Credit: Darko Sikman/ABC
big sky
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There's a lot of mountains in Montana, which might explain all the cliffhangers in Big Sky.

Tuesday night's winter finale, "A Good Day to Die," brought another one with detective Cassie Dewell (Kylie Bunbury) shooting Officer Rick Legarski (John Carroll Lynch) in the head in a rescue mission to save the three kidnapped girls. Did Legarski survive? What will this rescue mean for the show? And will it help Cassie and Jenny (Katheryn Winnick) discover the truth about what happened to Cody (Ryan Phillippe) sooner rather than later?

While Cassie and Jenny closed in on Legarski and Ronald (Brian Geraghty), even questioning Merilee (Brooke Smith), the two kidnappers made plans to move and offload their victims, washing their hands of the whole business. Ronald began to crack, choking his mother when she accused him of being a pervert involved in the girls' disappearance. But ultimately, he admitted his role in the kidnapping to her. When Jerrie (Jesse James Keitel) tried to convince Ronald to at least let the other two girls go, appealing to his sense of isolation and alienation, he seemed almost regretful of his choices. With Legarski caught, what will Ronald do next?

As these questions swirl, we called up writer Jonathan Shapiro (The Undoing) to help us cut through some of the fog on this stretch of Montana highway and look ahead to where the road might lead next.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is the winter finale, but it's only episode 5. How did you know this early in the game was the time you wanted to rescue the girls and eliminate Legarski as a threat?

 JONATHAN SHAPIRO: Any time you work on a David E. Kelley show you plan. And then you throw the plans out if a story takes you to places you didn't expect. From the beginning, David created a rollercoaster ride. It just felt like the rollercoaster ride had to come to an end, for the girls at the very least. How long can you keep these poor women locked up in a trailer? At some point, it just becomes sadistic.

Were there any conversations about rescuing them but leaving both Legarski and Ronald at large?

Some of this is the result of adapting something that already existed, the wonderful C.J. Box books that tell this story. I worked on The Undoing with David, and The Undoing is another example of what David is so good at in terms of adaptation, which is taking the source material and expanding it to fill the palette that is television. I don't think that we specifically thought, "Right, we're gonna free the girls in 5, and we'll deal with Legarski in 5." It's just as you put the stories together, you just feel like, "Okay, now's the time." There's the great quote, "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, but above all, make 'em wait." The thing is that you can't make them wait too long.

Speaking of Ronald, he is still at large, though he seems to at least maybe have some regret or second thoughts about what he’s done. Will he still be a threat? What can we expect from him going forward?

He's a complicated animal. It's hard to know whether he feels regret. I think he feels regret. I think he feels compulsion. I think he feels that old-fashioned concept of guilt. But I also think there's a tremendous sort of animalistic instinct for survival. Who knows? He could turn his life around. He may turn it around. I, for one, am rooting for him, but I don't have a lot of hope. I was a federal prosecutor for about 10 years, so I do know that people can change but first, they have to admit they have a problem. I'm not sure Ronald has admitted he has a problem.

Merilee has issues with Rick, but she also fiercely defended him to Cassie. How might she react to the news of his death and what he’s been up to?

It's funny, because like Mr. Kelley I'm a happily married man for 23 years; I think David's been married longer than that. And one of the great things about being married is your spouse occasionally has to forgive you. I don't know if Merilee has it in her to forgive Legarski for all the things he's done. I think she's going to go through a very tough emotional journey of self discovery and of dealing with her own sense of rage and shame in not realizing who she was married to.

They’ve shot Legarski, so what does that mean for discovering Cody and the truth of what happened to him. Will they soon?

See this was like when people asked me who did it on The Undoing. I don't know what to say to you. If I tell you, you'd be unhappy. And if I don't...

Cassie is a private detective. Her actions are justifiable, but she still shot a cop. Will she have to face questioning or legal ramifications for it?

There will be repercussions. There will certainly be repercussions and there's the absolute possibility of there being legal repercussions. The issue is always going to come down to was she justified in doing it in self defense or in defense of others. It's in the midst of this kidnapping. So it's a complicated question. But I want to assure everyone despite my background and interest, this is not going to become a courtroom drama.

You were originally set to be 8 episodes – now you’ve doubled to 16. How does that change your storytelling or the arc you had planned?

We always try to plan for success. In our minds, we'd always thought that that we would be going beyond the 8. The stories that we developed and that we're going to unleash will continue at the same exciting, breakneck pace, but will also allow us to go a little bit deeper into our leads and our characters. Cassie and Jenny are just extraordinary characters and not people we've seen portrayed. It's sort of a neo-noir Western. The difference is the lawmen are law-women and not the sheriff. They're free, in a way, to pursue justice without the constraints of official authority. That's a very long answer to say we did plan on going longer than 8, but but we had no guarantee so we were thrilled.

With something like this where it's more fluid, how do you prepare for that as a writer versus something limited and set like The Undoing?

I think everybody started their careers on network TV. Maybe not, but I did. So, I'm sort of used to this process. There's a tremendous amount of freedom within the framework of constraint. If you know you've got 10 episodes, you know exactly how you have to plot the story. Network is more an act of faith and hope, but you have to be quicker on your feet because you just never know. You've got to be prepared to always start strong, and have a strong ending. My first writing job I was a wire reporter for United Press International, and they'd send you to something and they'd say, "Okay in 20 minutes, we need six inches on this event." What you learned was you have to make sure that you've got an exciting first paragraph and a couple of pretty great endings that they can cut to. That's how it is with network TV—you've got to constantly keep your foot on the pedal to keep people engaged, and you've also got to have off-ramps in case they call you.

Since the show premiered, there’s been an ongoing conversation and pushback from indigenous groups. Obviously, the kidnapping the show depicted had a very specific tie to the main characters, but we’ve started to hear about the issue of missing indigenous women on the radio and in Cassie and Jenny’s investigations. Will that come forward or play a more direct role in the storytelling at any point this season?

There's a conversation, and that's to my mind, a great thing. Frankly, we had always intended to include indigenous people's involvement. It would be wrong not to portray that. We do. We always thought we would. The source material, the C.J. Box book that we' re specifically adapting, these were the characters. To be true to the material, we're working with those characters. The main point I want to make with that is in the pilot episode, and later on in the episodes that have already aired, the whole point was Legarski and Ronald kidnap women who are too often ignored by society, women who are dispossessed of identity and civil rights because of inherent and systemic racism. What they did was not kidnap girls like we're seeing in the pilot. They kidnapped other types of women. I sometimes worry that the message was lost—that the only reason everyone cares about this is because of who these women are, and that's wrong. But this is a point that's very important to me. I did civil rights prosecutions. I was a federal prosecutor. I also handled cases on Native American reservations, involving fraud against the tribes. The conversation is important, but it wouldn't be right to say that this was not something that we were aware of or that was [not] something we were dealing with in future episodes before the conversation started. But I welcome the conversation.

This show was a hunt for these missing girls. Now, they’ve been found. So, what’s next? Does it become a different show? Do we still stay with the three of them in the aftermath?

It's going to be just as fascinating. C.J. Box has written a lot of books, and there are a lot of stories and they're all valid and worthwhile, and we want to tell them all. The show will look the same, in that they'll always be these two women, fighting for, looking for, searching for, overcoming obstacles to get justice. These [kidnapped] women, some or all of them, will be a part of their lives going forward. Ronald's out there, [and] he poses a threat, not only to Cassie and Jenny, but also to the witnesses, the girls that were kidnapped.

How would you tease the premiere in January?

I would tease it by saying that everything that you like about the show is only going to get richer and deeper as we learn more about these women. The complexity of the cases they're handling take them into darker, more dangerous, and more morally complex areas.

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big sky
Big Sky

A twisty crime thriller set in the remote climes of Montana, from TV legend David E. Kelley.

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  • David E. Kelley
  • ABC