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

For once, the biggest holes in Big Sky aren’t of the plot variety

Michael Raymond-James as Blake in Big Sky
Michael Raymond-James
Photo: Darko Sikman/ABC

What exactly brought about the Kleinsassers? Are they the result of the additional six-episode order that Big Sky picked up before the end of its first season? Would the second season have introduced them (the first wrapping up with the extremely vigorous murder of Legarski and the escape of Ronald), or were they dreamed up by David E. Kelley and company specifically for this six-episode stretch? Is this another mystery, like the somehow-still-on-the-lam Ronald, that will have threads dangling as Dewell & Hoyt Investigations move on to other cases?

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Either way, let’s be grateful, because it turns out that the fine people behind Big Sky have better luck when they’re aiming for King Lear than they do when the vibe is Twin Peaks.

That’s not to say that the influence of David Lynch’s seminal series has only harmed Big Sky (and if there were any lingering doubts that the comparisons between the two shows are warranted, this episode’s “damn fine cup of coffee” should put those to rest). The surreal streak that runs through Big Sky owes a lot to Lynch, and while that streak isn’t 100 percent effective, it’s always welcome. Weird and ineffective > familiar and dull. But the second of the show’s big mysteries has made it clear that this is a series that’s more successful when it keeps its eyes on the shifting dynamics between the characters than when it’s aiming for “Mairzy Doats.” 

“No Better Than Dogs” picks up right where the previous episode left off, with both of our heroines in grave-as-fuck danger*. While the threat to Jenny remains present even after John Wayne** shoos the terrifying Rand off, it’s equally clear that Cassie’s situation is far more dire. Kylie Bunbury and Katheryn Winnick both do excellent work in these scenes, which avoid the all-too-familiar pitfall of mistaking passive suffering for active drama. Thanks to Bunbury, Winnick, and the writers, these scenes are about the characters attempting to escape, gain control, master anxiety, and generally survive, not about suffering. Do they experience something traumatic? Yes, especially in Cassie’s case, and Bunbury makes the terror palpable. But it’s never just about the fear and pain. Sadly rare, that.

There’s actually not all that much of either Cassie or Jenny in this episode, so it’s fortunate that what little we get is potent and efficient. The opposite is true of the ongoing Ronald Pergman saga, which only gets less satisfying with every new layer. (Brian Geraghty, though? Still making shit work which has no business working. Guys And Dolls is a musical, it’s true!) His relationship with Scarlet (Anja Savcic) started out with a little interesting strangeness but is now cruising straight toward camp; his continued liberty grows increasingly unlikely with every trip to stare creepily at Jerrie, to say nothing of his mom grave naps. At this point, the Pergman storyline feels more like an excuse to make Geraghty say things like “Willy Wonka was a good man” than anything else, and while I both understand and applaud that instict, it might have been better to just let the man escape to Canada while the dead-priest-Tesla was still cruising down the highway.

Still, this isn’t a Pergman episode, either. This is the Kleinsasser Variety Hour, the unlikely Montana-based Succession tribute I never knew I always wanted, an August: Osage County spinoff in the guise of an ABC detective show. Basically all of the Kleinsasser stuff has a sense of history and gravity that our previous villains never really achieved. Some of that may simply be due to the Big Sky casting team and its great taste in actors, and perhaps a little can be credited to the masterful job they did of making this family look and sound as though they’re undeniably related and inextricably linked. But I think the simpler explanation is that these relationships are full to the point of bursting. The sturm und drang works because the sense of history makes it feel warranted, so while Britt Robertson’s White Lion monologue is about as absurd as some of the ridiculous Ned Flanders bullshit John Carroll Lynch was handed in the first part of the season, it’s grounded in something more potent. Screaming match in the kitchen? Yep, that works. Stabbing someone in the knee at the dinner table like it’s all routine? Somehow, yes, that too. Coffee spit? Yep. “And the green grass grows all around, all around?” Why not?

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All the chaos emerges from resentments and secrets that have simmered for years, if not decades. Because all the relationshps are so steeped in history, the explosions of strangeness seems to come from the general fucked-up-ed-ness of the family, not from the writers’ room. By the time we arrive at the unearthing of one of the literal skeletons in the Kleinsassers’ backyard, the parallel deaths-by-shovel don’t come off as half as ludicrous as, say, Ronald’s child cage basement of horrors. It should! Blake, the Kleinsasser who got away, tells his brother about a kid murdered long ago by the looniest Kleinsasser, who died when his throat was cut with a shovel; his brother, who is named John Wayne and is referred to as John Wayne even when the subject is thefamily covering up a psychopathic murder committed by a sibling, then frantically starts trying to fill in the very large, very deep hole Blake dug to expose the kid’s grave. When Blake stops John Wayne, John Wayne kills Blake, also with a shovel. It’s ridiculous. But it’s also effective, because the episode puts in the work to make it something more than just ridiculous.

To this point, Big Sky has managed to get by based on a great cast, who seem game for whatever the writers throw at them, no matter how apparently absurd. In “No Better Than Dogs,” the writing begins to seem worthy of that cast. Let’s hope that trend continues now that Blake’s in the big hole he dug.

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* — It seems likely that this is far from the end of the Cassie-gets-abducted-by-cops-who-were-definitely-going-to-kill-her-until-they-saw-her-phone story, if only because one thing Big Sky has done consistently well is in allowing trauma to linger, ebb, and flow. But the structure and tone of the episode also suggest this. The previous episode ended with both Cassie and Jenny in terrible danger, but Jenny’s situation becomes somewhat less terrifying rather quickly, while Cassie’s lingers long after she’s left the station. I have no idea if the show deliberately set out to make clear how much greater the risk of violence is for a Black woman, but that’s the impression I got.

** – If you’re not watching the show and are instead just reading the recaps, hi! Please be aware that this is a character whose name is John Wayne Kleinsasser, and not actually John Wayne.

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Stray observations

  • Jerrie’s karaoke outfit is to die for and Jesse James Keitel sounds great, but Big Sky needs to either stop acknowledging the current state of the world entirely or start actually showing the world as it is. Karaoke? In this economy pandemic?
  • It’s hard to pick an MVP for this week, because Kylie Bunbury is impressive as hell, but Britt Robertson and Michelle Forbes kick the holy crap out of that kitchen scene. Now if they can just find a way to bring back Brooke Smith, I’ll be happy.
  • A combo of technical mishap and user error (*headdesk*) led to the untimely demise of last week’s review, so let me just say that I am very glad to see Omar Metwally on Big Sky and that I hope they keep letting him be weird.

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!