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It’s "A Good Day To Die" for Big Sky—even if just for the winter

Illustration for article titled It’s "A Good Day To Die" for Big Sky—even if just for the winter
Photo: ABC/Darko Sikman
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“A Good Day To Die” is kind of a mess of a Big Sky episode. That may sound redundant, but considering that it’s billed as the series’ “winter finale”—I’m not sure how much that was actually David E. Kelley’s intent, but that could simply be because of the show’s usual structure and pacing issues—in true Big Sky fashion, it somehow manages to make its Big Bad getting shot in the head feel anti-climactic. Or, at the very least, a strange place to end the episode and go on hiatus for a little over a month.

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If you were excited for some tension when it came to Legarski possibly bludgeoning his sad wife Merilee to death, I really hope you went into this episode without reading the synopsis, which ends with this sentence: “Elsewhere, Cassie visits Merilee to question her about her husband and Ronald aggressively confronts his mother.” I actually stumbled upon this synopsis last week while watching the promo for this episode, as I was curious while writing last week’s review as to how they’d promote the next episode before the break. The reason I’m noting this is that, for a show that continues to be billed as one with “twists and turns,” Big Sky remains a show without any major twists and turns past the pilot. But you’d think that ABC would play certain aspects of the plot—like the clear cliffhanger of if Legarski goes through with killing his sad wife—close to the vest, in order to at least pretend the show is doing something interesting. This is supposed to have the sensibilities of a cable show, after all.

But again, Big Sky is not a cable show. Nor is it a streaming show, though not for lack of trying. And maybe the sooner it accepts that, the better off for it show will be.

A point in Big Sky’s favor, however, is that “A Good Day To Die” does the one thing that it very much needed to, which is have the trio of girls be saved.* Again, it feels somewhat anti-climactic, as Cassie—who, naturally, does the saving—doesn’t even get visual confirmation of the girls in that scene. But at least the audience does, and they finally get to breathe a sigh of relief over one aspect of the series. Two, if you’re counting Legarski’s death. Because as talented as John Carroll Lynch is and as unsettlingly good as he is on this show, Montana State Trooper Rick Legarski is an overwhelming character. The show needed to kill him off, especially to avoid (were he to be arrested) using him as a crutch. (He can still show up in flashbacks, but that is much different.) Last week’s episode was the height of Legarski and Ronald reiterating their viewpoints about what they’re doing and how they do what needs to be done; it was the height of the show spinning its wheels. This continues with the final Legarski and Ronald scene, which then leads to Ronald kissing Legarski’s sad wife. That’s technically some forward momentum, but unlike the dancing, the kiss will have no effect on Legarski: Because he’s dead now. He died because he just had to be “The Big Rick,” taking charge to do the “right” thing.

*Of course, when the episode ends, there are human traffickers just moments away from reaching their destination. So things probably still aren’t looking so hot for Cassie and the girls... 

That it’s Cassie who does it is even better, as her having Legarski’s number and him being so frustrated with her has been the most consistent part of the series. It was an early highlight when the dynamic was introduced in the second episode, and it makes sense that Legarski’s end comes as the result of that. “A Good Day To Die” maintains the little touches that make their dynamic work, like the fact that while Legarski brings up both Cassie and Jenny sniffing in his direction—he compares them to a female police dog, with Big Sky surprisingly not going with the expected “bitch” line—when publicly pressed, he always blames just Cassie. (During the raid scene, Kylie Bunbury plays it like Cassie’s wondering if anyone else is seeing just how performative Legarski’s rant is. Obviously, they aren’t.) Or in their final confrontation, with the callback to the third episode scene—the show’s original “fuck yeah” moment—where Cassie mocks Legarski for calling her “missy.”

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This is why it’s hard to grasp if Big Sky is The Cassie Dewell Show or a two-hander between Cassie and Jenny. Either version of the show could be good, but Kelley has to decide which version it is first. The case for the former is the fact that the most sustained and successful aspect of the series so far has been the Legarski/Cassie dynamic and the fact that it tracks all the way to her putting a bullet in his head. As I’ve mentioned before, the case for the latter is the odd couple dynamic between Cassie and Jenny, which this episode brings into the mix once again. Jenny is a lone wolf and Cassie relies on—or at least, appreciates, considering how much she still gets done solo—partnership. When Jenny takes responsibility for planting the tracker on Legarski’s cruiser, that moment is a dynamic shift for the series, as she’s doing so to make sure Cassie can still get the job done for both of them. But it’s also making way for The Cassie Dewell Show once again.

The most telling line of the episode is when Jenny tells Cassie, “You’re more of a cop than I am.” In that moment, Jenny’s trying to figure out why Cassie dropped out of the police academy,** and Cassie tells her, “I think justice looks different for different people. Plenty of cowboys with badges—I wanted mine to count for something.” It’s an answer that clicks into place in the final scene, with a stand-off that goes on for so long that I eventually had to write “SHOOT HIM! SHOOT HIM!” in my notes. I don’t think anyone would imagine that Cassie would hesitate to shoot Legarski when given the chance—but here the chance is and it appears that she does. Well, not necessarily “hesitate,” but she does every bit of talking and reasoning she possibly can to avoid shooting him, even though it’s clear very early into the scene that the only way this is going work out for her is if she shoots him. That’s perhaps the ideal quality for a cop—taking every avenue possible to avoid firing your weapon to get the job done—but it’s also not very realistic, as Cassie has to realize with Legarski, who only doesn’t shoot her first because he just has to be patronizing one last time.

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**Jenny actually asks Cassie asks why she left the force, even though the show has made clear Cassie never made it to the force. Also, for what it’s worth, I imagine Jenny left the force because she couldn’t do her favorite hobby—impersonating a cop—when she was actually a cop.

There’s one downside to Legarski’s fate, outside of losing Lynch as a series regular. This episode introduces Legarski’s superior, Commander Elena Sosa (Sharon Taylor), and there’s a commentary to be made about this good old boy having to answer to a woman. There’s also something to dig into about Sosa defending Legarski fiercely, setting her sights on Cassie and Jenny for trying to sully the good name of Montana Highway Patrol. But none of that happens, because Legarski is shot in the head. He was also super guilty, so a last-minute, additional, completely-off-the-mark defense of Legarski—and a lack of reaction from Sosa to Cassie asking if she finds Legarski’s behavior “odd”—makes little sense here. Sosa being introduced in the winter finale—another sign that this probably wasn’t intended as such—means that her dynamic with Legarski and his feelings about answering to her simply won’t be examined. Technically, they could be in a flashback, but we already understand Legarski’s motives and why he was the way he was.

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Then again, that didn’t stop this episode from having a flashback to when Legarski officially recruited Ronald, so who knows?

The most surprising thing about “A Good Day To Die” is that it’s oddly concerned with providing empathy for Ronald, the show’s initial face of fear. There’s the flashback to how Legarski recruited Ronald, something that could’ve been inferred. There’s the dressing down by a teenage girl that was definitely written by a middle-aged man. (Danielle’s psychoanalytical monologue in this episode simply made me think about how much the Big Sky writers need to unpack their own issues—not Ronald’s—with popular high school girls.) There’s the way Ronald excuses (to his mother) the fact that he kidnapped the trio as him essentially being coerced by Legarski, which is what the flashback also tries to say. There’s the scene where he cleans the trio up, a depiction of tenderness and sensitivity as he prepares to ship them off to their new owners. There’s Jerrie’s attempt to reason with Ronald, telling him, “It’s never too late to make a different choice.” That scene, especially, plays like there’s a potential for redemption for Ronald. Obviously, Jerrie is coming from a place of survival and telling Ronald what she thinks he needs to hear. But the issue is in Jonathan Shapiro’s script—and Jesse James Keitel’s performance as Jerrie, which is just so earnest with every beat—building tension for even a second in the idea that Ronald will do the right thing, simply because he’s “clearly” just another victim of Legarski’s.

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Here’s the thing: Ronald isn’t a misunderstood good guy who was driven to the wrong path. He’s a bad guy who jumped at the chance to do bad without guilt as soon as he was given the opportunity and power that comes with it. While the flashback wants to show how Legarski warped Ronald’s mind by going on about him being a good guy who’s been tricked by feminine sin and temptation, all it really shows is how someone like Ronald doesn’t need much to reveal his true colors. The flashback shows us where Ronald got the “unsung heroes” rhetoric he constantly spews to his mother (when he’s not physically abusing her, assuming she’s not a figment of his imagination), but it also shows just how easy it was for Legarski to get him to buy into being the “victim” who has been manipulated by these undesirable women. While the trio attempted to manipulate Ronald with their church choir, Legarski actually succeeded in manipulating Ronald’s religious upbringing, because he went with what would actually translate to Ronald: shame. But that doesn’t make Ronald a victim, because Ronald could have just made a different choice. This particular depiction of Ronald is confusing, because it’s not like Big Sky began with Ronald doing his first job and messing up tremendously: He messed up tremendously after proving himself to be otherwise good at this, with other women who were never and will never be saved.

With the girls saved and Cassie and Jenny on the trucker trail, it’s possibly only a matter of time before Ronald gets caught. If he is to take a bullet to the head next, it will also be much-deserved.

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Stray observations

  • We have no idea what Cassie and Jenny’s dynamic was before the Cody of it all, do we? I vaguely recall Jenny saying they were friends—which I imagine being more a case of them being friendly, as Cassie was Cody’s work partner—but the way they interact and are written suggests they barely know each other.
  • It’s amazing: If you missed the pilot, it’d be possible to never realize Cody was Jenny’s husband. Even with the rare scenes between Jenny and Justin, you could either forget they existed or have the fact that Jenny and Justin’s dad were ever together simply fly over your head. The tension between Cassie and Jenny doesn’t even feel like it’s about a man, and it’s better if it’s not.
  • Deadline announced that Sharon Taylor would recur on Big Sky as Commander Sosa, “a proud member of Montana’s indigenous community, and will work with Cassie and Jenny to bring the kidnappers to justice.” None of that is evident in her introduction, but with Big Sky going on hiatus, it now has plenty of time to make that her character. I question if Sosa’s roots were actually part of Taylor’s initial casting though, since the references to Indigenous people in the show have only been added in post-production. Speaking of...
  • Jenny: “Call the reservations. See if any of the missing girls spent time at truck stops.” This line is the definition of lip service, despite the fact we don’t see Jenny’s lips during this line. Just a nice shot of Katheryn Winnick’s back to make the dialogue go down smooth. The decision to ADR in all these lines about the pandemic and indigenous people is… a decision.
  • Cassie walking right past Ronald and not having a clue—and vice versa—at the quilt shop was a nice touch.
  • I’m curious what everyone thinks about Merilee’s refusal to acknowledge her husband’s “erratic” behavior when Cassie asks. Is it a sense of fidelity to her husband after just kissing someone else?
  • The point has been that Danielle and Grace were bad to kidnap because they have people that care about them, but it’s amazing how much Big Sky doesn’t care about the people who care about Danielle and Grace. It’s not interested in how their parents (who meet with Sheriff Tubb here) are dealing with this. (Despite that being the obvious thing to focus on. Especially if this were actually a cable show, as that would get the mother a Best Supporting Actress nomination.) It’s not interested in how Justin, Danielle’s boyfriend, is dealing with this. (His only emotional reaction has been a result of accepting—very quickly—that his dad is dead.) It’s possible it’ll be handled more in future episodes, but shouldn’t it have been handled at all when the girls were missing?
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Despite her mother's wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB's image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya's your girl.