‘Dark Winds’: A Pulpy Mystery That Makes Native Characters the Stars of Their Own Story

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DARKWINDS_101_MM_0827_0563_RTc - Credit: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC
DARKWINDS_101_MM_0827_0563_RTc - Credit: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

AMC’s new drama Dark Winds, based on Tony Hillerman’s bestselling series of buddy-cop mystery novels set on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, is not the first television attempt at the property. Twenty years ago, PBS made a trio of TV-movies adapted from Hillerman’s books, starring Wes Studi as veteran detective Joe Leaphorn and Adam Beach as his young partner Jim Chee. While it was exciting to see an under-represented group at the center of a familiar genre, it was also a sign of Hollywood’s limited imagination when it came to telling stories about indigenous characters. Adam Beach was basically the only Native actor under 40 to appear regularly on the big and small screen in the early part of the 21st century, so of course he was going to play Chee. And Wes Studi was basically one of two options who could have been hired to play Leaphorn. (Graham Greene would have been the other.)

Times have changed, ever so slightly. The new Dark Winds arrives this weekend as the first of a trio of summer shows focused on indigenous characters and featuring largely indigenous casts. Peacock’s Rutherford Falls, a comedy about the friendship between a WASP son of privilege and a Native woman who has had to struggle for everything she’s gotten, begins its second season next week. And FX’s wonderful Reservation Dogs, about a quartet of indigenous teens on a reservation in rural Oklahoma, will be back in August.

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It’s still a fairly small circle of talent being given opportunities, as all three of these shows share writers and/or actors. Before signing on to play the new Joe Leaphorn in Dark Winds, Zahn McClarnon was winning laughs as a much more dim-witted lawman on Reservation Dogs. (He even shared scenes in one episode with Wes Studi!) Elva Guerra has played roles of varying sizes in all three series, including in Dark Winds as a pregnant teen who gets caught up in Leaphorn and Chee’s investigations. But even a handful of shows with prominent indigenous characters (including Yellowstone, which will be back in the late fall, and mostly dips into its own talent pool) is an enormous leap forward, especially when most of them employ enough Native writers and directors to provide an insiders’ view, rather than the medium’s long tradition of seeing indigenous people through the eyes of white people, when it bothered to see them at all. (One of the upcoming Rutherford Falls episodes, in fact, comments on Hollywood’s dismal history of overlooking indigenous people, when the show’s heroine visits a movie and TV studio and jokes, “This is the place where Adam Beach dies in the first 10 minutes of every movie.”) And with all due respect to the PBS films, Dark Winds is an improvement in nearly every way — , elevating the more familiar thriller components into something that feels special.

The first season, developed by writer Graham Roland (Jack Ryan) and primarily directed by Chris Eyre (who helmed two of three films that starred Studi and Beach) — both Roland and Eyre have indigenous roots — very loosely adapts a pair of Hillerman books, Listening Woman and People of Darkness. It pulls the plots of the two novels back about a decade to 1971, the start of a period of significant social and technological change for Native communities across the country. Leaphorn, Chee (Kiowa Gordon), and their fellow tribal police officer Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten) are part of a small unit assigned to patrol 27,000 miles of desert terrain in and around Monument Valley, the familiar backdrop of so many classic Westerns like Stagecoach (which one character briefly watches on television in the first episode). It is a seemingly impossible task under ordinary circumstances, but especially when the cops get embroiled in a pair of high-profile cases: a nearby armored-car robbery whose perpetrators appear to be members of a radical indigenous civil-rights group, and a double murder at a local motel.

Noah Emmerich and Rainn Wilson have supporting roles as, respectively, a condescending FBI agent eager to have Leaphorn do all the grunt work on the armored-car case, and a used-car salesman whose hyper-religious public image belies his sleazy personality. But the core of the show is the Navajo characters, and Leaphorn in particular.

Zahn McClarnon has not exactly lacked for work in recent years, especially since he was one of the breakout stars of Fargo Season Two as the coldly seething killer Hanzee Dent. But if he appears in lots of places, it is usually in supporting roles; if he’s lucky, he’ll get a spotlight like the Westworld episode in which his character figures out that he is part of a scripted, artificial world, and fights to tell his own story instead. That’s a metaphor for his career as a whole, and he finally gets a well-earned show of his own with Dark Winds.

McClarnon has always been an incredible camera subject, his face all lines and angles, his eyes so big and expressive. But as Joe Leaphorn, he gets to display far more than that striking screen presence. He gets to play a three-dimensional lead character who is defined in part by his cultural background, but mainly by his own experiences and personality. He and his wife Emma (Deanna Allison) are still grieving the death of their young adult son Joe Junior, and dealing with a strain on their marriage as a result. He has a complicated history with the family of one of the murder victims, a longstanding resentment of the FBI’s treatment of him (he sarcastically calls Emmerich’s character “Highpockets” whenever they meet), a healthy skepticism of new recruit Chee, and a tendency to close himself off to others without warning. Leaphorn is, in other words, a person, rather than a thematic symbol or a splash of color in a predominantly white story. And McClarnon displays every bit of the star power that’s always been there in those supporting roles, along with the dramatic chops to tease out the inner life of a character who doesn’t like talking about his feelings.

Kiowa Gordon, left, as Jim Chee and Jessica Matten as Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito. - Credit: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC
Kiowa Gordon, left, as Jim Chee and Jessica Matten as Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito. - Credit: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

But the whole cast is strong. Gordon and Matten develop an appealing chemistry as Chee and Manuelito juggle a budding attraction to one another with both their work on the case as well as Manuelito’s usual resistance to handsome young guys like Chee making a beeline for her. The show also uses the two of them as the primary ways into dealing with mystical matters. Chee has a messy relationship with the more supernatural aspects of Navajo culture, while Manuelito is so devout in her belief in witchcraft and spirits that she tells her new partner, “Out here, sometimes the best protection isn’t your .38, but your medicine [pouch].” The show threads the needle of taking her concerns seriously, even as much of the season is focused on a more scientific and physically grounded world(*). When Leaphorn arrives at the motel to study the murder scene, he ritually applies paint next to both eyes, but he also takes out his gun and flashlight before entering the room.

(*) The PBS films went for an odd-couple dynamic: Leaphorn as a longtime city dweller with deep skepticism, if not contempt, regarding the more supernatural parts of Navajo culture, and Chee as a believer training to be a traditional Navajo healer. Dark Winds splits the difference with a more nuanced and compelling approach, presenting both as college graduates with an interest in science, but also as men who have seen enough in their time on reservations to not discount talk of spirits and witchcraft. 

The location filming looks incredible, though there are occasionally odd sequences where McClarnon or Gordon are clearly standing in front of a green-screen image of Monument Valley (a concession to the realities of Covid-era production?). But the setting alone, and the way the production generally is able to present it, ensures that Dark Winds looks and feels like no other crime story on television. The murder mystery gets a bit spotty near the end, and there’s a climactic action sequence in a cave that goes on a bit past the point at which it’s still suspenseful.

On the whole, though, the experience of getting to traverse those desert highways, dusty hills, and other corners of this vast, beautiful, dangerous place — and to do it with these rich characters embodied by this excellent cast — makes this a terrific first season. There are still plenty of books in the series to adapt, even before we get to the ones Anne Hillerman wrote following her father’s death. So hopefully, this is the beginning of a long stay in this world — and yet another step towards shows like Dark Winds and its summer peers not feeling like refreshing novelties, but like expected, excellent parts of a more inclusive TV landscape.

Dark Winds premieres June 12 on AMC and AMC+, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen all six episodes of the first season.

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