Big Sky 1.05: A Good Day to Die
There are a lot of gears shifting around Big Sky's fifth episode, and it makes for something of a surprising episode in that it's actually rather good in places and must surely rank as the best episode of the series so far.
Many of the plates that the series has been playing with are spinning around to an extent that it gives events a real urgency and sense of suspense, some of which for once doesn't descend into Big Sky's usual brand of violence and victimization. There are still images dotted throughout featuring some of its female and non-binary characters bound and gagged and being victims of the series' sex trafficking plot. But Jonathan Shapiro's script and Jennifer Lynch's direction finds nuances through dialogue and character as opposed to shock tactics and exploitation levels of violence.
There are still moments that cannot help but make roll your eyes though; I don't think the flashbacks of Cassie's relationship with Cody are adding anything to the series other than to have Ryan Phillipe show up for a scene or two. It's another reason why the 'shocking death' of his character in the first episode feels redundant and more of a superficial shock tactic as opposed to serving any storytelling purpose. I get that it's supposed to hit you emotionally over the life and relationship that was lost, but in truth, the series could actually accomplish that without having to resort to those 'oh look, there's Ryan Phillipe' moments that ends up giving certain moments of the series a veneer of Hallmark Channel-like cheesiness.
What is working well is the series' increasing reliance on its scenes between Kylie Bunbury and John Carroll Lynch. While Kathryn Winnick is listed with the starring credit, it's very clear that this is functioning as a two-lead series and it's Bunbury's performance as the more level headed Cassie, as she finds herself in the middle of an increasingly antagonistic head-on collision with Rick, that is giving a lot of this episode; and in fact some of the previous episodes, a charge that has been more beneficial to the series. By the time the end credits begin, the series has turned a corner somewhat and leaves the viewer wondering what might happen next. The kidnapping plot, at least the one involving Jerrie, Danielle and Grace, appears to have come to a form of a conclusion here (unless they throw in another twist) and Rick has a bullet in his head courtesy of Cassie.
After teasing the audience with a potential rescue at the end of last week's episode, but seemingly opting to try and keep the kidnapping story going for a while longer, you get the feeling that Big Sky has wrong-footed the audience by not dragging out its 'locked in the box' horror story. Instead, it might be opening itself up to a larger narrative involving its sex trafficking story. Whether or not it can deal with that in an intelligent way remains to be seen. We get a sense that there are other parties involved, given that Rick and Ronald are trying desperately to pass their victims on to someone else. It's a question that the series wants you to ponder as the end credits roll.
In truth, it's the emphasis on character interactions that are proving to be Big Sky's more successful moments these past two weeks. On top of the simmering tension and antagonism between Cassie and Rick, the scenes between Ronald and Merrilee are also amongst some of the episode's best moments, while the origin tale establishing how Ronald and Rick came into each other's orbits is also amongst the best scenes of the series, complemented brilliantly by Lynch's intense direction. The weirdly strained chemistry between Brian Geraghty and Brooke Smith has a strange quality to it and it's something I hope the series continues to run with. What's very clear about the series is how Kelley and his writers' room (and this is a rare Kelley series that has credited writers other than himself) are better at the simmering tension between its cast than it is when playing in the realm of so many 90s serial killer stories.
The tension soaked opening where it appears Rick is going to kill his wife, Ronald and Merilee's potential romance and Cassie's ongoing battle against Rick have been the better parts of the story, more so than the obvious serial killer/kidnapping tropes. Comparing them, the Ronald and Merilee scenes are so much more engrossing and interesting than the more obvious ones between Ronald and his mother, which are the type of scenes we've seen a million times before in myriad serial killer-of-the-week episodes of whatever crime procedural you want to mention.
The slight upturn in the quality of the series with this episode is an indication that things are possibly getting better. With the apparent end of the kidnapping story, here's hoping the story is going to put more of its focus on its core cast of characters which is clearly where its real strengths appear to lie.