during the last five years on the show.
I also wanted to talk about bringing Rachel back. I full on thought you were setting up the spinoff with Rachel and Ruth going forward.
(Laughs) No, I’d watched that though. They were so good together. I think for me, that character’s part of the DNA of the show, so as much as anything I wanted to try to bring back the pieces that kind of made us in the first place. And I was hoping to answer any unanswered questions that we could. I wanted to know what happened to Rachel. Also, just for us as people making the show, it was a way to kind of celebrate it together too. So I thought it’d be fun for people that like to show but also fun for us as the people making it. And then was a way to give Ruth, whose world was getting depopulated all the time, a partner. A scene partner literally but also just for the character to have somebody that she could have intimate conversations with. And it turned out so great, I think they were both so good in those scenes together.
So is a spinoff possible?
It’s definitely possible. There are things in the world that are possible. But I don’t know that they’ll happen and I don’t know what the timetable would be. But I mean it’s a world that we all like. It was just important to really end this show so that it was all on its own. I would hate it to feel like anything we did in the future somehow changed the perception of it. This is a show that’s as good as we could do for the last five years, and I hope people liked it because we were trying hard.