‘Big Sky’ Works Because of Jesse James Keitel’s Soft Performance

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It’s easy to understand why Big Sky has been a hit for ABC. Everyone loves a good crime drama, and this one from David E. Kelley is about as twisting as they come. Yet between all the discussions about John Carroll Lynch’s Legarski and Kylie Bunbury’s Cassie, one key actor isn’t being credited for this series’ success. Jesse James Keitel’s soft portrayal of Jerrie is what lends Big Sky the somber heart it needs to sell its drama.

When you look at Big Sky on a formulaic level, there isn’t too much separating it from a typical kidnapping horror movie. You have the unhinged Big Bads in Lynch’s Rick Legarski and Brian Geraghty’s Ronald Pergman. You have the stone-faced and almost chillingly professional investigators covered thanks to Bunbury’s Cassie and Katheryn Winnick’s Jenny. And then you have the loud-mouthed prisoners. Danielle (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Grace (Jade Pettyjohn) are exactly the kidnapping victims you would expect from any B-grade 2000s horror movie. They’re both sarcastic, constantly hostile, and smarter than you realize. It’s easy to imagine either of them kicking Ronald in the balls during an escape attempt and smugly saying “And that’s for ruining my weekend!”

Each of these characters comes with their own Hollywood-esque sheen. They’re all too evil, too good at their jobs, or too quick with one-liners to ever make you feel like anything in Big Sky is that scary. Then there’s Jerrie.

Keitel never plays Jerrie with a smug arrogance barely concealing her fears, a description that fits her fellow victims to a tee. They play her honestly, quietly. Jerrie was the first person who actually listened to Grace’s plan about singing to keep their sanity. Not only did she listen to it, she suggested turning their singing group into a gospel group, using her knowledge of her disturbed clientele to outmaneuver Ronald. She’s someone who raises her voice to protect children but who talks quietly when her own life is on the line. In Episode 6 when Jenny asks her to do the impossible and talk to the police about her trauma yet again, she immediately agrees. Not because she wants to catch the monsters who tormented her, though she does. She agrees to revisit these terrible moments solely so she can pay her respects to the man who gave his life searching for her.

Simply put, Jerrie is a kind and quiet person. Though she doesn’t say much, you can feel her soft heart in the way she offers her allegiance immediately and without ulterior motives. You can feel how much she cares through the frowning looks she gives Danielle and Grace. Television’s representation of the trans community has historically been abysmal. Though it’s doesn’t have the same crushing weight of systematic oppression, so has its depiction of kind-hearted people, those sweet, intelligent pillars of support that can make rooms feel more comfortable by their very presence. Keitel portrays both with a grace that feels both complex and effortless.

Jerrie’s softness accomplishes something no one else in Big Sky can. It amplifies the horror of Legarski and Ronald. It highlights just how selfless these private citizen investigators are. And it puts a spotlight on exactly how deplorable selling women as sex slaves is — a crime we all know is disgusting but is often belittled in the interest of watching another episode of an addicting show. While everything else in Big Sky is magnified through the lens of a slick network drama, Keitel adds some much needed humanity into this show. No matter what happens, we’re on Team Jerrie.

New episodes of Big Sky premiere on ABC Tuesdays at 10/9c p.m.

Where to stream Big Sky 

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