The story most often told about the American West is its swan song. The novels of Cormac McCarthy. John Wayne’s films. On TV, yellowstone‘s soapy ode to the diminished cowboy. All are love letters to a rough existence, with certain doom as the dominant theme.
dark winds, a taut new tribal cop noir based on Tony Hillerman’s best-selling novels, decenters the hackneyed tale of white man’s desolation. It is set in 1971, about a hundred years after the US government forced the Navajo people into an internment camp in New Mexico before giving back a small portion of their homeland in the form of an Indian reservation called the Navajo Nation. Yet this Navajoland drama feels more urgent and less plaintive than most of frontier canon. The acting is impeccable; The writing is crystal clear and firm. But it is western world‘s Zahn McClarnon as Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, as solid and stern as the Arizona reservation he oversees, epitomizes the series’ unwavering stance. The story of the American Indian is a story of heartache and perseverance. Perhaps this time – just this once – the West can outrun its inevitable end.
The first episode begins with an extravagant helicopter bank robbery, quickly followed by a double homicide involving two indigenous victims. dark winds is primarily an atmospheric crime drama, like Mare by Easttown or True detective. Lieutenant Leaphorn is basically a small town cop; It’s just that his “little town” spans 27,000 square miles of dusty Navajo land. To help him, he has two second-in-commands: reservist Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten) and Jimmy Chee (Kiowa Gordon), a college graduate who’d rather not go back to tribal lands.
It’s immediately clear that criminals are only a fraction of what Leaphorn fights. Its constituents, who speak a combination of English and the Navajo language Diné, do not trust the US government or anyone knocking on their door in uniform. But it’s the local FBI – commanded by Agent Whitover (Noah Emmerich) – that poses the biggest obstacle to catching a killer. Even on the reservation, murder is a federal crime, and the FBI’s reputation for racism precedes them. “Since when does the FBI care about a dead Indian?” asks a victim’s mother, not expecting an answer.
There is a defining moment in the third season of yellowstoneset 1,400 kilometers north and 50 years later dark winds, but shares the tough milieu of this new AMC drama. In this show, John Dutton’s (Kevin Costner) Native American daughter-in-law sees the white patriarch struggling to save his ranch from land developers and private equity sharks. “You’re the Indian now,” she tells him clearly.
dark winds rewinds the clock to the 1970’s when the Indians were still the Indians and the white man was the bad guy. But as an opponent, Whitover seems almost rustic. Certainly he is not opposed to Leaphorn or, for that matter, the brutal indifference of capitalism. “I’ll pretend your bank robbers are Navajo if you pretend my two murder victims are white,” the lieutenant says to his FBI colleague while haggling for justice. When the American West dies, it’s not the Indians who killed it.
Even when the Navajo families we encounter do not thrive, Navajo culture endures in an enriching way dark winds without it becoming a series gag. For example, whoever committed the double murder put out his victim’s eyes. On a smaller show, missing eyes could indicate a witch doctor killer. Here, on a show with a room dedicated exclusively to Indigenous writers, they’re a clever red herring, efficiently deciphered by a cop who knows his constituency. The Navajo believe that talking about death brings more death, and the killers want witnesses to be afraid to speak up.
At other moments, Navajo life is almost underexplained. When Bernadette finds out that Jimmy doesn’t have a Navajo medicine pack with him, she urges him to at least get a bag of juniper ash and corn pollen. The series doesn’t judge Bernadette’s beliefs or even bother to explain why pollen matters. The world is simply allowed to extend beyond the comprehension of the viewer as best it can.
It’s that breadth that gives the series a resilience it lacks yellowstone, a show that has insisted since it aired in 2018 that the end of ranching is as certain as the sunset. The world of dark winds is compact, but the landscape is infinite. On the reservation’s hot, rugged, and massive plateau, even the worst of men’s problems don’t stand out. The people who live with Joe Leaphorn in Navajo Nation are connected by community and tradition—everything missing in the life of yellowstone‘s Last Cowboy Standing agenda.
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dark winds is not a cop series set at the end of the world, but a series that breathes life into a world mostly portrayed as terminally languishing. By that logic, Joe Leaphorn can’t play the hero because it’s not his people that need saving. He is an avatar for a way of life and a piece of land that manages to hold its own in the face of its enemies. If anyone can find a home on the range, it’s him.
Dark Winds airs on AMC in the US
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/dark-winds-tv-show-yellowstone-b2102154.html Dark Winds gives the doomed American West of Yellowstone one last chance for redemption