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 to screen the tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee from Tony Hillerman’s best-selling mystery novels.
Or you could cut to the chase and just say: Oh thank God, someone finally gave Zahn McClarnon his own television show.
McClarnon, Lakota on his mother’s side, has been one of TV’s most reliable supporting players, improving one show after another in which other people got better billing. He drew notice as the killer Hanzee Dent in “Fargo” and the robot warrior Akecheta in “Westworld,” taking what were to some extent stereotypes of the implacable or noble savage and investing them with real emotion. His best showcase was in the straightforward cowboy-crime drama “Longmire,” in which he gave vivid life to a sardonic, capable, eternally frustrated tribal policeman.
He’s playing a cop again in “Dark Winds” – as he does in a supporting role in another Native American-driven series, the comedy “Reservation Dogs” – but this time he’s at the center of the action. Lt. Joe Leaphorn is in charge of a police station on the Navajo reservation; when a double homicide takes place, the FBI runs the investigation, but all the responsibility and anguish are his. When the lead FBI agent, played by Noah Emmerich, suggests that the murders might get more attention if Leaphorn helped with an off-reservation armored-car robbery, we see the power dynamics from the point of view of the underfunded, understaffed tribal functionary.
This latest cop doesn’t come with the smirk McClarnon wore in “Longmire” or the blissed-out equanimity he affects in “Reservation Dogs,” but Leaphorn is brought to life with the same quiet assurance McClarnon brings to every role. The lieutenant is all business, a classic western lawman with the usual laconic manner and intense loyalties – notably to his wife, Emma (Deanna Allison), and his sergeant Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten) – and a less-typical weariness, deep but lightly carried, of living and working as a second-class citizen.
McClarnon, with his marvelously expressive face and wiry but deliberate physicality, can communicate Leaphorn’s fears and frustrations with few if any words. His looks and movements tell the story when Leaphorn has to bring the bodies of the murder victims back from the city where they were sent to be autopsied because the FBI can’t be bothered. But McClarnon can just as easily bank his intensity and display a relaxed humor, as in a scene in which the Leaphorns invite Joe’s new sergeant, Chee (Kiowa Gordon), to dinner and fuss over him like a prodigal son.
“Dark Winds” is inspired by the third of Hillerman’s tribal police mysteries, “Listening Woman,” and some of that novel’s major plot points – the double murders, the armored car robbery, Leaphorn’s narrow escape from a dangerous siege in a system of caves – have been retained. The show’s creator, Graham Roland (“Fringe,” “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”), has changed a lot, however, primarily by incorporating Chee, who doesn’t appear in the novel.
Having Leaphorn and Chee meet and immediately work together in father-and-rebellious-son fashion – they didn’t collaborate until the seventh novel in the series – is a concession to the ensemble-drama format. It’s easy to accept, though, because Gordon brings sensitivity and some moody smolder (he played a wolf in three “Twilight” films) to the ambitious, conflicted Chee.
The performances of McClarnon, Gordon and Matten shine through a fair amount of stiff dialogue and convoluted, not always convincing plotting; the role of the supernatural, in particular, feels less intriguing than simply unresolved. But “Dark Winds” has a sensibility that draws you in and compensates for the lapses in storytelling. The visual evocation of the Southwestern landscape and reservation life – Chris Eyre (“Smoke Signals”) directed four of the six episodes – is striking, and the show steadily builds a genuine sense of an embattled, deeply intertwined community.
It might seem that there are more call-outs to historical crimes than a short-season murder mystery can handle; in addition to the inescapable themes of economic and judicial inequality, the story ties in the involuntary sterilizations of Indigenous women and the shipping out 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 notes as you can while you have the chance.
Not everyone connected to “Dark Winds” is Native American, beginning 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 backed an earlier Leaphorn and Chee feature, in 1991, and a 2002 series of TV movies.) But Roland, Eyre, much of the cast and all of the writers are Native, and it makes a palpable difference in the show. With “Dark Winds,” “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls,” shows featuring Indigenous communities make up one of current TV’s most distinctive subgenres.