With each new season of ABC crime drama Big Sky, the stakes get bigger, and so does the cast.
Based on The Highway novels by C. J. Box, David E. Kelley's series adaptation first premiered in 2020 with a season that follows Jenny Hoyt (Katheryn Winnick) and Cassie Dewell (Kylie Bunbury), an ex-cop and private detective, respectively, who investigate missing girls that turn out to have been taken as part of a trafficking ring. This intertwines with an investigation into the murder of the former cop (and Jenny's former husband) who ran the private detective agency Cassie worked at (played by Ryan Phillippe), as well. Although — spoiler alert — they get to the bottom of things (and see the girls returned safely) by the end of the season, they also learn of police corruption in connection with that ring, and Ronald Pergman (Brian Geraghty), the man who kidnapped the girls, gets away.
Jenny rejoins the sheriff's department in the second season and ends up trying to bust a drug ring this time, while Cassie initially starts out fixated on finding Ronald, who gets kidnapped by the twin brother of the corrupt state trooper working with Ronald. (Both the state trooper and his brother are played by John Carroll Lynch.)
By the end of the second season, there is a new, still potentially problematic lawman in town: Beau Arlen, played by Jensen Ackles. Introduced in the second season finale when the sheriff (played by Patrick Gallagher) needs to bring someone in to temporarily take over his duties, Beau immediately causes the hair on the back of Cassie's (and many of the viewers') neck to stand up because of the misogyny he displays when he meets her.
Beau is a Texan — from Houston, more specifically — and he brings some of stereotypically male Southern energy to the show's Montana setting right from the jump by calling the women around him "darlin'," getting physically abusive with a suspect, and wanting to go out for burgers and beers after nabbing a criminal.
But, they always say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, and perhaps these first impressions of Beau were colored by the characters' previous bad dealings with the men in uniforms around them. Because there is more to Beau than meets the eye: He tells Cassie he is involved in grief counseling (though she is skeptical of the truth in that statement), and he does explain his use of "darlin'" by noting that he nicknames everyone. He also offers Jenny sage advice about not blaming herself when she can't save everyone, and he opens up to her about following his ex-wife Carla and daughter Emily to Montana.
The third season (subtitled Deadly Trails) will expand upon Beau's story, as Ackles has gone from guest star in the second season finale to series regular in the third season.
"When my initial conversation with Elwood [Reid, showrunner] took place, he mentioned shaking some stuff for Season 3, and I thought, 'I can shake,'" Ackles said during a Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour panel for the series about why he wanted to be a bigger part of the show.
"I feel like I'm getting a little typecasted just being a guy from Texas wearing boots because I'm literally wearing boots right now and I'm from Texas and I live here," he joked, adding, "Really it just came down to the fact that he said Reba [McEntire] was coming, too."
But more seriously, Ackles has often played characters who are enacting their own form of law enforcement, whether it's taking out demons and monsters on Supernatural or cleaning up the world as the first superhero on The Boys. Of course, Beau falls along those lines as well.
"There's a certain aspect of these characters that I feel I would probably watch and find entertaining myself, so it's probably something I'm drawn to, which, by default, makes me enjoy playing them and succeed in doing so and then that parlays into other jobs," Ackles acknowledged. "At the end of the day, you really try to find what's at the heart of these characters and try to bring that heart out. They all think they're right, whether they're wrong or not. ... If you take that approach with any character, then it has a little more complexity."
As Beau will continue to investigate cases alongside Jenny, his family story will also get more screen time: Angelique Cabral was cast to play Carla, who is in a new relationship with Avery (Henry Ian Cusick), and the two are raising Emily (Cree Cicchino).
Also, as glimpsed by a special sneak peek clip from the TCA press tour (which you can watch below), in the time between seasons, Beau and Cassie have been spending more time together — even going so far as to set up a regular movie night — which leads Jenny to wonder if something more might be going on. But at least for now, things are platonic, and he even invites Jenny to join them.
And Beau and Jenny are learning to work well together, too, with him continuing to show softer sides of himself to her, as well. In the Season 3 premiere, titled "Do You Love An Apple?", he exhibits his weakness for parent-child relationship when he tells Jenny to let an escaped convict they were chasing say goodbye to the daughter she has been raising before they bring her back to prison. He also verbalizes his concern that Avery is spending so much time with Emily, while he's on the outskirts as her life passes by and she doesn't pick up his calls.
Winnick noted that when she is in scenes as Jenny with Ackles as Beau, their banter is often improvised and off-the-cuff, which should make for an interesting evolution of their relationship over the course of the season as well.
That Ackles "can crack wise," added Reid, softens the tone and "allows for the really intense storyline that Reba's involved with."
McEntire is also a new series regular in Season 3, joining the cast of the series for the first time as Sunny Barnes, a matriarch and successful business owner: She and her husband Buck (played by Rex Linn) own a company named Sunny Day Excursions that specializes in a "luxury backcountry experience" — and has a secret history of customers who go missing.
"She's trying to make a living with her family on this glamping thing, and she's trying real hard to hold it all together," McEntire said. "She's very deep and then very friendly and then she can get very dark. I like the dimensions that I get to play."
Cassie flags the case of a missing backpacker, Sunny's the one they are told to talk to first to get the lay of the land, and that becomes the case around which Big Sky: Deadly Trails revolves.
Although Sunny and her husband try to wave the concern away in a very "nothing to see here" fashion (see how in the clip below), Beau knows there are people who make others disappear.
"We've pretty much moved to Albuquerque where we're filming [and] we love it," McEntire said of herself and Linn, who are in a real-life relationship as well as playing spouses on this show. We're "so glad and grateful to get to be working after we were off for two years because of COVID."
Reid wrote the role of Sunny Barnes specifically for McEntire, though he said he assumed he couldn't get her. For McEntire's part, though, she found a lot of similarities, including both being barrel racers and "determined women, head-strong, and protective of our family." Although, Sunny is also a rodeo queen.
"She goes to great depths to keep her family together. It's a very great family of who her family is and their past. I'm learning each episode about that," she said.
As of now, there are no plans for McEntire to sing on the show, though she said she does "get to hum a little bit." And she did sing on set, behind the scenes.
"One of her first nights on set with Seth [Gabel] who plays her son — I should put that in quotation marks — he tricked her into singing by pretending not to know the lyrics to a song," Reid revealed.
"She's on a dark journey right now trying to hold this messed-up family together," so, if she does end up singing, "it might be a murder ballad."
When Sunny is introduced in the third season premiere, she is shown to be a bit of a perfectionist, and definitely one who pays attention to all details, directing her husband in hanging a banner for the business and keeping an eye on his missing flag pin. Those things may seem small in a story about murders, but it speaks a lot to her character and the control she feels she needs to have over those in her life.
She has a warm history with Cassie, as evidenced by how she responds when Cassie turns up at her business to inquire about the missing backpacker, but she also quickly deflects the negative attention of a case by reminiscing about her own son Cormac (Luke Mitchell) going out on treacherous trails. She calls him over, and he sufficiently distracts Cassie. Sunny is all smiles for her guests, including Avery and Emily and a couple who booked last minute and are in conflict with each other and their surroundings already.
However, by the end of the first episode, Sunny's true colors are revealed when she is alone by the campfire at night, first tossing a missing persons flyer into that fire and then slipping off into the woods alone with something for Walter (Gabel), the man who killed the missing backpacker in the cold open of the episode.
Big Sky: Deadly Trails airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. beginning Sept. 21 on ABC. The first two seasons have earned the show a Metascore of 54.
Where to watch Seasons 1 and 2: