By Zach Johnson
Nothing is as it seems in Big Sky, a new thriller created by 11-time Emmy® Award winner David E. Kelley and based on C.J. Box’s book series. Premiering Tuesday, November 17, at 10:01 p.m. ET on ABC, the series follows private detectives Cassie Dewell (Kylie Bunbury) and Cody Hoyt (Ryan Phillippe) as they join forces with Cody’s estranged wife, former police officer Jenny Hoyt (Katheryn Winnick). The goal? To find the Sullivan sisters (Natalie Alyn Lind and Jade Pettyjohn), who have been kidnapped by a truck driver on a remote highway in Montana. By the time they discover the two sisters aren’t the only girls who have disappeared in the area, it becomes a race to catch their captors… before it happens again.
Ahead of the series premiere, Kelley and the cast of Big Sky—including Bunbury, Brian Geraghty, Jesse James Keitel, Lind, John Carroll Lynch, Valerie Mahaffey, Pettyjohn, Phillippe, Dedee Pfeiffer, and Winnick—got on a Zoom to tease what mysteries lie ahead.
The idea to adapt the story as a series arose after Kelley devoured Box’s 2013 novel, The Highway. “It’s cliché to say that I couldn’t put it down, but really, I couldn’t put it down. It was a page‑turner,” said Kelley, who, in addition to serving as executive producer and showrunner, also wrote several episodes. “What drew me in first was the plot, the tension. And then, what resonated after that was the layering of the characters. Beyond that, it was the authenticity and the sense of place that he brought to Montana. When we set about adapting it, the biggest challenge for me was to be able to deliver what the book did: the tension, the thrill, the drama, the relational equations of the characters—which are rich and profound at times—and the sense of escapism. It was a great ride and a great journey.”
With so many twists and turns, even the cast isn’t sure what to expect as the season progresses. “We’re all on a group chain, and as the scripts keep pouring in, we’re all like, ‘Holy smokes! Did you read that? Do you know what’s happening?’” Winnick said with a laugh. “Because we are all on the edge of our seats just turning our pages. And I think the audience is going to be so ecstatic and they’re going to feel the same way.” Similarly, Geraghty added, “I’ve never gotten so many scripts where there’s so many different ways to play it. And then, when you get [to set] on the day, it changes again—it’s evolved. Every time it’s something different, always on the day. I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
When the series begins, relations between Cassie, Cody and Jenny are awkward at best. “There’s a triangle, absolutely, and that’s where we find these characters at the beginning,” said Phillippe. “They are sort of dealing with or figuring out what the dynamics of that triangle are or what they will be.” Added Winnick, “It’s pretty unexpected, what happens.”
They’ll have to push all that aside, of course, if they want to find the Sullivan sisters. But will the Montana Highway Patrol help them? Unclear. “One thing I really love about Cassie is that she’s very intuitive,” Bunbury said. “Immediately, there are red flags when she meets Legarski.” Cryptically, Lynch added, “He may not necessarily be a very good police officer.”
Big Sky may appear to be a beautiful town, but it’s also filled with very dark, very ugly secrets. “There’s such great tension in the story, and there’s such [high] stakes that, in each episode, it feels like every single character is asked, ‘What are they capable of?’” Lynch shared. “And it raises the level to which they are capable of doing whatever action they need to do in order to fulfill their objectives and survive. There are also these amazing shifting loyalties. The people you feel that are least capable of protecting themselves, of being dangerous, suddenly become very dangerous. That’s a tribute to not just the source material and to the writers, but also to the actors. Every script I read, I think to myself, ‘I can’t wait to see Jade do this,’ or ‘I can’t wait to see what happens with Valerie’s scenes or Jesse’s scenes.’ It’s a wide‑ranging piece. We don’t get a chance to work with each other as much as all of us would like, but it’s so much fun even to watch a sizzle reel to go, ‘Ooh, that’s a nice choice for that.’ Or, ‘Ooh, I can’t wait to see that whole scene.’ It’s really fun.”
Bearing that in mind, audiences should expect the unexpected when Big Sky premieres. “What you will notice is we come out of the box as a thriller and as we proceed from episode to episode, we will cultivate a real investment in the characters,” said Kelley. “It’s no coincidence that the stable of actors are pretty gifted in their fields. We will be calling on them to be able to hold the attention of the audience, not just with car chases and dramatic action surprises, but also the complexity of character development. I’m very excited about the storytelling prospects for this show, but at the end the day, I think I rub my hands together at the opportunity for real character development with these actors.”