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Michael Moriatis/AMC

Dark Winds (Season Two)

AMC/AMC+, July 27, 2023

Nov 22, 2023 Photography by Michael Moriatis/AMC Web Exclusive
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Just when you think every cop show trope has been done to death, along comes Season Two of Dark Winds. The AMC drama about 1970s Navajo tribal police officers at an isolated New Mexico reservation begins this season with stony-faced, flinty-eyed protagonist Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) and Sergeant Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten), who is as gravely serious as her boss.

The officers are in the midst of closing in on a formidable new suspect in this opening scene. In a refreshing twist, they don’t roll up guns blazing–at least at first. Instead, Leaphorn realistically kills his squad car’s lights and quietly drives toward the likely culprit’s motorhome in the middle of nowhere, tires ominously crunching gently on the gravelly sand. Before long Leaphorn and Manuelito return to their source material form, the Leaphorn & Chee novel series penned by Tony Hillerman. They square off against the icy-eyed Colton Wolf (Nicholas Logan), a vicious assassin from the Hillerman book People of Darkness from which this season mostly draws. Though both lieutenant and deputy wield the vintage six-chamber revolvers that help make this series so visually distinctive, Wolf has them literally outgunned with an assault rifle.The bullets fly, and then the episode flashes back, to add context after this hooky cold open.

We then learn about just how dangerous Wolf can be, and why Leaphorn and Manuelito are pursuing him. The assassin uses his expertise with explosives to kill a member of the Navajo Nation as he is leaving the hospital where Leaphorn’s wife, the wise, tender hearted and expressive Emma (Deanna Allison) works as a nurse. She is injured in the blast in a deftly-directed scene where viewers see Emma collapse through the dispenser from inside the hospital coffee machine from which she had just ordered. The practical effects and precise camera placement make this plot point believable despite the lack of digital dazzling audiences have become accustomed to in this prestige TV era.

Thankfully, Emma is only a bit scratched and rattled from the explosion. Once Leaphorn is certain of that, he scours the wreckage. His good old fashioned sleuthing not only makes for entertaining TV, but also helps the on-site cops find evidence of a bomb that they would have otherwise overlooked.

Meanwhile, the car bombing victim’s son is being investigated by Leaphorn’s former mentee, Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon, Twilight). Last season, Chee went undercover in the local Navajo police office as a new deputy, hiding his true intent as an FBI agent investigating a major robbery on Navajo land. He manipulated his faux colleagues at first, until Leaphorn became a father figure of sorts, and Manuelito became Chee’s love interest. Once they found out his true background, Leaphorn and Manuelito felt mostly betrayed by Chee. This season, Chee’s bland brown Navajo police uniform is gone in favor of a flashy suit and flowing hair. The outfit suits his new role: a private eye investigating a robbery at a wealthy estate near Navajo land. He’s doing so at the behest of Rosemary Vine, the wife of the owner, played by a practically seething Jeri Ryan (Star Trek: Voyager), whose nose is plugged with the hose of a wheeled respirator that she rolls around while strutting around the robbery scene.

The son of the car bombing victim was involved in Chee’s case, leading him to cross paths with his former lieutenant and mentor. Leaphorn has resolved many of his feelings about Chee, and McClarnon plays these scenes with believably gruff humor. Last season, Leaphorn longed to be a father figure for Chee. This wasn’t a selfless act. Leaphorn was trying to fill the void years after the murder of his son, Joe Jr. Too often, Gordon falls short in these scenes, with a wooden performance that pales in comparison to McClarnon’s nuanced turn.

Gordon is much better during a reunion between his character and Manuelito. But first, Leaphorn and Chee’s overlapping cases lead to their first confrontation with a nearly lethal suspect, during which Chee is wounded. Leaphorn gets the younger investigator to the hospital, continues on the case and asks Manuelito to take Chee’s statement. At the hospital, the remnants of their romance still sears. But she hardly looks at him, and Chee clearly hurts more from that than his physical wound. Gordon’s arched eyebrow and clear frustration at Manuelito’s painfully closed off (but understandable) demeanor charges the scene with heartache and desire.

Similarly, McClarnon and Allison share a powerful shorthand as husband and wife. The latter worries about the former as he uncovers his galling personal ties to the crimes he and Chee are now investigating. In one scene the camera follows the married pair down the hall until Leaphorn tries to lock himself in the bathroom. His eyes are nearly bloodshot with stifled tears as he looks back at Emma, who blocks the door, her back is to the camera. When she turns around the worry creasing her face is in full view. Indeed, the direction and editing are well timed enough to capture Allison’s nuanced performance.

Strong as the supporting cast is (including Gordon, who improves as the season unfolds), McClarnon is the proverbial weathervane twisting at Dark Winds’ center and showing audiences much of what they need to know. Because the show hinges on his astutely drawn, powerfully performed character, Leaphorn begins to rank among TV’s best-ever lawmen this season. This is heightened as the personal stakes of this case begin to rise for him in the episodes following the premiere, and as other members of his family come to the fore, shedding light on Leaphorn’s gritty demeanor.

The eye catching cinematography and direction set McClarnon up to succeed in a role he clearly relishes. One early scene this season finds McClarnon tinkering on a vintage motorcycle, as the vast American southeastern valleys sprawl behind him. It’s a widescreen shot for the ages that he looks picture perfect in, proving the actor has the presence for his long overdue neo-western star turn. It’s also a welcome reversal of tired cowboy and Indian tropes.

Shortly after that, Matten enjoys a wondrous wide shot of her own, as she mounts her horse and digs in her spur-less boots. She is every bit as magnetic as McClarnon in those gorgeously shot moments, the panoramic American desert her suitably epic backdrop.

Matten is getting that just due at an earlier point in her career than McClarnon, who helped blaze the trail for such indigenous representation on other successful series like Fargo, Longmire, and Reservation Dogs.

The cast, the writing— which includes subtle details about how these Navajo characters use medicine and ceremonies to help them through key moments—the setting and vintage props will draw viewers into Dark Winds’ world, one where Indigenous gunslingers are finally written with the deftness they deserve. (www.amc.com/shows/dark-winds)

Author rating: 8/10

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