The natural way to lead a review of “Dark Winds,” which premieres Sunday on AMC, would be to note that it is a series written, directed, and performed largely by Native Americans; set in the Navajo Nation and filmed on location in New Mexico; and bringing tribal cops Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee from Tony Hillerman’s bestselling mystery novels to the screen.
Or you can cut to the chase and just say, Oh, thank God, someone finally gave Zahn McClarnon his own television show.
McClarnon, a Lakota on his mother’s side, has been one of TV’s most trusted supporters, improving one show after another where other people have gotten better billing. He drew attention as the assassin Hanzee Dent in “Fargo” and the robot warrior Akecheta in “Westworld”, taking what were to some extent stereotypes of the ruthless or noble savage and investing them with real emotion. His best showcase was in the cowboy crime drama “Longmire,” in which he brought a sardonic, capable, and eternally frustrated tribal cop to vivid life.
He’s playing a police officer again in “Dark Winds” – as he does in a supporting role in another Native American-directed series, the comedy “Reservation Dogs” – but this time he’s at the center of the action. Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is in charge of a police station on the Navajo reservation; when a double homicide occurs, the FBI leads the investigation, but all responsibility and anguish are his. When top FBI agent, played by Noah Emmerich, suggests that the murders could get more attention if Leaphorn helped with an off-reserve armored car theft, we see the power dynamics from the perspective of the under-resourced tribal officer.
This last cop doesn’t come with the smile McClarnon wore in “Longmire” or the equanimity he affects in “Reservation Dogs,” but Leaphorn is brought to life with the same assurance that McClarnon brings to all roles. The lieutenant is all business, a classic Western lawman with laconic custom and intense loyalty – notably to his wife, Emma (Deanna Allison), and his sergeant Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten) – and a less typical, deep-seated tiredness, but Light. loaded, to live and work as a second-class citizen.
McClarnon, with his wonderfully expressive face and robust but deliberate physique, can communicate Leaphorn’s fears and frustrations with few or no words. Their looks and movements tell the story when Leaphorn has to bring the bodies of murder victims back from the city they were sent to be autopsied because the FBI can’t be bothered. But McClarnon can easily afford his intensity and display a relaxed mood, as in a scene where the Leaphorns invite Joe’s new sergeant, Chee (Kiowa Gordon), to dinner and rock him like a prodigal.
“Dark Winds” is inspired by the third of Hillerman’s tribal crime mysteries, “Listening Woman,” and some of that novel’s main plot points – the double murders, the armored car theft, Leaphorn’s narrow escape from a dangerous siege. in a cave system — were retained. The show’s creator, Graham Roland (“Fringe,” “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”), has changed a lot, most notably in incorporating Chee, who doesn’t appear in the novel.
Having Leaphorn and Chee meet and immediately work together in a rebellious father-son style — they didn’t collaborate until the seventh novel in the series — is a concession to the joint drama format. It’s easy to accept, though, because Gordon brings sensitivity and a bit of feisty heat (he’s played a wolf in three “Twilight” movies) to the ambitious and conflicted Chee.
McClarnon, Gordon and Matten’s performances shine through a fair amount of stiff dialogue and convoluted, not always convincing plots; the role of the supernatural, in particular, seems less puzzling than simply unresolved. But “Dark Winds” has a sensibility that draws you in and makes up for lapses in the narrative. The visual evocation of the southwestern landscape and life on the reservation – Chris Eyre (“Smoke Signals”) directed four of the six episodes – is impressive, and the show constantly builds a genuine sense of a deeply intertwined and embattled community.
It might seem like there are more calls for historical crimes than a short-lived murder mystery can handle; In addition to the inevitable themes of economic and judicial inequality, the story relates to the involuntary sterilizations of indigenous women and the sending of children to oppressive white boarding schools. On the other hand, if you’re not sure you’ll get a second season, it makes sense to hit as many grades as possible while you have the chance.
Not everyone connected with “Dark Winds” is Native American, starting with Hillerman (who died in 2008) and including executive producers Robert Redford and George RR Martin, who were crucial in getting it made. (Redford also supported a previous Leaphorn and Chee film in 1991 and a 2002 TV movie series.) But Roland, Eyre, much of the cast and all the writers are native-born, and that makes a palpable difference to the show. . With “Dark Winds,” “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls,” shows featuring indigenous communities form one of the most distinctive subgenres of TV today.