The late Tony Hillerman wrote 18 books featuring the characters of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, so whoever adapted them to television has lots of source material to work with. It’s been adapted for the screen a few times, most notably a PBS miniseries and a film starring Lou Diamond Phillips and the recently-departed Fred Ward. But the new AMC series Dark Winds holds a lot of promise, simply because the person playing Leaphorn, Zahn McClarnon, seems to be a perfect fit for the role.
DARK WINDS: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: “Gallup, New Mexico.” An armored truck guard leaves a bank with that day’s deposits. The year is given as 1971.
The Gist: The truck is robbed by a group of disguised and clever attackers; both guards are killed. The group gets in a helicopter, which is seen flying over Navajo territory.
An old farmer who sees the helicopter goes to a motel room where young Anna Attcity (Shawnee Pourier) and her grandmother Alice (Geraldine Keams) are staying; he’s looking to Grandma Alice to heal some pain he’s been suffering from. Next, we see Navajo Police lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) is responding to a call at the same motel. There, he sees the old man dead, his eyes and liver cut out. In the bathroom, Anna is also dead, though there doesn’t seem to be a scratch on her. Grandma Alice is speechless with shock.
The murders are mysterious because nothing was taken. Even though the murders took place on the reservation, he needs to get the FBI involved, which means his usual contact, Special Agent Whithover (Noah Emmerich), who is somewhat belligerent and calls Leaphorn “Kemosabe”. Leaphorn has his own problems; he knows Anna and Alice’s family well, and when he goes to tell her parents, her father lunges at him; apparently, Leaphorn isn’t welcome in that village anymore.
A new deputy, Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), starts soon after; he’s from the area but hasn’t been there in many years. One of the first things Leaphorn has him do is accompany him to meeting with Whithover to look at the bodies. Whithover, for his part, is desperate to know if Leaphorn can find out anything about the people who committed the armored car heist. “Tell you what, High Pockets,” Leaphorn says, using the nickname he has for Whithover, “I’ll pretend your two bank robbers are Navajo, and you pretend my two murder victims are white. Let’s see which one of us does our job quicker.”
Meanwhile, Leaphorn’s wife Emma (Deanna Allison) gives him a tip to check on a pregnant girl, Sally Growing Thunder (Elva Guerra), who came to her clinic and seemed to be hiding some things about her environment. Chee and Sargent Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten) investigate, only to be stonewalled by the girl’s mother, but there are threats there that the cops can’t see.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? It’s not a stretch to say Dark Winds reminds us a lot of Longmire. McClarnon had a regular role in that series, as well. This time though, the point of view is from the Navajo perspective. There are also elements of the Fargo series as Leaphorn tries to navigate a lot of community resistance as he tries to solve the murders.
Our Take: Dark Winds is based on the Leaphorn & Chee series of books by the late Tony Hillerman. The series, created by Graham Roland (Robert Redford and George R.R. Martin are among the executive producers), is working on a couple of fronts, and it does a good job balancing the elements from all of them.
It’s a mystery, of course, but it’s also an examination of Navajo life and just what it means to be in law enforcement on the res. McClarnon has gotten a lot of publicity for this starring role, the first in a career spanning over 30 years, and he deserves all the accolades he gets. Sure, he’s playing a veteran cop who has made his share of enemies on the res, but there is certainly a side of him that has seen too much, like when he gets an old photograph while in Anna’s village and tells Chee to get a ride from Manuelito. He’s too overcome with emotion and needs to be alone, a scene which points to the fact that Leaphorn is going to be more than just a stoic cop.
Dark Winds also deals with supernatural forces; Manuelito warns Chee, who has become skeptical of tribal spiritual traditions, “Out here, sometimes your best protection isn’t your .38. It’s your medicine.” As we see when Chee meets with Whithover, there’s a reason why he’s so skeptical. But the spiritual and supernatural are going to be factors in this series, and Leaphorn is so well versed in tribal traditions as well as good old fashioned police work that he’ll be able to use both to his advantage.
Given how many Leaphorn & Chee novels there were, Roland has a lot of material to work with, so this series has the potential to go for a number of seasons. We hope it does, and not just because of McLarnon’s performance. We’re always happy to see Emmerich on our screens (see below for more on that), and the rest of the cast is excellent (and we haven’t even seen Rainn Wilson, who plays missionary Devoted Dan, yet). Of course, director Chris Eyre’s eye for New Mexico scenery also helps, as the vistas we see rival what we’ve seen in New Mexico-located shows like Breaking Bad.
Sex and Skin: Nothing in the first episode.
Parting Shot: While investigating Sally’s abandoned house, Leaphorn sees a puddle of dark water, which seems like it has fuel or oil in it; he traces the irrigation chutes he sees back to a lake that also has that same scent. We then get a view of what’s under the water: A downed helicopter, a dead pilot and a helmet with the initials “C.W.” on the back of it.
Sleeper Star: We have been fans of Noah Emmerich even before he starred as Stan Beeman in The Americans, and he’s terrific here as Whithover. But we also wish he would play more than just military officers, government officials, and federal agents. His turn as Beeman shows that he can handle a multifaceted character with depth, even one that works for the feds.
Most Pilot-y Line: When Emma gives Leaphorn the address of the pregnant girl, he asks whose it is. “It’s Dick Cavett’s. He wants you on tomorrow night so you can charm America with your pleasant disposition.” It feels like a line that’s squeezed in to remind us that this is taking place in 1971. Leaphorn jokes that he’s “doing Carson,” so we doubled the early ’70s references.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Dark Winds feels like it will deftly combine a standard murder mystery, tribal traditions and difficulties, and supernatural elements, tied together by a great performance by McClarnon.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.