Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Six episodes in, is Big Sky finally ready to get started?

Kylie Bunbury, Katheryn Winnick
Kylie Bunbury, Katheryn Winnick
Photo: Darko Sikman/ABC
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Cassie (Kylie Bunbury) and Jenny (Katheryn Winnick) stand together in front of a conveniently transparent murderboard, bound together by grief and a common purpose. As they scrutinize the information before them, there’s something more than determination and sadness in the air. It may take a moment to identify, anchored as the scene is by an enormous loss; the temptation to picture the smiling face of a ghostly Ryan Phillipe may prove too strong to resist. But it’s there, all the same. Side by side, they contemplate all that comes next, whatever it might be—and though Jenny says their partnership will last as long as this one case and no longer, it’s evident to both women, to say nothing of the people watching at home, that it’s just lip service. This is a beginning.

The current running through this scene is what you might call pilot energy. It’s the promise of more to come, the sense that some sort of tape has been cut by a big ceremonial pair of scissors. It’s the beginning of what my colleague LaToya Ferguson has referred to as “The Cassie and Jenny Show.” It’s a good scene, and a satisfying feeling. It’s just odd that it should arrive now, at the end of episode six. A finale, sure. A pilot, yes. But how on earth, after six hours of very large skies, can we just be getting started?

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Big Sky has been a bit of a mess to this point, and that doesn’t change with “The Wolves Are Always Out For Blood,” a mid-season premiere that arrives, thanks to a lately increased episode order, a mere third of the way into the season. The tonal inconsistencies are still there—Ronald and Helen Pergman (Brian Geraghty and Valerie Mahaffey) still feel as if they wandered over from an American Horror Story, while poor Justin (Gage Marsh) is probably crying quietly in another room as he waits for a big scene that will probably never come—as is the sense that the show is still trying to figure out which version of itself it wants to be. But there’s still a sense of having rounded a corner, of reaching the end of a six-hour pilot and arriving at a place from which the show can begin in earnest. And not even Legarski’s drumming fingers can render all that pilot energy less than engaging.

We’ll get back to the mortal persistence of The Big Rick momentarily, but for now, let’s focus on the positive. (It’s baffling that the survival of a character played by John Carroll Lynch, one of the best actors working, should be cause for concern, but here we are. Thanks for the confusion, David E. Kelley!) The girls are out of the dark! Gone, for this case at least, are the days of hurry-up-and-wait-for-rescue; the Sullivan sisters are headed back to Colorado, presumably to only occasionally drop in on the plot from a distance, if at all.* With them off to years of therapy, the threads that the show will follow seem to be more taut than those of the first six episodes: it’s Track Down Ronald time for Dewell & Hoyt Investigations, and it’s Paint Your Truck And Dissolve Your License Plate time for Ronald. It’s unclear whether the latter’s questionable approaches to concealment are meant to be so questionable, but it’s evident that his decision to terrorize Jerrie (Jesse James Keitel, who mercifully has something more to do than be terrified and sing the alto part for a change) will come back it bite him in the ass. Cassie and Jenny are zeroing in, and Ronald and Mom will only grow increasingly more frantic in their efforts to keep a step ahead. Clear, familiar, comprehensible, and, mercifully, focused.

* – At least, that seems to be the case? Grace makes mention of sticking around longer to help identify Ronald, but honey, please go home to your poor mom whose name we don’t even know, finish high school, and turn this into a book deal that will help you pay for college. Danielle, on the other hand, presumably has reasons to visit, but she and poor old Justin should definitely break up, because “I got kidnapped and traumatized driving to see you” and “My dad got murdered trying to rescue you” are two items of baggage no high school relationship should have to tote around.

All that focus gives this chapter of Big Sky more genuine energy and momentum than almost any of its predecessors, and it’s made possible by the closing of at least a few doors and the opening of others. Those in need of rescue have been rescued. Those in need of a funeral have gotten one (at least, those we know of; we may never know Ronald and Legarski’s body count, but for all their internal moral struggles, there’s no way it was zero pre-Cody.) The issue of whether or not Jenny and Cassie are still at odds over a man has been rendered totally moot by some good old-fashioned conversation, compassion, and empathy, and even Denise finally got something to do other than place phone calls and defend her cousin’s boring psychopath ex-husband. All good things. All necessary things.

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In fact, by all rights, this episode should be a bit of a snooze, focused as it is on tying loose ends, checking items off a to-do list, and memorializing a character who died in the pilot, even one whose spirit survives to greet grieving cowgirls in the rain. But it’s not, because for once, Big Sky uses its relatively static plotting to make space for character work. In no instance is that more welcome than in Legarski’s Sad Wife (™ LaToya Ferguson, but I’m keeping it.) With Legarski out of commission and “Mitchell” mostly otherwise occupied, Brooke Smith’s Merilee gets some actual substantial scenework, one of the many characters who wrestles with grief, shame, and remorse in this hour; her scene with Cassie is particularly good, but any instance in which an excellent actor gets to use her considerable skills is a welcome one. And neither Smith nor Big Sky feels the need to resort to melodrama, opting instead for something far subtler, and thus more compelling. What happens next for Merilee is difficult to predict, something far too rare for a show that has to this point prided itself on its big fat twists.

Because those twists aren’t so twisty, are they? Telegraphed as they are in advance, it’s hard to feel anything like surprise over events like Legarski’s return to consciousness by way of his drumming fingers or Ronald’s equally cruel and bewildering decision to leave a threatening note for poor Jessie. The Cassie/Jenny partnership, at least, seems to be meant to feel like an inevitability, but it would have been far more surprising had the show let Legarski die in that hospital bed, whether from the bullet in his brain or at the hands of one of any number of people who have good reason to wish him dead.

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If there’s a real surprise in this episode, it’s that every single person at Cody’s funeral knows every word to Neil Young’s “Harvest,” an incredible song that’s not, as far as I know, taking up much room in the Spotify playlists of our nation’s youths. If there’s another, it’s that we haven’t already reached the stage where Cassie and Jenny offer Jerrie a job (that’s definitely happening, right?) But while Legarski’s survival would, had you asked me yesterday, have been a real surprise, that surprise lasts only as long as it takes to load him onto a stretcher. Who can fault Kelley and company for wanting to keep Lynch around as long as possible? He belongs on the Mount Rushmore of character actors between Margo Martindale and Peter Lorre. (Stephen Root, obviously, is also there.)

But if Big Sky really wanted to surprise us, it would have let him live on only in memory, as it has done with Ryan Phillipe’s Cody. “The Wolves Are Always Out for Blood” may have pilot energy, but Legarski’s abiding mortality seems likely to keep it anchored in the show that was. That one was fine, but there’s more potential in the two women standing together before that plate-glass murderboard. Take some advice from Jenny’s eulogy, Big Sky, and let him go.

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Stray observations

  • Hi folks! I’m Allison Shoemaker, stepping into the recapping shoes of my pal LaToya Ferguson, who, unlike John Carroll Lynch, has moved on to other projects. Please tell me who else should be on character actor Mount Rushmore and let me know if/when you’ve got a GoFundMe up and running to get it made.
  • About Ronald’s evasionary tactics: He’s being a moron, right? Or am I giving the show too much credit? Wouldn’t repainting his truck be a red flag? Isn’t introducing yet more evidence that suggests he’s based locally (like the note) a terrible idea? Doesn’t he have a license to drive that truck, and doesn’t that license have his face on it? I don’t understand how, if he wants to evade the police, he doesn’t see that his only option is to flee. If Jerrie and the Sullivans were dead, it might be different. But surely they can just pull the IDs of all the truckers in Lewis & Clark and show them to Grace, Danielle, and Jerrie?
  • That performance of “Harvest” was a more accurate depiction of when singing live goes wrong than most shows manage to pull off. It was just the right amount of awkward, and Jenny’s weary cry-voice was perfect.
  • “Last time it was a waste of good cereal” is an early contender for the best dialogue of the year. 
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Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!

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