Ozark showrunner Chris Mundy and the shows’ writers sat down to write the fourth and final season of the Netflix series in February 2020, only to be shut down a few weeks later. Then, four episodes were added to the roster, with the season to be split into two parts.
“We’d already sort of done it — we plotted it out, [and then] we had to stop and recalibrate,” Mundy tells THR. “The really hard part of that was you had to end episode seven in a way that felt like an ending and start at eight in a way that felt [like a beginning of a new season] because that’s the way people were going to experience it. That was super hard. And then, of course, we started filming [during] COVID with no vaccine. It was all a high degree of difficulty.”
Mundy spoke to THR about the pressures of writing the final episode of a show, whether it was always going to end like it did (warning: spoilers ahead!) and what was most challenging this season.
Your final season garnered 13 Emmy nominations. Do these feel different from your previous nods?
I was talking to both Laura [Linney] and Jason [Bateman] about it — it makes us all a little bit more reflective in a way because it’s over. We don’t get to keep going back and doing it. So I think we’re all just a tiny bit more appreciative because it’s one last chance to all be together. It’s one last chance to just kick it around, and it’s making us realize that we’re not going back for a season five.
Was splitting up the season into two parts a challenge?
It was a crazy challenge because we started writing it right before the world shut down with COVID. So I started with the writers in, like, February 2020 or so, and by mid-March, all of a sudden we were not in a room together anymore. And that’s when [Netflix] made the decision to go from 10 [episodes] to 14.
For every season except season one, you wrote the first episode and the last episode. Is that challenging, needing to rope people back in after a season but also finishing the season — and, now, the show’s finale?
I actually think there’s more pressure in a strange way, or it’s harder to write the first one than the last one, just because you don’t want everyone to feel all the setup of everything you’re doing, but it also has to set up everything you’re doing. That’s a little tricky. You don’t want to have your work be so visible, almost. When you’re writing a last one, hopefully if we’ve done our job right, everything’s kind of rolling downhill, so there’s an inevitability to it. Obviously when it’s the end of the series, it’s a little different and you’re a little more stressed that you’re hopefully doing it right. And you know some people aren’t going to like it and some people are, but you want to try to stay as true to the story as you can. But usually those beginnings are the tricky ones.
What research went into the show at the very beginning?
We brought an FBI agent in who worked in money laundering. Although it was funny: She’d been in the unit for four years, but they’d never actually convicted someone because it’s so hard to prove. And then we brought in a hedge fund manager, basically to say from the other side, “We’re not saying you’re going to launder money, but if you were, what would you do?” And those two things especially were really helpful. And then we had a couple of the assistants who were just really smart and able to dig into stuff. We’d finish in the [writers] room and then do piles of research. Every little piece that filters in makes it better. It’s almost like each little thing becomes exponential.
This season, you also had to write Jonah’s arc as a money launderer. Was that process different from writing Marty’s?
No. It was the same. And, in fact, we tried to make Jonah’s language as on par with Marty’s as possible. It’s essentially a child doing this talking that’s really adult, and we liked the weird juxtaposition of all of it, and Jonah is a little mini Marty, so we wanted to play it hyper-straight in that way. Marty’s oddly proud of it because he’s smart and industrious. We are just trying to write to the family part of it more than we are trying to write about the money laundering part of it.
Spoiler alert: Let’s talk about the finale. Was it always going to end like this?
When we broke the first 10, before it became 14, the plan at that point … I think it inevitably would have ended up the same way it did, but the plan at that point was not to have Ruth die. And then, as we started getting a little deeper into the back seven, it became really clear that that felt like it was going to be the way it went. And that got really strange and kind of weird and sad because as someone who cares about the characters on the show, you don’t want it to happen. But for all the people in the writers room who were responsible for making it feel true to the show and true to what the story was doing, it felt like it had to happen. That was tricky; I truly lost a lot of sleep over it. When she kills Javi, it’s sort of like a tragedy has been started, and it’s weirdly a straight line. There’s an inevitability to what’s going to happen. But I was hoping that even all the way up to the point where you realize that Camila knows it was her at the party, that you still as a viewer are thinking that there’s some way she’s going to get out of it, just because you want so badly for her to get out of it. But the reality of the situation was different.
In season four, what was the most challenging episode?
I think episode eight was a challenge, which is the one where Ruth shoots Javi. The whole thing was a challenge — and in terms of trying to keep it dynamic because it was very meditative. It’s a lot of Ruth in cars and listening to music and walking, and we wanted to be sort of deep in her head, and yet we didn’t want the show just to kind of sit there. That was a tricky thing, just as a whole. As the season went on, we kind of got simpler and simpler in a way. I mean, the story just kind of kept revolving around our people. The finale was one of the easiest episodes we had to shoot the entire year. We didn’t use any locations that weren’t our normal ones. It was kind of just there. There were barely any guest actors that weren’t our regular people. It all kind of shrunk down to just us in a way. So I think the only real challenge was just finding tone and finding visual cues for episode eight.
What about the car crash?
That was two days of work. That’s how difficult that thing was. You know, for something that on the page is like that — and that the two days of work doesn’t even include the family in the car, [which] was something different. That thing was planned out within an inch of its life. To me, it came out great. The scary thing is the worry that you’re going to do it and it’s not going to come out right and then you’ve got to try to do it again. And it came out just so, so perfect. Andrew Bernstein shot that. It was one take with a real human in that car, by the way, driving that thing. It’s crazy what they’re able to do. We were already pushing it [with the budget]. We never did a ton of big stunts like that on the show. When we did, we really needed to make sure. It’s kind of like the body drop in the pilot. You had one good shot at that. That’s it.
Where do you strike the balance with the violence, especially in terms of kills?
Jason was always a fan of pushing that line as far as we could push it. It’s funny, he’s very mild-mannered in his real life, but when it came to that, he always wanted to beat the last one. And I was always just like, “We don’t need to beat the last one!” I would usually write it, and then Jason would be like, “What if it was 10 degrees weirder?” Then we’d figure it out.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.