The choice to air the first two episodes of Big Sky as anything other than a two-hour premiere speaks more to the fact that ABC was banking on the power of the pilot-ending “twist” than it does anything related to actual storytelling. Because “Pilot” and “Nowhere To Run” are very much of a piece, with the former shifting things drastically at the end in order to set up for the latter. The latter is also a clearer example of what the show actually is, as opposed to filling the role of “pilot junior” that most second episodes do. But a two-hour premiere really wouldn’t have provided created a week of anticipation over what the show is going to do now that it’s lost its supposed lead. (Though I’d argue the past week’s Big Sky discourse has mostly been about its “pandemic.”)
Based on “Nowhere To Run,” the answer to that week-long question basically comes in the form of David E. Kelley providing a better episode than the pilot but still not quite doing what he’s proven he can do, especially when it comes to making interesting characters. And reiterating that the bad guys on Big Sky are really bad and really despicable... but at least they’re even a little interesting. Even trucker Ronald, who is officially an inconsistent amalgamation of Norman Bates and whatever Psych 101 concept fits when it needs to. He’s also either someone who challenges Legarski’s authority or someone who can barely function without Legarksi’s guidance, depending on the scene. This episode actually begins with an interesting shade to Ronald, as he’s fed up with all of Legarski’s Legarskiisms (“Kidnapping doesn’t always go ‘easy-peasy’.”) and even calls him out for killing Cody the way he did. But then he spends the rest of the episode being the incompetent, ineffectual, impotent creep that one (especially Legarski) expects him to be, so maybe that initial scene was a fluke. Brian Geraghty is able to play every beat Kelley and director Paul McGuigan throw at him for this character, but there’s a consistency lost with the character in his existence as Legarski’s #2 here.
And because Jenny and Cassie don’t know they should be mourning Cody—only that he’s missing—“Nowhere To Run” still doesn’t provide a version of Big Sky where the audience can learn who its lead characters are without that ghost in the middle of them. Which means there are scenes like the one where Jenny brings up the fact that Cody is an alcoholic—something that was part of C.J. Box’s books and something that would’ve been great to know about Cody in the pilot, in the interest of writing anything for that character—and Cassie being unable to answer if Cody was in love with her. The former could’ve been interesting had it actually been part of the character to start and the latter doesn’t even matter, even if the Cody/Cassie flashback in this episode finally decides to insert some sparks into that doomed relationship.
I will say, in terms of the lack of good (or even solid) material that Katheryn Winnick (especially) and Kylie Bunbury have to start with, “Nowhere To Run” at least gives Bunbury something. In fact, for a show where characters’ behavior is already rather questionable, the most realistic part of this episode is how Bunbury’s Cassie reacts to Legarski’s entire schtick. (The second most realistic part is Denise’s defense of Legarski, as uncomfortable as it is.) From moment one, Cassie doesn’t find Legarski quirky or even just square: She finds him to be the creepy sociopath that he very much is, uncharmed by the homespun, small-town cop routine he’s perfected and hides behind. (I’d argue the tourist in the pilot, also a person of color, had similar bad vibes when it came to Legarski.) In a pilot postmortem interview with Entertainment Weekly, Ryan Phillippe talked about how Cody wasn’t suspicious of Legarski:
“No, I think he thinks Legarski is a little bit of a goofball, like a weird small-town cop. He’s dealt with those before. I don’t think he sees any of it coming because of how good-natured, or homespun, the Legarski character appears to be.”
This episode later has Cassie says that she gets “bad feelings,” but you know what? A Black woman is going to have her guard up for someone like Legarski—cop or not—no matter how “homespun” he seems. Especially because of how “homespun” he seems. (When is the time to talk about how Legarski clearly wants to “Make Montana Great Again?”) Here, Big Sky latches on to something interesting—and honest—because of the fact that by virtue of being an “other” in this story, Cassie naturally has a much different perspective on things than the other characters on this show. Considering how intentionally uncomfortable this episode is, one of the most uncomfortable moments is when Legarski brings up the rarity of Black people in Montana to Cassie. It’s objectively a fact, but that he brings it up in this conversation—immediately—is one of those signs that Legarski is not on the up and up, that’s he’s not someone to feel safe around, and that someone like Cody wouldn’t have noticed at all. Because someone like Cody typically would be safe around someone like Legarski. This is the type of social awareness Kelley has brought to his other, original works, and because of that, it’s arguably the best part of this wholly imperfect work so far.
Of course, this puts Cassie in the crosshairs of Legarski, as she doesn’t hide her distaste for or suspicion of him. That could be unwise, considering what he just did to someone who did buy into what he was selling, but it does at least give her a fire that one can only hope Winnick’s Jenny will eventually get to show. (Here, she gets an awkward scene with her and Cody’s son, who is a character on this show. Sort of. And the trust of the diner waitress from the pilot, which continues to be one bit in the show that actually captures the small-town familiarity, along with the jerk paper boy at the top of the episode.) Also, Legarski is just as unwise in this episode as he tips his hand by so very clearly attempting to intimidate Cassie. Which also makes me wonder if the Legarski/Ronald/trafficking story won’t actually comprise this entire season, because already by this second episode, they’re spiraling so much and making so many mistakes that it’s hard to see how this particular story can sustain itself for much longer (or for all 10 episodes).
Going back to characterization, particularly for its protagonists, Big Sky’s biggest issue is apparently a 17-year-old girl/kidnapping victim. As I wrote in my pilot review, Danielle’s decision to get on a trucker’s bad side made little sense to me. But with “Nowhere To Run,” I really hope there’s more to the character than just the stereotypical blonde mean girl riff. Naturally, one would assume the audience is supposed to want to root for Ronald’s victims and hope that they make it out alive. Here, that feeling remains for Jerrie and Danielle’s little sister, Grace, who comes up with plans for their survival... that Danielle shuts down at every turn. Considering how much focus the series puts on the inner lives of its villains—an issue in and of itself—one would think that Kelley would want to make it so their victims, even flawed ones, are characters you can root for. But Danielle is mean, insensitive, unhelpful, and transphobic, apparently. (While the actor Jesse James Keitel is nonbinary, the character Jerrie is a trans woman.) Obviously, ignorance exists in all places and generations, but there’s something so unnecessarily jarring about Danielle calling Jerrie a “he” and asking if she has a penis, that one wonders what Kelley wants or expects the audience reaction to Danielle to be. Because with material like this—with vile, misogynistic, unrepentant human traffickers as the villains—the audience can’t just want the villains to “lose.” They have to want the protagonists to “win.” If “who cares?” is the most anyone can really muster for lead characters like Jenny and Cassie, then what about for Danielle, whose life is in immediate peril? Especially since people have hated television characters and wished them the worst for much less than what Danielle has already done.
I’m most familiar with Natalie Alyn Lind’s work prior to this show on the second season of Kevin Williamson’s Tell Me a Story, where she played a similar role to Danielle—only there, the character’s behavior had the benefit of stemming from the fact that Lynd played the Beast to Eka Darville’s Beauty. But with Kelley’s much-anticipated return to broadcast television in Big Sky, it seems he’s possibly revealing that he has the same issues that I’d argue latter-day Williamson does. That would specifically be when it comes to the strange sense of glee that stems from depicting gratuitous violence—especially toward women, even when painting it as tragedy—and in the need to come across as “edgy” for broadcast television. (Last week, The Hollywood Reporter even dropped an interview with Kelley and ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke titled “’Big Sky’: How ABC Got David E. Kelley to Make a Cable Show for Broadcast.” Regarding the edginess, Burke said, “We vowed to protect his vision and wouldn’t rub the edges off, which is I think what he was feeling about broadcast television when he left.”) With Tell Me A Story—a CBS All Access original which ended up replaying on The CW—Williamson somewhat reined in what he had done on The Following and Stalker, which were the nadir of those aforementioned issues, though there was still that glee and attempted edginess that made the series difficult to be taken as seriously as Williamson clearly wanted.
In all the discussion of Big Sky not being “the next Twin Peaks,” I’ll admit I got trapped in thinking about the series in terms of quirky small-town stories. But Big Sky is so very clearly Kelley’s The Following, right down to it being his “passion project” and with all the problems that being “Kelley’s The Following” entails. This is even highlighted on a similar plot structure level too, by this episode’s reveal that the show’s mystery is centered on a long haul trucking conspiracy that spans the entire United States of America and even goes all the way to the top (Canada). (Is the cult/church actually part of it? Still not sure! As Legarski tells Ronald, he shot Cody specifically because of the long haul trucker lead.) The added upsetting quirk and psychosexual unease—Ronald/Helen’s heavy Bates family vibes continue in this episode, with Ronald crawling into her bed after the day he’s had—is what makes it specifically Kelley, but like The Following, Big Sky falls into the broadcast trap of wanting to prove that network television can make a cable-quality show too… when all anyone wants from a broadcast show is a good broadcast show. That’s something Kelley can do. He can make a good broadcast show. He can make a good cable or streaming show. But when it comes to making a cable show for broadcast, there’s a reason that’s not working: Those are two conflicting ideas. And when a broadcast show is actually good and able to do that, it tends to be canceled, because it’s either “ahead of its time” or obviously suited for cable, not broadcast television.
Big Sky is neither of those, just to be clear.
- This episode officially confirms that Ronald and Legarski are involved in human trafficking. When I watched the pilot—as I kind of assumed prior that it was more of a slasher situation—I had the realization when they showed how bare Ronald’s truck actually was. Which also explains why Jerrie lived, even though I still don’t get how she lived in the pilot. She seemed pretty dead.
- Legarski says he “hand-picked” Ronald because of his “good judgment,” which is yet to be seen. But I hope what continues to be seen is these girls just beating the crap out of Ronald (this week: broken nose) and him still somehow being surprised by it. By the end of his time on Big Sky, Ronald should be rocking a comically-large neck brace.
- Ronald: “The trucker is today’s American hero. I am a hero, whether a mother can see that… or not.” And then his mom tells him to go “masturbate [himself].”
- Legarski: “Ronald—we need to make peace with the fact that most people don’t get what we’re about. We’re the noble soldiers. This nation is mired in muck, we clean that muck up.” Like I said, “Make Montana Great Again”... “MMGA.”
- Legarski: “I beg your pardon, but we don’t get many beautiful women in Montana. And you’re Black. We don’t get many Black people in Montana. Beautiful and Black and Montana—what are the odds?”
Cassie: “They give out odds on that sort of thing?” I touched on this in my pilot review—and the race thing in this review—but this is exchange is what I meant when I said the show plays things like Cassie, Jenny, and the late Cody are outsiders to Montana. But they’re… not? Cassie’s brief memory of Cody even has her teasing him for growing up in Montana and not knowing how to rope. I know Winnick’s Canadian accent pops out here and there but come on.
- Danielle: “And you wonder why you have no social life.” Quick question: Who gives a shit?
- Ronald: “I’m taking her to the National Republic of None of Your Beeswax.” Seriously, the Ronald character is all over the place.
- Helen having a framed self-portrait above her bed frame is amazing.