Spoilers for Ozark Season 3
Falling in love is unavoidable. Even those conditioned against it can’t help but get hooked on it. Falling in love does not have to be romantic, and no matter what our circumstances are, it is innately human to feel lonely. Thus, we are always in a battle to counteract that feeling even as we try to focus our mind on other goals. Often these attempts to stave off loneliness are toxic to the positive forward motion of our lives. In Season 3 of Netflix’s Ozark, the show attempts to explore the idea that falling in love is the antithesis of reason.
The new season introduces a new central character who epitomizes this concept. Ben (Tom Pelphrey), the brother of Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney), comes to stay at the Byrde’s family home. While there, he attempts to seduce the Byrde’s casino manager Ruth (Julia Garner). She is initially resistant, but he responds to this with persistence and charm that eventually wins her over.
Ben’s efforts lead to the two in bed together. However, he suffers from erectile dysfunction, and they awkwardly stop, which builds to a massive reveal about the character. Wendy, while doing laundry, sees an empty bottle of Ben’s pills and confronts him about flushing them. Ben admits that he did, and we find out that he needs them because he is bi-polar, the erectile dysfunction being a side-effect.
Ben has an illness that could make anyone lonely as few people truly understand how he feels. When he tries to ease his feelings of loneliness with intimacy, the necessity to level his symptoms gets in the way. When Wendy realises Ben is using Ruth to curb these negative feelings, she immediately asks her employee to back off and explains her brother’s illness.
Ben recognizes similar loneliness in Ruth. He admires her for the aggressive intimidating wall that she puts up to allow certain people not to get too close and to evoke fear in others. Ruth does this as a defence as it helps to hide her loneliness, vulnerability, and pain – something that stems from the loss of various family members before and throughout the series.
This strategy intrigues Ben because he can identify with what is behind it. It also attracts him to Ruth as well as gives him confidence in establishing a connection with her. Many know the phrase hurt people hurt people, but Ozark explores how broken people look for love in similarly broken people.
As Ben becomes closer to Ruth, he is enraged upon discovering how his drug money laundering sister and brother-in-law’s choices have negatively affected her. This builds to Ben transitioning into a fully manic state off his meds, which lands him in a mental institution. Ben initially stopped taking meds and chose being fully in love to cure his loneliness. But when he acts out of love again to defend Ruth, his decisions – based not on logic or safety for his well-being – are amplified to a level that ruins his life.
Love, in this context, is separate from survival. The Byrde’s all make decisions based on analysis – the show’s anti-hero Marty, played by Jason Bateman, is literally a risk assessor. If they didn’t, their world would collapse in a second. Ben can only react on impulse based solely on emotion and, thus, makes a decision that can only result in the opposite of what he’d hoped.
Ruth and Wendy both go to visit Ben in his state facility, but Ben requests only to see Ruth. Ruth has, at this point, entered into a relationship with him against Wendy’s warning due to her desire for love. Ruth saw many signs of Ben losing his ability to function but still rationalised his anger due to the feelings she was developing for him, love that filled her voids of loneliness.
As Ruth sits with Ben in the state facility, she witnesses him in a state that is the worst he has been. Ruth, throughout the series, has proven that her great strength is being able to see people’s situations for precisely what they are. That is what makes her so useful for handling high pressure and illegal scenarios. Here, all she can see is Ben’s pain and not his need for isolation and care. He convinces Ruth that what he needs for his well being is to be immediately released. Ruth knows that this could put her and everyone she is involved with’s lives in danger – as Ben knows confidential information about his sister’s family’s drug laundering business. Yet, her blind love causes her to help get him released.
Ben feels the need to repay Ruth for getting him out. Upon release, he angrily confronts the Byrde’s lawyer and cartel middle woman Helen (Janet McTeer) in front of her daughter, up until this point unaware of her mom’s criminal dealings. Ben, overcome by a manic state, spirals. He rationalizes his behaviour by saying he is defending the honour of his lover. He’s even convinced himself that he is morally shedding light on ignorance. Ben’s love for his sister Wendy too also puts him at risk. He puts all the blame on Helen because it’s easier than his own flesh and blood.
Ben’s mental illness does not allow him to see the consequences of his actions. He loses sight of who he is confronting and the risk that his behavior places on himself as well as the woman he loves, and his family. By seeking gratitude from Ruth, he ruins his chances to have it.
Meanwhile, Ruth continues to protect Ben because she loves him, though at this point, you can sense her regret in her stern criticism of him. She screams as he resists her plan for him to leave the country: “You’re gonna leave the fuckin’ country if I ask you to leave the fuckin’ country, ok?!” However, as soon as she finishes yelling at him, she illogically apologises to him and becomes a smaller version of herself.
Ben reacts to each new set of circumstances through the rawest form of love and loneliness controlled decision making. Everyone he loves, who loves him back, gives him orders to try to protect him, but he cannot see any of that reason. Towards the end of the series, he and Ruth have created a vicious cycle that can only end in tragedy, so they must part ways.
For any relationship to work, it requires just that – work. It’s a constant trial and error process that takes mistakes that have to be dealt with accordingly. Love takes time and patience, which are luxuries that cannot exist in the Byrde’s world. The processing needed between two people to maintain a successful relationship cannot happen in such a volatile environment. Ruth and Ben are never even given a chance to find who they are as a couple because the space they exist in does not allow them to do so.
Wendy takes Ben away to try to get him to escape. He is her brother, and her love for him, like with Ruth, outweighs her usually tactful reason. Wendy’s love for Ben, however, has also aged. While she will sacrifice a lot to help him, she has a clearer sense of his faults and the danger he brings.
As Wendy and Ben embark on their sort of road trip, we see moments of hope that are immediately extinguished. Ben summons the police to their van, attempting to get himself back to Ruth. He has, at this point, converted his emotion-based thinking into a sort of logic of its own. He has accepted that no one will abide by his way of thinking and has resorted to acting through trickery. Not only has his love become the antithesis of reason, but it has created a false sense of reality in his mind.
Wendy scolds Ben and says: “What are you trying to do to me? What would you do if you were me?” She grapples with the necessity to get rid of him to protect her life only to have the inner conflict of loving him. Wendy asks Ben why he keeps tempting her to use her logic over her love and morality. She is trying to get Ben to realise that his actions provoke violent responses: only it doesn’t work.
Wendy later catches Ben on the phone with Helen trying to talk her into forgiveness. Then later catches him sneakily, buying a new phone to contact Ruth. Wendy starts crying out of the realisation that she must ultimately allow her reason to outweigh her love. She does not confront Ben, and they go to eat. However, Wendy leaves the table mid-meal and drives her car away. She chooses to abandon Ben and allow Helen’s hitman to kill him.
There are many peaks and valleys when dealing with loved ones who have a potentially harmful mental illness. Love can create empathy and patience for only so long. At a certain point, it becomes too difficult not to get angry as the world is not set up to cater to the care they require. In a high-risk environment, Wendy did what she had to, but has a complete emotional breakdown due to the love she had for her brother. Wendy gave Ben every possible chance to convince her to let her humanity and love defeat her anger and logic. His craving to reconnect with the companionship and joy he felt through falling in love with Ruth was too powerful.
Ben’s need for love was a driving force instilled in this season of Ozark. He blew up the already vulnerable set of circumstances the Byrde family were living in. Season 3 attempts to suggest maybe that we be conscientious about who we give our love too. The show suggests that if we are only seeking out love to fill a void in ourselves that perhaps we should consider the knock on effects of that choice. Unfortunately, that is way easier said than done, and any version of our loneliness will drive us without us realising.