Big Sky star John Carroll Lynch warns of the road ahead: 'It gets pretty ugly'

Maureen Lee Lenker
·12 min read

Darko Sikman/ABC

Warning: This article contains plot details from episode 2 of Big Sky, which aired Tuesday.

Cody Hoyt may have died in that, er, mind-blowing premiere shocker, but there are still plenty of twists and turns on the road ahead.

Following the Big Sky pilot episode, ABC's sinuous thriller from David E. Kelley resumed where it left off — with highway patrolman Rick Legarski (John Carroll Lynch) chastising his accomplice, truck driver Ronald (Brian Geraghty), for making a mess he's had to clean up. But Legarski doesn't even know how much messier things are about to get.

While Ronald faced off against his kidnapping victims — and discovered one of the girls he picked up is non-binary/trans — Jenny (Katheryn Winnick) and Cassie (Kylie Bunbury) hunted for answers and for Cody (Ryan Phillippe). Jenny feared that Cody succumbed to some of his demons and could be on a bender, while Cassie suspected something more sinister and confronted Legarski. Knowing what we know about him now, it was a risky proposition, but she questioned him and managed to leave alive.

Cassie visited Legarski's ex-wife Emily, who then called him to ask how he might have ended up on a private detective's radar. Could this phone call spell doom for Cassie when Legarski had previously seemingly decided to spare her?

We put in a criminal inquiry call of our own, to the man behind Officer Rick Legarski, celebrated character actor John Carroll Lynch. Lynch broke down everything, from where Legarski is headed next to where he lands on the scale of evil when it comes to the serially bad dudes he's brought to life.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: At episode’s end, Rick got some news that Cassie is probably on to him. How worried for her life should we be?

JOHN CARROLL LYNCH: The pilot proves that anybody's fair game. There's nobody who's safe, including Rick. Everybody is in a life-and-death situation, even though they may not necessarily know it. The character has proven that he is capable of anything. And the question is how far is he willing to go to protect himself? That's what's going to unfold over the course of the season — what one is willing and capable of doing. It's interesting to play a character that doesn't have a boundary in that way.

You’ve played some bad dudes before, including famous serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Where does Rick rank in terms of evil, from Gacy to all-around nice guy Mac McDonald?

It's obviously a sliding scale from Mac McDonald to John Wayne Gacy. The interesting thing about Gacy or, to whatever degree, [Zodiac's] Arthur Leigh Allen, or other people who are sociopathic, there's something about them that they can disassociate other people's humanity from themselves. They think of themselves as different than the rest of us. But I don't think Rick Legarski has that gear. I don't think he's a sociopath; at least, that's not the way I look at him. As the episodes unfold, there's a cost to these crimes that build up. If you're willing to shoot somebody in cold blood, there's a level of evil. But he's still a human being. Gacy was a human being too. I just don't think he thought of himself as one. He was a very disturbing dude to play.

I find Rick less disturbing, if that makes sense. Maybe it's because also to play John Wayne Gacy is to accept some of the cost of his actual crimes where there were actually victims. People's lives were taken and other people's lives were destroyed by those people who were taken, so it's a different level of truth in accepting that, as opposed to a fictional world in which we're making the rules and nobody actually has died.

He tells Ronald he chose him, so is he the leader of this ring? How high might he be in this operation we’re starting to get shaded in for us?

Part of the interest is how deep is this organization? Are we talking about an actual syndicate or is it mom and pop? In this case, it would be pop and pop, I guess. It'll unfold over the course of the season. We do discover to some degree what made Rick single Ronald out. But it's an ever-evolving target because there's always excuses, but they're rarely reasons for this behavior. The degree to which people believe that what they're doing is a righteous act, or is a necessary evil, is some of the thought process that goes on in the episodes. One of the things that's so great about the writing of the show and the writing of these characters is that it's not easily cut and dry. He is obviously a horrible person. But he is capable of kindness, and, in a weird way, heroism. And capable of love. That is expressed later on in these episodes, and I think it'll be surprising. My dream is that it's uncomfortable.

When Rick gets in the car with Cassie, it immediately calls to mind what happened to Cody in the last episode. Was there any part of him considering ending that scenario the same way in that moment?

The question starts to become, as he says in the episode, it's like the little old lady who swallowed the fly. Where does the string end? He had an expectation that he could nip it in the bud. And that was clearly not the case. Let me put it this way: Once you've swum past that buoy, there's always a chance you'll swim past it again. Once you've found yourself to be capable of doing it, then it's an option.

In that scene, he waxes on about pulling the trigger and the choices cops face. He says he’s never shot someone before. Obviously, we know that’s not true, but what’s the possibility Cody was the first person he’s ever killed?

What's the juiciest choice? What's the most dramatic choice? And then make it that. It seems to me the most dramatic choice in the material, although we didn't discuss it, was that he'd never done it before. That creates a reverberation in the episodes. He has created a reason for this behavior around the slavery. That makes sense to him; this new cost of that behavior is the life of another [is] a choice he has to make now. But then what are the ramifications of that? And how much blood is he willing to shed? And whose? The mystery of the show is not who did it, the mystery of the show is the why and how. That's one of the interesting things about a mystery where you start out knowing who the murderer is. Then there's the other element: We're in a Wild West. To some degree, you're on your own out here. That creates a situation in which Cassie and Jenny have no backup. And if they do, it's very far away. This is his home turf. This is his patch of road. They're playing in the opposing team's field. And he has a major home-field advantage.

He talks a lot about protecting his pension. Is that all a ruse or is there some sick part of him still motivated by that in all of this?

It's a cover and it's true. I don't know a lot of people who get to the age I am who don't think to themselves, "How's this gonna work out?" Once he retires from slavery, how's he going to be able to pay the bills? There's always a sense of that. But people who become policemen, one of the major things that's a draw is you are able to retire fairly early. Legarski's been a state patrolman for a long, long time. He's well past his 20-year retirement. And he's still out there. So, the legacy of his pension, he's already got that. There's a lot of cover in it. It's also a sense of an underestimation. We were doing the costume fittings for the character and they brought in some T-shirts for the night shoots that we did on the pilot where he's talking to Cody on the phone. I don't even know if you can see it in the shot, but on the T-shirt is a bear. I loved that because bears are really cute until they've got their claws in you. I liked that juxtaposition of the harmlessness with which Legarski seems to run and his vicious side. They coexist. I think that the cover of the pension is an example of that. He's worried about his pension like anybody would be. At the same time, he's wondering if he should shoot her or not. That's part of the weird discomfort of being in his head.

His ex-wife, Emily, seems somewhat invested in protecting him or at least tipping him off. Why? Might we get a better sense of that relationship?

From my point of view reading it, she's telling the truth. Being married to him is like being bored to death. And that was enough. She didn't see any sense of him being capable of what he has become capable of. I think when they were married, he was not capable of what he's capable of now. I think that something happened to him in his thought process around what control he has and where he has control, and how he'd like to see the world arranged. A lot of people are raised for a world that doesn't exist when they get to be adults. If you thought of yourself as being raised for the Montana of 1969, and then you're in the Montana of 2020, I think you were shocked by where you got to. You didn't expect it to be as confusing in all ways as it really is. There's a reaction to that in people, especially when you've been raised to think of yourself like a lot of men have been raised to think of themselves, especially white men, as responsible for society at a fundamental level. [In these people's eyes], they're supposed to be in charge of it, and in charge of it in service to it. And people just don't seem to be listening to them, so they might want to announce their presence with authority. Rick is trying to arrange the world in the way a child would arrange the world.

He clearly seems to genuinely think he’s doing good; he keeps talking about cleaning up the mess of the world.

That's right. He's watched this area of the country, and it's fallen into disrepair. Rick's felt powerless. And then he gets an idea that maybe he could help a little bit. There's a cost to it he understands, but it doesn't really include the lives and well-being of the women themselves. Which is extraordinarily sad and disturbing. But in his mind, he thinks, "Well, I can do something about this patch of road. I can't do anything about the sanctuary cities; I can't do anything about the way in which people want to arrange themselves or how they define it, but around here I can do something." It's definitely not legal. But in some way, he's decided it's right and that's really pathetic. One of the things that's true of all of the people I play who are killers — what they primarily elicit in me is pity. Because it's such a sad choice to be so selfish and self-centered. To decide, "This person has stepped over a line they don't even know about it and I have to get rid of them," that's a really pathetic choice.

He tells Ronald, “Things are about to take an uglier turn.” How ugly?

It gets pretty ugly. It's a bad patch of road we're on. It's not going to smooth out anytime soon. Let's just put it that way. For those three women, they're very close to being erased — in one fashion or another. That's obviously what Cassie and Jimmy are trying to stop and Cody was trying to stop. It's going to get pretty dark. It's a particularly dark show for network [TV]. It's particularly dark for ABC. They were very brave to put it on.

How would you tease next week’s episode?

Rick starts to really consider what the cost of this behavior is. He realizes how deep his marriage is at risk, and he's got to make some decisions as to whether or not he's going to save that. Of course, the other part of that is it's not like the three women in the trailer are willing to go along. Grace, the character that Jade Pettyjohn plays, is just simply unwilling to comply. It's one thing when you have just one person in the trailer, and they're unwilling to comply. It's another thing when you have three of them. That makes itself pretty clear in the next episode of how unwieldy these mistakes are getting. Mistakes begin to compound themselves — and the cost of those mistakes begin to grow.

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