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Zahn McClarnon anchors an immersive adaptation of the Native American detective series
There's an edit early in "Monster Slayer," the first episode of the AMC series Dark Winds, that doubles as a mission statement. After an action-packed prologue setting up the mystery at the heart of this six-episode first season, we meet Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon), a detective with the Navajo Tribal Police, as he stands over a tough biker he's forcing to rebury some poached artifacts. Director Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals) give him the full Western hero treatment, shooting McClarnon from a low angle, slowly revealing the contours of his handsome, weather-beaten face beneath his cowboy hat, and framing it all against a desert landscape bathed in sunlight. One cut later we're in a motel room playing an old Western movie where cowboys do battle with faceless Native Americans. It's a startling, if not subtle, moment of contrast between what sort of stories traditionally get told about this corner of the world and what Dark Winds has in mind.
It's also a contrast in terms of who gets to be the hero of the story. In some respects, Leaphorn is a classic mystery novel lawman: savvy, dogged, and able to get people to tell him what he wants to know. And, like any local lawman, he resents it when the FBI tries to get in the middle of his business, particularly when it's the condescending Agent Whitover (Noah Emmerich), with whom Leaphorn has a history. But there's more than pride to Leaphorn's resistance. He's seen enough to know that those he's sworn to protect are better off when the outside world stays, well, outside.
Besides, Leaphorn has more immediate concerns than finding the helicopter used in a daring armed car robbery that's so important to Whitover (and which may have ended up on Navajo land). There's the matter of the two bodies found in that motel room (including a young woman once engaged to Leaphorn's late son). Then there's his new deputy, Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), who's returning to where he grew up to report for duty. He's eager and seemingly competent, but neither Leaphorn nor his sergeant, Bernadette (Jessica Matten), is quite sure what to make of him.
Dark Winds is adapted from a series of mystery novels written by Tony Hillerman between 1970 and 2006. (Hillerman's daughter Anne Hillerman has kept the series alive since his 2008 death.) It's produced by Robert Redford (who bought the rights to the characters in the '80s and produced two previous attempts to adapt it) and Hillerman friend George R.R. Martin. If that sounds like a lot of white people shepherding stories about Indigenous characters, it's worth noting that the show is otherwise heavily staffed by Indigenous writers, producers, and crew (to say nothing of its cast: Errol Morris' ill-fated 1991 Hillerman adaptation bafflingly cast Fred Ward as Leaphorn).
Set in 1971 — the final year of a Native American takeover of Alcatraz, one of the highest-profile protests of the era — it's filled with period detail, regional detail, and points of cultural tension. Leaphorn's wife, Emma (Deanna Allison), for instance, works as a nurse and translates for patients while conveying messages in Navajo her boss won't understand, like warning pregnant patients to give birth elsewhere to avoid being sterilized against their will.
The mystery unfolds at a propulsive pace — the occasional narrative dead end aside — but it's those sorts of tensions that help give the series an added charge. It's a stretch to see much of Martin's influence in the series, but the world of the show is a place filled with cultures that have their own ways of doing things that sometimes lead them to clash. That's true of the white and Indigenous worlds but also of factions within the Navajo Nation, a place that's home to political activists, outcasts, those trying to keep to traditional ways, and those with one eye on the large world beyond the Nation's borders. Taking full advantage of the wide open spaces of the Southwestern shooting locations — mostly in New Mexico but also points beyond, including some memorable scenes shot at Monument Valley — Dark Winds creates a sense of vastness, and a feeling of a land in which much could be hidden.
But, as with good mystery novels, it's the characters that make the series worthwhile. Gordon and McClarnon play nicely off each other as their sometimes contentious partnership deepens into friendship. In one of the series' best, and quietest, scenes, Emma and Joe host Jim for dinner. When the subject of Joe and Emma's lost son comes up it becomes clear that the younger officer has become important to Joe in ways he might not yet even realize. It's beautifully played by all three, in a break in the action that makes the show deeper and more meaningful. The world of the series is a rich, complicated one and the story twisty and clever enough to keep Dark Wind compelling, but it's moments like that that could keep series alive and improving season after season. With luck, Dark Winds will get that chance (and maybe images like Joe's heroic introduction will start to look a little less unusual if it does).
Premieres: Sunday, June 12 on AMC, with weekly episodes following; two episodes premiere on AMC+ on June 12, with more following weekly
Who's in it: Zahn McClarnon, Kiowa Gordon, Jessica Matten, Deanna Allison, Noah Emmerich, Rainn Wilson
Who's behind it: Graham Roland (Jack Ryan) wrote the pilot and served as the initial showrunner
For fans of: Longform mysteries, the American West
How many episodes we watched: 6