Skylar Gaertner says 'Ozark' filmed 'two slightly different versions' of the series finale ending.
Ozark may not have started with Jonah Byrde (Skylar Gaertner), but it sure did end with him!
The youngest of the Byrde clan, who was once eager and excited to go along with his parents Marty and Wendy (Jason Bateman and Laura Linney) as they moved the family out to Missouri to launder money for a cartel, spent three seasons split between trying to be involved with the family and carving out his own niches and toe dips into business ventures. After learning about his uncle Ben's (Tom Pelphrey) demise at the end of the third season, Jonah spent the final run of episodes taking his numbers acumen outside the family, helping Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) launder money. And at the end of the day (and the series), he was the one that determined his parents' fate when P.I. Mel Sattem (Adam Rothenberg) figured out where Ben's body was and confronted them.
Although they tried to bargain with him, it was Jonah who was in the power position, as he stepped into their conversation with a shotgun. In a slight callback to the start of the final season when Marty was proud of his son for following in his money laundering footsteps, he expressed a similar expression at this action, and both he and Wendy looked at Mel, as if they knew his number was up. Yet, Jonah closed his eyes and the gunshot cracked over the show fading to black, so, like The Sopranos before it, Ozark ended without truly revealing the fate of its characters — specifically, whether Jonah took care of his parents' problem or ending up turning the gun on one of them.
"There was a lot leading up to that, even back in Season 1 where he's holding the gun up to Garcia, and he intended to take that shot and that was taken away from him because the bullets were unloaded without him knowing. So, this brought him back around, full circle, where he basically turns into his parents after everything," Gaertner tells Metacritic.
Previously on Ozark, the people Jonah held guns on often ended up dying by someone else's hand, but this time, Jonah pulled the trigger.
Here, Gaertner talks to Metacritic about learning Jonah's fate, the different versions of the ending filmed, and whether his character was able to fully grieve the loss of Ben.
There has been so much death on this show over the seasons, and Jonah has been in danger before, how concerned were you that he wouldn't survive the series? And did you have conversations with showrunner Chris Mundy or the writers about making sure he did survive?
It was an ongoing joke for us. At the beginning of each season, the first thing we had to ask was, "All right, am I going to survive? Am I going to make it past the first episode or two, or do I need to go look for a new job?" But let's see, was there a specific moment when I thought it could have been Jonah? I don't know. Obviously just reading about the car crash [at the start of Season 4], you don't know what to expect after that. But at the very least, we trust [the writers] not to hold back or pull any punches. So, for me, it was just, the whole time a slight bit of, "I don't know. I feel like he could be a character that makes it all the way through, but I don't know."
It certainly would be a different kind of tragedy if the youngest, arguably most innocent of the family didn't survive. Did you have all of the 14 scripts at the start of this season so you could at least skip to the end to see what was the outcome of that crash?
Oh no, we had to learn it in real time, which is honestly more fun, I think. I talked to Chris a little bit about some of the broader arc of the character, so I knew a couple of things ahead of time, like that he would at least make it close to the end because we knew the grandfather was coming in, and he would form a little bit of a relationship with him.
Before we talk about where Jonah did end up, where did you want him to end up? Because for some kids in tough family situations, grandparents can really be saviors, but this guy didn't seem to be good for anybody.
This might be an unpopular opinion, but I feel like Jonah's best shot at being OK as a person probably would have been to go with his grandfather. Because the life he had there, it seems like it has that way of roping you in and you can't escape it. He's a relatively mature person, and I think he would have been able to navigate as awful as a person as his grandfather is, whereas his family is his weakness as far as being an actually OK human being — even though he ultimately wants to be with his family.
That's a great segue to talk about the end then. Because does he want to be with his family -- his whole family? There was so much tension all season, and the show doesn't show who he shoots. First of all, what was your reaction to reading that in the script and realizing the show ended with you?
I feel like when I read that, I just sat there for awhile like, "Oh my gosh!" On the surface, it's a victorious moment: They won; they got everything they wanted, pretty much, but then it's thinly veiling the tragedy behind it — the wake of dead people behind them and who they turned into. But at least they have each other.
We don't see who takes the bullet, so depending on how audience members feel about characters needing to be punished, they may choose to believe different people end up shot. But did you shoot an extended version of the scene to deliver that answer a bit more definitively?
There wasn't necessarily an extended version shot, but in the script, they were playing around with that last scene quite a bit — right up toward the end when we were filming it. So, there was a couple changes, and we actually filmed two slightly different versions of that. In one of them, Mel was standing in front of his parents and [Jonah] pulled a gun on him and told him to step away from them. But in [the other], he held the gun on his parents for a while first, so you could see him thinking, "This is my final choice," basically. And then he goes over to Mel. But a lot of that is in the editing. And we weren't sure if they were going to play a gunshot over black.
How did having to shoot those slightly different versions change how you approached the moment emotionally as an actor, especially in terms of the conflict Jonah might feel? And did it change how you felt about how it was ending?
For the two versions that we shot, they had the same feelings in both of them. The moment of questioning, "Could I actually shoot my parents here?" was drawn out more in one, and in the other, he already accepted them and was ready to move on quicker. But there's that moment where it's just unsure. So, as an acting choice, I think that he's at the tail end of being conflicted because the whole season he wants his family back, really more than anything. Something has to change. And it seems like that thing finally changes. And so I guess the question is, "Was that enough?" Because with his mom sort of apologizing and admitting how screwed up everything is in the hospital, I almost feel like Jonah thought he knew what he was going to do and then almost surprised himself with that thought.
And sometimes in the moment people's reactions can influence what someone might do, unexpectedly. And Marty's sly little smirk of pride seemed like one of those things.
I love that whole thing with Marty being proud! It always makes me laugh.
In mentioning Wendy acknowledging everything with Ben, it leads me to wonder how much Jonah believed the things his parents, or specifically his mother, were saying to him at certain points in the season. Was there a particular moment you can recall that was made more complicated to play because you felt it was really important to see him struggle with whether he believed what was being said?
The most nuanced one was probably when Marty comes over to help after his money-laundering computer stuff goes south and he's worried the FBI might come after him because there's a red flag on the account. Obviously it turns out it was his mother's doing, but I think that was one of the most interesting and complicated because he had went through a lot of different emotions there, and it almost convinced him to come back to his family, at least for the time being. He was doing OK on his own up until that point, but then it was like, "Oh my gosh, this is really hard without my family," and he had to face that, but then having to switch to realizing it was actually Wendy all along was an awful moment, but one of my favorite written parts. It was so infuriating but well written.
How did you view Jonah working with Ruth? Was this him attempting to rebel from his family, or show them that he can handle more than they realize?
I think it's somewhat multifaceted. There's a couple of different parts to that. I hesitate to call it just rebellion. I feel like, for him, obviously a lot of it stems from what happened with his mom having a part in killing Ben, [which] pushed him away. He was already being pushed away from his family, I think, even in the first three seasons. He would always try and be involved in things, and his parents are so distracted, and in trying to be good parents, they kept just pushing him away. So, when he goes over to the Ruth side of things, that's the next best choice he has after his family. It's the closest thing he has because of her connection to Ben. I felt like that was a really natural choice, on the writers' part, but it's not purely rebellion — more like an organized strike. He needs something to change in order for him to return to his family.
He does end up returning to them, which almost feels a little full circle since, in the beginning, he was onboard with what they were doing, not even really having questions about the money laundering, but just going with it. Do you feel he's really been able to make his own choices as he's grown up in this world, or has he been mostly shaped by his proximity to what his parents have been doing?
There's an interesting combination of both because he goes with the flow in the first three seasons. He's easygoing. He's like, "All right we're involved with drug lords now, OK." [Laughs] But at the same time, he goes off and does his own thing a little bit whether it's just pursuing his interests with the whole dead animal thing or trying to start a business at school doing other people's homework. So, he put his own spin on everything.
Going back to how you were talking about learning about Ben being the thing that pushed Jonah away, do you feel like he got to grieve and come to terms with his death by the end of the series?
Obviously that pain isn't going to completely go away, but I think him connecting with Ruth was a really big part of his grieving process because he was able to, obviously, have someone else who's going through the same thing, first of all. And passing off the ashes to her and finding a new purpose with the money laundering and just the whole business thing with Ruth, he had something to do and somewhere where his skills are actually appreciated. So, I think that really helped him to move on.
This show has been a big part of your life and career. Looking back on the experience, how do you think it's influenced the career trajectory you want to have going forward?
This is definitely the biggest influence to my acting, bigger than anything else, just because you get to be in this environment regularly and develop who you want to be, who you are, your acting skills, and just be able to watch all the people around you who are established, highly-skilled actors. And there's no telling how much you can learn from that. And that will definitely influence me going going forward. And hopefully I'll be able to continue to build on the things that I've learned, but I'm really thankful to have had that.
Do you want to stay in this darker drama space, or do you feel like after five years in such heaviness it's time for a sitcom or something?
I'm always open to to any genre. I care more about just the quality of the writing and the story being told than what genre it is. But, honestly, it is a funny show, especially when you're involved in the process. We just had the premiere and we got to see two episodes, and we laugh way more than we should when we're all watching it together. It's always at the very darkest parts that we start cracking up, and I know they won't land to that extent, probably, to the average audience number, but I think there can be a lot of fun with that.
Get to know Skylar Gaertner:
Before Gaertner was on Ozark, he was known as Young Matt Murdock on Marvel's Daredevil (Metascore: 72), as well as for guest-starring appearances on The Americans (89), Nurse Jackie (75), and Person of Interest (66). Ironically, he also played another character named Jonah in the 2016 film The Ticket (52).