Zahn McClarnon stars in the new AMC series based on the mystery novels by Tony Hillerman.
Warning: This is an overview of the premiere episode of Dark Winds, so there will be scads of spoilers here. We strongly recommend that you not read this if you have not yet watched the episode on AMC or AMC+.
Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito launch an investigation into a double murder near their remote outpost in Navajo Nation, and find they may be dealing with evil forces both earthly and supernatural. What are we to make of this? Here are our five takeaways from “Monster Slayer,” Episode 101 of Dark Winds.
Takeaway No. 1
Director Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals) and writer Graham Roland (Jack Ryan) did a swell job setting up the basics of two seemingly unconnected narratives — yeah, right! — that wound up being intertwined even before the end of the premiere episode. And their production team performed above and beyond while evoking the 1971 period setting. (It was a clever wink-wink touch to have Little Big Man emblazoned on a movie theater marquee.) More important, they established three vividly drawn lead characters, with more than a little help from the perfectly cast actors playing them: Lt. Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon), a dry-witted veteran lawman who’s too deep-down compassionate to be as cynical as he wishes to appear; Officer Chee (Kiowa Gordon), a smooth-talking careerist who’s even sneakier (and more ruthless) than he initially comes across; and Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten), a super-confident professional who’s nonetheless smart enough to be scared — and superstitious — when she should be.
Takeaway No. 2
Looks like an intermingling of human treachery and supernatural influences will be a hallmark of Dark Winds — much as it is in the Tony Hillerman novels that inspired the series — and so far the balance is shrewdly and skillfully maintained. Right now, Chee seems to be the skeptic in the mix — despite his experiences as the grandson of a medicine man — and he isn’t terribly quick to heed Manuelito’s warning that he should prepare “a pouch of juniper ash and corn pollen” and carry it with him whenever he’s out on patrol. (“Out here, sometimes the best defense isn’t your .38 — it’s your medicine.”) But, in his defense, he hasn’t had a witch (Amelia Rico) stop him dead in his tracks with a stern look, a pointed finger, and a haughty, “Walk in beauty, Officer!” At least, not yet.
Takeaway No. 3
Another nice touch: Leaphorn explains to the casually racist FBI Special Agent Whitover (Noah Emmerich) that one of the bodies found at a local motel was horribly mutilated not because the killers were engaging in an occult ritual, but rather to keep any possible witnesses or helpful informants from discussing the horrible crime among themselves, much less with the police, for fear of possibly drawing the same evil down upon them. Dark Winds clearly is going to be a show where you have to pay attention to even what seem like minor details or bits of casual dialogue, because they very likely will pay off later. For example: When they were riffing about their college days, Leaphorn mentioned to Chee that he studied the effects metal elements might have on the environment when placed where they don’t normally belong. Like, you know, a helicopter dumped into a lake.
Takeaway No. 4
As William Faulkner once noted, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Sometimes that’s a good thing: McClarnon and co-star Deanna Allison credibly and compellingly convey the mostly loving but sometimes edgy give-and-take common to long-time married couples as Leaphorn and his wife Emma. In short, it’s very easy to believe these two people share a past together — a past that includes, it’s affectingly implied without being announced, the loss of a son. On the other hand, it’s also true that Leaphorn has a shared with past with Guy (Ryan Begay), the father of the other murder victim, a young woman who — again, it’s implied — was the girlfriend of Leaphorn’s son. It’s pretty obvious there will be some payoff for the simmering animosity between these two guys. Which, of course, is yet another reason to tune in next week, and the week after that, and…
Takeaway No. 5
Zahn McClarnon is a major badass, and we fully expect him to clean somebody’s clock before this eight-episode limited-run series runs its course. (Can’t say who we’re more eager for him to punch: The duplicitous Chee or the slimeball Whitover.) We also expect, based on expectations raised by the premiere episode, that there will be more episodes after that.