When You’re In Big Sky Country, You’re In For Great TV
Last Year’s Standout Drama Is Back Guns Blazing
In a messy broadcast season, the best series to premiere in 2020 was Big Sky. Featuring two of the most brilliant female leads I’ve seen at any network drama in years, PIs Cassie Dewell and Jenny Hoyt (Kylie Bunbury and Katheryn Winnick) became meshed in a kidnapping that quickly unfolded into a corkscrew mystery that featured some of the greatest villains I’ve seen in years. When it ended in a climax with Ronald (Brian Geraghty) on the run, Jenny taking a bullet in the chest and Cassie hot on his trail, you really wondered what was happened next.
In typical David E. Kelley fashion, the story has jumped ahead six months with no sign of Ronald or the equally twisted woman he fell in love with, Scarlett. Cassie can’t bring it on herself to let it go, but Jenny is trying, in her own way, to move on. She has left the PI field and taken up the badge again at the Montana PD. Given how this series works, it’s inevitable that the two worlds were start aligning. And they do in the opening minutes of the Season 2 premiere. Four teenage children (including a girl who babysits Cassie’s young son) witness a car crash with one man dead and another dying. They find drugs and money and take them both — moments before a cop shows up and shoots the survivor dead. They decide not to tell anyone and one decides to keep the money. Even if you don’t your mysteries you know this won’t end well, especially we met the babysitter first and her boyfriend is a piece of work who is just this shy of abusive. We know there’s no way this ends well before one goes to the cops and recognizes the man who was there, and two visitors fly in from out of state.
The world may have forgotten Ronald, but the show hasn’t. Somehow, he has ended up in the possession of Big Rick’s twin brother, Wolf. John Carroll Lynch was quite magnificent as Big Rick last season, but he’s even more remarkable as Wolf, a man who is completely opposite in his brother’s behavior than Rick was. He is kind, generous and does everything he can to offer Ronald a hand up. Ronald, of course, has no interest in it and continues to act just like the monster we know him to be. Where are Ronald and Scarlett? Will Cassie and her team find out where Wolf is? And most importantly, how much of the Legarsky meanness is in Wolf, despite his certainty that his brother was a monster?
If it were just for all of the great performances, writing and direction Big Sky would be one of the greatest procedurals anywhere since Justified. It is based on a series of novels by C.J. Box and a lot of the characters do have a certain Elmore Leonard feel to them — there’s definitely the same feel of the Wild West (where we actually are) there’s US Marshalls involved and PIs getting in the way of law enforcement and there are always the colorful characters. We just ran into Ren, an out of state drug dealer who clearly has panache for sex and death that the bets villains do. Its stylish has great action, and whip-snap dialogue.
But what really makes Big Sky sing — and honestly makes it among my candidates for one of the best series of 2021 — is that unlike almost every procedural I’ve seen in my years of watching TV, it’s all about the women. Yes, there have been countless procedurals with women in charge and female leads — The Closer and Major Crimes are among the most popular — but I don’t recall in my years of viewing a series which has so many female characters simultaneously kicking ass and taking names and fighting for respect simultaneously. Cassie and Jenny are bad-ass women who can beat men up and handle a gun, but they keep fighting for respect against a world that will never respect them — and they want to have casual sex just as much as the male protagonists at the center of so many of these dramas.. And it says a lot that after the clichéd opening of the two of them beating each other to a pulp in the Pilot, there’s a real friendship in her that’s born in blood and real respect.
And it’s not just them. There are remarkable women all around. The most impressive is Jerrie Kennedy (played by breakout talent Jessie James Keitel), who started out as a prostitute kidnapped by Ronald way back in the Pilot and through her experience and relationship with Cassie and Jenny has become a force in her own right. She now seems to be a woman in charge of her own destiny and someone that Mark, a U.S. Marshal helping them (and sweet on Cassie) can talk with mutual respect. I don’t think there’s been a character like that in any series in the last twenty years. Indeed, you can make an argument that almost every story involves women trying to take control of their own destiny. One of the girls in the storyline at the center of this season clearly has doubts about their activities, but she wants to help her mother and is clearly in love with one of the other girls. It might be an exaggeration to call Big Sky something of a feminist procedural, but none of the characters — heroes or villain — fall under the archetype of ‘strong female protagonist’ that lead so many women-lead series (including the Shonda Rhimes series like Grey’s Anatomy that Big Sky follows)
This actually brings to me the one character that may be holding the show back. Ronald has never for a moment struck me as the kind of character who could blend in anywhere. You just spend a minute with him and its makes your skin crawl. Maybe there’s a message that the writers are trying to say with Ronald’s character — he’s one of those angry white men who makes up so much of the horror we deal with today and that it’s the job of women like Cassie and Jenny to bring him down.
It’s not too fine a point, though, and it will not get a way of your loving this series. When the HCA gave its first awards for Best Network Drama, Big Sky was deservedly one of its first nominees. As awards seasons begin again, I hope that they start recognizing all of the remarkable performers at the center of the show, especially John Carroll Lynch, who deserves a nomination yet again. I hope the Shondaland bump that helps series at 10 O’clock works here, because Big Sky deserves it. I have a feeling we’re looking at one of TV’s true masterpieces.
My score: 5 stars.