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

Big Sky continues to draw out its plot, all in the name of "Unfinished Business"

Illustration for article titled Big Sky continues to draw out its plot, all in the name of "Unfinished Business"
Graphic: ABC/Darko Sikman

This Monday, ABC announced that it had ordered six more episodes for Big Sky’s first season, bringing it up to 16 episodes. You might also be wondering, “...how?” After all, two of Big Sky’s big issues are the fact that the first three episodes took place in such a short span of time and that the series feels very much like it’s grasping for plot. The former is still such a part of the fabric of the show, to the point where this week’s episode, “Unfinished Business,” taking place only four days after the trio of girls’ disappearance almost feels like forward momentum. The latter makes the idea of this season now having 16 episodes even more baffling, as 10 episodes already felt like too much. I’ve noted before that it would make perfect sense if the kidnapping story isn’t a full-season story, but I’ve also become progressively more unsure if “making perfect sense” is something this show is even concerned with. That next week’s episode, “A Good Day To Die,” is the winter finale may bode well for wrapping things up, but if it doesn’t, then it will make “Unfinished Business” even more frustrating.

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“Unfinished Business” ends by drawing out the plot even more, in what’s supposed to be frustrating in an entertaining way but only adds more reason as to why one could be fed up with this series only four episodes in. The “twist” at the end of the pilot worked because it played into expectations and caused the audience to question what could happen on this show. In fact, that was also the case for some readers of C.J. Box’s The Highway, as even with the expectation of Cody’s death, they didn’t necessarily expect it to happen that early into the show. The same effect—but better, as unlike Cody’s death, it would involve characters we supposedly care about—could be had with Jenny and Cassie saving the day here, because it actually wouldn’t be expected. Because just like Grace getting caught by Legarski last week, these last-minute moments of the trio not being saved aren’t actually unexpected twists: They’re the most expected part of a show that now has way more episodes than it may be able to justify.

Plus, when this show already has a Jenny problem, having her be the one to say that she and Cassie should move on—when Cassie even hears the girls—really undoes the goodwill this entire episode provides for the character. “Unfinished Business” is easily the best Jenny episode so far, and it manages to set her back to zero by making her the narrative cause for the show continuing to d out what little plot it has.

The reason this episode works for Jenny is simple though, and it’s something that’s been clear since the pilot: If the show’s not The Cassie Dewell Show, then Cassie and Jenny together, that’s the show. They are Dewell and Hoyt Private Investigations. They are the pair with the chemistry. Their dynamic is the hook. This should be obvious, as they’re (supposedly) the characters who’ll be sticking around once this particular case is closed. So after three episodes of Katheryn Winnick having barely anything to show for starring on this series, “Unfinished Business” is the first where she actually seems like she’s enjoying being here—and the first one where she actually has reason to. Winnick is clearly having fun here, and more importantly, she’s having fun with Kylie Bunbury. Of course, this fun also comes with Jenny going undercover as a sex worker for a complete dead end lead. (Big Sky sucked all the entertainment out of having its private investigators actually investigate by focusing on Ronald and Legarski from the very beginning.) But there’s perhaps no scene better in this episode than after the undercover bit goes south and Jenny and Cassie are in Sheriff Tubb’s office, treating it like they’ve been called into the principal’s office and not taking it seriously. The two have a similar dynamic with Denise in this episode as well, and you know what? It’s a problem that these scenes made me think, “I’d love to watch a David E. Kelley show about these two private investigators.” Because that’s still not actually what Big Sky is.

The choice for to begin the series with these two fist fighting over a guy continues to make less sense the further the show gets away from it, as even with the mild tension they’ve had since, they both seem like they’re over that moment in their relationship. (I do support them fist fighting out their problems, in general, as that could be an interesting dynamic.) Cassie is tentative around Jenny, which makes sense, but at no point since the pilot has Jenny seemed like she actually cares or like it matters that Cassie had a relationship with her husband. (Jenny was the last one to sleep with Cody, so I guess she “won” anyway. Hopefully that’s not a bomb waiting to be dropped.) Not that anyone should care or that it does matter, but the fact that Cody’s wife doesn’t care highlights just how useless that whole story is in the first place. Annakate Campbell and Matthew Tinker’s script for this episode latches onto the far more interesting dynamic for Jenny and Cassie, which is their opposing approaches to P.I. work (Jenny’s almost comical love of impersonating cops vs. Cassie’s love of teamwork).

Of course, Cody’s ghost is still part of Big Sky, an anchor pulling Cassie down whenever it can. “Unfinished Business” leans in hard on Cassie’s tragic backstory, an aspect of the show and character that doesn’t quite work, with the additional disappearance of Cody as part of it. It particularly doesn’t work because Cassie and her father spend the entire episode having conversations about two different things: He believes all her issues can be traced to the death of her unnamed husband (and the awkwardly-mentioned suicide of her mother when Cassie was 11 years old), while everything we know about Cassie (which are from flashbacks of her and Cody, not her unnamed husband) tells us that her issue is solely the fact that Cody’s gone and that she possibly loved him. You see, Cassie’s been asked a couple of times now if she was in love with Cody, and she hasn’t given a definitive answer. But both of the sappy flashbacks that we’ve seen suggest that she was—and that the show still isn’t interested in providing Cody flashbacks with his family, who could definitely articulate their feelings about the guy or show if he had a personality at all.

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In terms of personality though, enough is truly enough when it comes to this show’s antagonists. I’ve spent a good deal praising the scenery-chewing of John Carroll Lynch, Valerie Mahaffey, and Brian Geraghty here, but the thing about these type of performances—especially when they’re each doing something very specific and very different—is that they’re not made to sustain for the long haul, no pun intended. And given Big Sky’s pacing and structure issues, they already feel like they’ve been around a lot longer than four episodes. Because while there are certain character choices that are clearly supposed to incite frustration from the audience—a good portion of Legarski’s good ol’ boy schtick but especially the tell-tale finger tapping—I don’t think we’re supposed to come out of a scene thinking, “Just shoot each other in the face a.” That is the actual note I wrote at the end of the first Legarski/Ronald scene of the episode, as you can only listen to a couple of malevolent fools vaguely talking about doing “what’s necessary”—as the score does all the heavy lifting, which has never been more apparent than in that scene—for so long.

Stretching out this story longer than it needs to be—as this could’ve been an hour and a half film adaptation—also stretches out the effectiveness of these characters. Especially since they’re not even in their peak form: They’re at the end of their rope and getting sloppier with each episode. Yet, somehow, the rope keeps managing to get longer at the last minute. And with that lack of effectiveness, by the end of this episode, when Legarski has a hammer to bludgeon his sad wife to death—most likely not what Ronald planned for his... plan—it’s hard to feel anything more than resigned to what this show is, which is a story about a couple of (again) malevolent fools somehow constantly getting away with their heinous crimes. It’s not that they’re outsmarting anyone here. Actually, that’s not true, as Ronald is suddenly able to be a chameleon who can seduce Legarski’s sad wife, despite no previous suggestion that he knows how to pretend to be normal at all. (Even when he roped in Jerrie, he wasn’t able to do that.)

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Other than the winning decision to have a Cassie and Jenny messaround, the other genuinely interesting thing about this episode is that, as much as Sheriff Tubb seems like he comes off better than he did in his introduction last week, the episode gives plenty of signs as to why that’s not the case. Last week saw him be extremely dismissive toward Cassie, the useless law enforcement type whose name is literally “Tubb.” Here, he’s helpful to Jenny—who comes to him with the same Legarski hunch—and we learn that he was somewhat of a mentor to her when she was on the force. Meaning that the useless law enforcement act was just that for Cassie, because she’s the Black chick who was banging his former (white) mentee’s husband. So when Legarski goes full-on Blue Lives Matter and MAGA in his speech to Tubb—the very flimsy subtext becoming text, him finally saying the not-so-quiet part loud, etc. as he’s clearly been this way the entire time—and brings up how cops have to backflip for Black people for fear of being called racist? That’s absolute bullshit. It’s absolutely not the case in the real world, and it’s not even the case here, as we just saw how Tubb treated Cassie last week. (It also ties into the discomfort I’d previously note when it comes to the rare Legarski scene with people of color.)

Tubb is made to look “better” in his pushback against Legarski and his obvious deflection, but he’s still the same guy who laughs with Legarski about the idea of the Church of Glory and Transcendence being shady (it is, even if it’s not part of this particular crime), and he doesn’t actually push back against Legarski’s eventual speech about “too much equality run amok.” It’s another scene where Legarski has a big red flashing sign over his head that says “I’m the villain,” and nothing ultimately comes of it. But in this case, it truly makes sense because of the “brotherhood.” It’s, again, frustrating but at least in an honest way this time.

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Next week’s episode is the “winter finale,” which is the place where one would assume Big Sky would wrap the missing girls story up. But considering Big Sky’s approach to storytelling so far and this episode’s newly-introduced third-party, willing to take the trio off of Legarski and Ronald’s hands, there is the very real chance that this story will be stretched out even further. In the promo for that episode, it says that “every twist, every turn, has led to this moment.” I suppose I’m just confused as to what twists and turns—other than Cody’s death—ABC is even talking about with this show.


Stray observations

  • With all the unnecessary pandemic lines added in post-production—like Legarski’s sad wife’s line about “the COVID special” at her shop—Big Sky falls into a genuinely relevant bit, with Brad Gunther (Ty Olsson) the germaphobe trucker. However, that scene doesn’t even have an ADR pandemic line, despite being the most appropriate moment.
  • “The Sullivan girls have now been missing four days, along with an unidentified third woman. There have been hundreds of unsolved abductions along the roads, the majority being Indigenous women.” As Big Sky’s response to the real world is apparently “We’ll fix it in post,” this week’s episode threw in that line in response to an open letter to ABC about the lack of Native and Indigenous women in the show, despite how disproportionally they go missing and are murdered. This insert is after ABC released a statement saying that their “eyes have been opened” and that they “are working with Indigenous groups to help bring attention to this important issue.” It’s also after Global Indigenous Council (one of the organizations responsible for the open letter) president Tom Rodgers responded to that alleged eye-opening by saying, “We have no idea what they are talking about.”
  • Truckers are also mad about this show, but based on their hooting and hollering in this episode, David E. Kelley and ABC don’t seem to care about that.
  • Fun fact: There’s a 15 year age difference between Ryan Phillippe and Kylie Bunbury. The age difference seems to be something that’s vaguely part of the story, but really, it doesn’t matter, because Cody is dead.
  • Last week, I sort of joked about Helen already being dead and being Ronald’s hallucination, and this episode confirmed it for me. It was the combination of Ronald dumping cereal on her head—yeah, sure—and Legarski later asking why Ronald’s mother would jump to the conclusion that he would be involved in the missing girls. While Ronald responds to Legarski with, “Because she’s my mother. She suspects me of everything,” it only makes sense that she would immediately jump to that conclusion—even with all of his behavior—because she’s a manifestation of his guilty subconscious. That’s a twist, I guess.
  • Ronald: “Ma’am! Ma’am! Quilt lady!” The funniest moment of the episode, even though his “Mitchell” persona should know her name is Merilee. He knew it was her shop (with her name on it), after all.
  • “Unfinished Business” provides the first time in Big Sky where ending with the trio feels like the appropriate beat for the series. However, that’s specifically because Cassie and Jenny are involved.
  • I figured Patrick Gallagher would open up the floodgates and I was right: As Big Sky is filmed in Vancouver, that means (at least, for me) looking forward to plenty of Vancouver actors filling out the supporting roles on this show. That’s the case for Camille Sullivan, who plays Grace and Danielle’s mother (upgrading from being on the phone to being on the news), who I know mostly from Rookie Blue. They’re also Ty Olsson, the germaphobe trucker, who played Benny on Supernatural. Both actors apparently had roles on The Man In The High Castle, which is how I just learned that The Man In The High Castle filmed in Vancouver.
  • Actress/Director Tasha Smith directed this episode, and other than Paul McGuigan, Big Sky has only been directed by women. I imagine this is a deliberate decision—since this is a show fueled heavily by violence against women and can easily fall into an upsetting delight in such things—as next episode’s director is Jennifer Lynch.
  • This episode’s writers, Annakate Chappell and Matthew Tinker, both rose up the ranks in the world of David E. Kelley, with Chappell working as a production secretary on Big Little Lies and Tinker as Kelley’s assistant from 2013 (starting with The Crazy Ones) to 2017.
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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.