AMC’s ‘Dark Winds’: TV Review

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9 mins read

By the third episode of AMC’s Dark Winds, there are ongoing investigations into multiple murders on Navajo land, as well as a string of bank heists that may or may not relate to a group of radical Native American activists. Tribal police and the FBI are on the case, following leads both human and supernatural.

It’s here that Dark Winds pauses for an episode devoted primarily to a coming-of-age ritual for a young character who hasn’t been part of the story previously and won’t play any role in the story going forward.

Dark Winds

The Bottom Line

Not always a gripping mystery, but a promising prelude for an ongoing series.

The ceremony, kinaaldé, and the episode represent why Dark Winds is interesting and thoroughly worthwhile despite a first season in which the central mystery never comes together as anything close to compelling.

As a thriller, Dark Winds is rushed, and it feels like large chunks of motivation and explanation have to be delivered in lengthy blocks of text that nobody figured out how to stage in a propulsive way. Coming in at six episodes, all under 50 minutes and one even under 40, the first season might have been better condensed into a 90-minute pilot introducing the main characters, settings and distinctive attributes of Tony Hillerman’s literary universe. Those are the terms on which the show succeeds.

Zahn McClarnon, having a well-deserved and long overdue moment of industry embrace, plays Joe Leaphorn, a police officer working the Navajo tribal beat in what seems to be 1970, or thereabouts. Leaphorn and his wife Emma (Deanna Allison), a nurse, are still mourning the loss of their son in an oil drilling explosion.

Leaphorn is on the job when a couple of bodies, including that of his late son’s former girlfriend, are found at a local motel, perhaps tied to a spiritual rite. He’s too close to the case, but he begins following it anyway, assisted by newly assigned officer Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), a college boy who left the reservation nearly a decade earlier, and by his veteran sergeant Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten). Adding pressure is Whitover (Noah Emmerich), a cavalierly racist FBI agent prepared to plow through jurisdictional hurdles in search of what he sees as a situation urgent enough to earn him a promotion far from the Southwest.

Unraveling the various crimes will bring Leaphorn and Chee, characters featured together or as individuals in 20+ Hillerman novels, into contact with evangelistic used car dealer Devoted Dan (Rainn Wilson), menacing and scarred Frank (Eugene Brave Rock) and pregnant teen Sally (Elva Guerra), among other vivid characters.

Hillerman’s world is one of witches, medicine men and secular skeptics, where the power of local religion depends on how deeply you believe and where the occult and the darker forces of human nature go hand-in-hand. Sometimes the cases are complicated because of twisty plotting and other times they’re complicated because they defy an outsider’s understanding. Series creator Graham Roland, though, has led with a case that isn’t exactly simple so much as needlessly simplified for expediency.

Early on, Leaphorn explains to Chee — but really to us — that there are 50 tribal officers patrolling 27,000 square miles of tribal land, introducing a sense of scale that is then cheapened when all of the season’s key crimes are too-conveniently connected and come back repetitively to a small set of locations that are all within earshot of one another. After the third or fourth time that characters split off on individual investigations only to turn out to be geographically close enough for skin-of-their-teeth rescues, I lost all sense of suspense. It doesn’t help matters that while regular director Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals) has a great eye for the landscape and for the patient introspection of his actors’ faces, his ability to stage action or build tension is close to nil.

The briskness of the season makes it hard to invest in any of the intersecting crimes or their perpetrators. It also leaves the period setting, with its pervasive threat of Vietnam, nestled between the founding of the American Indian Movement and the incident at Wounded Knee, so indistinct that other than the absence of cell phones, some viewers won’t even notice.

But the briskness of the season also makes it easy to say, “Meh, those just aren’t the things I’m supposed to be investing in.”

Instead, you can relish the rhythms of the Navajo language, the vibrant energy of local marketplaces, the Monument Valley backdrops being reclaimed as Indigenous spaces rather than the domain of John Wayne westerns. You can take in the Native ceremonies and rituals, which Eyre, Roland and the other creatives treat with an emphasis on authenticity and lived experience, not a fetishized exoticism.

Even more easily, you can enjoy the quiet complexity of McClarnon’s performance, which has wry humor and a deep reservoir of sadness. It’s measured, never showy, and in the scenes between Leaphorn and Emma, McClarnon and Allison capture the love and simmering pain of a long-term marriage, usually without a surplus of dialogue. Guerra, who has recently stolen scenes in Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls, slots into those scenes perfectly as a young woman who might be the salve for their psychic wounds or just the excuse to bring those wounds to the surface.

Gordon’s Chee isn’t as well-defined, and the dynamic between Chee and Leaphorn will have to develop in subsequent seasons. But I was surprised by how much I grew to like the relationship between Chee and Manuelito, which felt like a thing of eye-rolling contrivance initially. I haven’t seen the Canadian drama Tribal, so Matten was a revelation to me here, getting more comfortable and more intense as the season progresses.

Bigger names Wilson and Emmerich are solid, and I guess if having stars of The Office and The Americans helps as a gateway, that works.

That’s really what the first season of Dark Winds is. It’s a prelude, and as much as I wish it could have been presented with more efficiency and then launched into a more tightly plotted first season, the pieces are now in place for this world to open up. The Hillerman books have been adapted for PBS and for the big screen in the past, but as with  Hap & Leonard for Sundance TV and Bosch and Reacher on Amazon, it feels like the current TV moment is right for a certain kind of literary fiction.

AMC’s ‘Dark Winds’: TV Review

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