‘Ozark’ Season 4 Ending Tests the Meaning of a Netflix Finale

By now, some obsessive “Ozark” fans will have already plowed through the show’s final seven hour-long episodes, which appeared early Friday morning on

Netflix.

For other fans, it could be this weekend, next week, or beyond when they find out the fate of the Byrdes, the suburban family who became crime kingpins over the course of four seasons.

After a marathon build-up to this moment, “Ozark” showrunner Chris Mundy has mixed emotions about having its audience straggle across the finish line at different times.

“As a viewer, I love being able to immerse myself and keep going,” Mr. Mundy said. On the other hand: “I wish there was a way to let everyone binge the first five” of the show’s final episodes, “then say, ‘Now you’ve got a weekend to do the final two, then let’s talk.’”

Laura Linney as Wendy Byrde and Sofia Hublitz as Charlotte Byrde.


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NETFLIX

The all-at-once release model that Netflix pioneered gave users the freedom to consume TV at their own pace. But that signature feature has come in for scrutiny as the company deals with a loss of subscribers and the need to establish more series with the kind of longevity and audience loyalty of “Ozark” or “Stranger Things,” another suspenseful flagship drama with a conclusion approaching.

Among the many series that have come and gone on Netflix, “Ozark” gave the streamer a rare build-up of anticipation for a finale episode. In an effort to enhance the experience for fans, “Ozark” producers and Netflix tried to quell spoilers by stipulating that journalists with advance access to the finale couldn’t write about the details of it until Monday, three days after release. Mr. Mundy said it was the first time in the show’s run that producers had suggested such an embargo, and debated over how long it should be.

Once, the series finale was the ultimate group ritual of TV fandom. When the original run of “The Sopranos” ended on a Sunday night in 2007, about 12 million viewers experienced a simultaneous moment of confusion when the screen cut to black on Tony and his family. The end of “Ozark” raises the question: Does a long-awaited series finale have as much impact when fans don’t experience it in unison?

“There’s this feeling of, we’ve invested five years in this thing, so doing it together seems more substantive,” Mr. Mundy said.

When the first half of “Ozark”’s final season hit Netflix in January, interest in the show swelled for a week after those seven episodes dropped, then tapered down over the ensuing weeks, according to Parrot Analytics. The research and consulting firm tracks “demand” for titles by measuring downloads from file-sharing services, internet searches, and other activity.

A competing crime drama on cable channel AMC, “Better Call Saul,” which airs weekly in the traditional fashion, experienced a much different pattern of demand.

When season 5 of “Better Call Saul,” a “Breaking Bad” prequel, aired in 2020, each new episode was accompanied by a spike in demand, according to Parrot. After a dip in the middle of the season, the levels of weekly demand got higher as the season approached its conclusion. In the wake of the season 5 finale, demand for “Better Call Saul” was 53% higher than it was following the season premiere two months before.

More streaming services now use the weekly model than not. In 2020, 70% of the shows in Parrot’s top 50 ranking of new streaming series were binge-model releases. In 2021, that figure fell to 28%.

Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore in ‘Ozark.’


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NETFLIX

TV fans are divided over how these release patterns affect their relationships with their favorite shows. That goes extra for big endings.

To the “Ozark” faithful, what really matters is whether Mr. Mundy and his team stuck the landing, and brought satisfying resolution to all the plot forces in play. And there are many–a drug cartel, the FBI, a dogged private investigator—converging on Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney), their kids (Skylar Gaertner and Sofia Hublitz), and their off-on accomplice Ruth ( Julia Garner).

Producer Joel Stillerman, the former head of programming for AMC, said priorities around finals have shifted both for TV companies and fans.

For AMC, the goal was to maximize ratings for the send-offs to “Breaking Bad” in 2013 and “Mad Men” in 2015.

“Those kinds of measurements used to matter tremendously in the linear TV world where our every waking moment was spent strategizing how to get as many eyeballs on a piece of content as possible,” Mr. Stillerman said. Creating cultural touchstone moments around the finals was just a bonus.

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Now, when it comes to the long-term legacy of a show, he added, “I don’t think it matters if people watch at the same time or experience it on a slower roll.”

Allison Elise, a 25-year-old “Ozark” fan in San Diego, wants her moment of closure to occur with fellow fans—specifically the circle of a half-dozen friends who have been watching “Ozark” together since 2020.

When they were all homebound during the peak of the pandemic, the group used an app that let them stream episodes of “Ozark” in sync. They discussed what went down in running text messages and FaceTime calls.

To make the last moments of “Ozark” more of an event, the friends agreed to save the last two episodes and watch them together, this time in person, at Ms. Elise’s home next Friday. “If it was just a regular season,” she said, “we wouldn’t have put time on the calendar.”

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