Big Sky needs (and maybe now has) a bigger boat

Valerie Mahaffey, Brian Geraghty

Valerie Mahaffey, Brian Geraghty
Photo: Darko Sikman/ABC

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Maybe it was the arrival of yet another Titan of the Character Actor Universe, Karin Konoval, that tipped the scales. Maybe it was the inevitable answer to the question of whether Ronald and Mom were Norman and Mrs. Bates pre- or post-mummification. Maybe it was the terrifying/sweet/nah-mostly-terrifying home invasion defense enthusiast, the term “mothertrucker,” and the unseen but definitely present giant American flag waving in the front yard. But in all likelihood, it was the second time that miraculously recovered Trooper Rick Legarski, now with the apparent “I.Q. of meat,” quoted Jaws. That was the moment in which this writer began to hope that maybe, just maybe, Big Sky was becoming the weird psychological crime thriller it once promised to be.

And calloo, callay, it sure seems like there’s reason to hope.

It’s not just John Carroll Lynch’s obvious enjoyment of this deranged development that makes “I Fall To Pieces” an entertaining hour, nor any of the other developments mentioned above. (It’s also not, it must be said, The Cassie and Jenny Show, which takes a bit of a backseat this week.) The tonal whiplash remains whiplashy, but the balance seems to have shifted. Now, for this episode at least, it’s more consistently weird and slightly less earnest, without the typically punishing nightmare stuff. There’s a greater focus on the nightmares that linger after the fact, an increased willingness to let things be a little off and ambiguous, and a lot less restraint in the areas that were already pretty weird. When Penelope Denesuk (Konoval) told her story, I actually hooted out loud in grossed-out TV critic delight, and while the baby-chick-dental-decapitation tale might not be all that wild by cable standards, it’s a lot for a network.

That all adds up to a sense of, dare I say it, possibility that hasn’t often been glimpsed beneath Big Sky’s oversized blue yonder. “I Fall To Pieces” follows through on the new energy of the preceding episode by, if not quite kicking the walls out of the story, at least making it clear that the box in which it fits could be a lot bigger. Legarski unwittingly provides a handy metaphor with that first Jaws quote. Finally, David E. Kelley and company seem to have given this show a bigger boat—a roomier vessel in which it can navigate a world, a story, and a series much bigger than it might have initially seemed.

It’s especially encouraging in an episode centered on the show’s two villains, because the shouty shouty aw-shucksy terror of those storylines has previously threatened to capsize the entire show. It’s not simply because the performances of Lynch, Valerie Mahaffey, and Brian Geraghty are so heightened and committed—and all three of them have more than earned their paychecks this season, even, if not especially, when the writing was inconsistent—that they make the rest of the cast look somewhat toothless by comparison. They aren’t toothless, but they’re also not menacingly dumping cereal on each other’s heads, you know? Here, however, those heightened stories finally become tempered with some welcome ambiguity and, in the case of Mom and Ronald, an overdue turning point.

So let’s start with the Pergmans, shall we? The question of whether or not Mom was all in Ronald’s head seems to have been answered by her blank-eyed corpse watching a little TV as “Mitchell” heads out for his date. The swings in this throughline have always been the biggest—so much cereal banter!—and so theirs has always been the story in which the truly nutso has seemed possible. The undeniable Psycho vibes have been present since the very beginning; if, and it was a big if, Mom was real, she was always destined to die (or, I suppose, to kill). That’s finally happened, and in a manner that made this not at all surprising development almost shocking. (So fast! So sudden! Such a terrible sound!) Whether or not we’ve seen the last of Valerie Mahaffey remains to be seen—I’d put the odds of her showing up in Ronald’s head/dreams at about 50/50—but this was really the last telegraphed-from-the-beginning plot development that needed to happen. Every time the show checks one of those boxes, things get more interesting. The girls were always going to be rescued. Legarski was always going to get caught. Cassie and Jenny were always going to find out about Cody and mourn him, and they were always going to team up somehow, temporarily or permanently. In all those instances, the question of what comes next is far more interesting. Well, Ronald was always going to kill his mom; the big question was whether or not her death would involve a breakfast food.

We have our answer now. It does not. (It would seem that mother and son have this one thing in common: They’re both pretty thick when it comes to self-preservation. Don’t tell your seriously volatile, violent son that you’re about to call the cops on him, Helen! Just call! The creepy religious speech can come later!) So what’s next for Ronald and his new hairdo? Not sure, but it won’t be less weird and will absolutely be less predictable, at least in the short term. Some of that is thanks to Geraghty’s committed performance, which gets progressively more interesting the longer we spend with “Mitchell.” Why is “Mitchell” able to be composed, to speak at least somewhat eloquently, and to pick up on emotional cues from others, when Ronald… doesn’t really have a lock on any of that stuff? Why do the lies come so easily to “Mitchell”? It’s totally possible that it’s just inconsistent writing, and that Geraghty manages quite a lot of the heavy lifting through sheer force of will, but the two are so distinct. They move differently! They use their faces differently! It’s cool shit. He’s also aided, of course, by the fact that Mahaffey and Brooke Smith are both so damn good; Smith has somehow made Legarski’s Sad Wife one of the show’s most interesting characters, gallows-humor and all.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next week, but whether Ronald escapes through an upstairs window (my bet) or gets caught, whatever happens next has to be new. The same can’t exactly be said of poor Grace and Danielle, who stick around to help with the investigation (Grace) and offer support (Danielle) but who are presumably headed back to Colorado ASAFP. If this is really the last we see of the Sullivans, then Jade Pettyjohn in particular is going out on a real high note. We haven’t gotten much from Danielle since the big rescue, but both Grace and Jerrie (and thus Pettyjohn and Jesse James Keitel) become far more interesting outside of the bunker. Both give really good haunted face, but their performances, Keitel’s in particular, get increasingly nuanced as the hour progresses.

And then we come to Ronald “I’m A Montana State Trooper” Legarski, who is definitely faking it, right? I am obviously no expert on brain injuries, and I suspect that inconsistency and fluctuation are not unexpected in situations like this, but he starts by asking “who shot me,” then quotes Jaws a bunch and nearly breaks the doctor’s hand, then he forgets his dad is dead but has several apparently coherent conversations with Sad Wife, but then later when he’s talking to Penelope he can only remember about 90 seconds at a time, if that. Lynch plays it all with a lot of sincerity; it’s not impossible that it’s all genuine. And that’s what makes it so devious and smart. Legarskis’s emotional manipulation skills are considerable, and he’s a well-practiced liar. It could be either. It could be both. Either way, this Legarski is a thousand percent more interesting.

The point here isn’t to predict what will happen. It’s to enjoy the possibilities. This used to be a show with one or two doors to other places, tops. Now there are doors, windows, escape hatches, dumbwaiters, secret tunnels, you name it. Let’s hope it stays this way.

Stray observations

  • The show that Helen’s corpse is watching is The Cisco Kid.
  • It looks like the thing Mitchell/Ronald pulls out of the wall is a hard drive, specifically a LaCie Rugged hard drive. Thank you, years I spent working in an Apple Store, for allowing me to make this vital identification.
  • When Jerrie is staring out the window as Melissa’s terrifying “nice” husband talks about his fantasies about to kill intruders, it sure looks like something indistinct is moving out there. Either this is intentional and just really subtle, in which case, rad, or the show successfully put me in a place where I was searching for threats like Jerrie. Good stuff regardless.
  • Is David E. Kelley going to try to cast every great character actor on the planet? It’s like watching a show by the Kings, only there’s no Christine Baranski and no one is playing a judge. (Yet.)

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