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AMC’s mystifying, Navajo Nation-set noir

AMC's mystifying, Navajo Nation-set noir

Zahn McClarnon in Dark Winds

Zahn McClarnon in Dark Winds
Photo: Michael Moriatis/AMC

Zahn McClarnon etches his name in TV’s Melancholic Cops Hall Of Fame with Dark Winds. He plays Joe Leaphorn, a quiet and troubled police officer who’s burdened with solving a hometown tragedy. Similar to Mare Of Easttown and True Detective and just about every Nordic noir show, this one centers on Leaphorn navigating personal and professional crises. However, the series immediately distinguishes itself with its Navajo Nation setting in the ’70s, by poring over authentic Indigenous customs—the writers’ room is entirely comprised of Native Americans—and through slowly building an intriguing suspense.

There are plenty of jarring crimes: The premiere alone kicks off with a bold bank robbery and ends with two vicious murders. Over the remaining five episodes there are more deaths, an armored car heist, explosions, and fist fights. It might seem like a ton of action, but the show has a measured pace that can actually get a little tedious. Luckily, McClarnon is the glue holding it all together. Even in dull moments, he pushes the narrative forward simply by his subtle but all-consuming performance, which is something of an instant classic. The actor has recently made waves with Fargo, Westworld, and Reservation Dogs (he’s also in the MCU thanks to a Hawkeye cameo, too, but deserves way more screen time) and this is a worthy spotlight.

A sheriff in a remote outpost of Monument Valley, Joe is still reeling from the death of his son three years earlier. He now gets pulled into investigating a double homicide of an old man and a young woman with whom he shares a personal connection. To make matters worse, the FBI is unusually interested in the case, especially agent Leland Whitover (Noah Emmerich, who is by now a pro at playing a Fed after The Americans and Suspicion). The verbal clashes between Joe and Leland—who is rightfully dubbed here as High Pockets—are especially noteworthy, a damning indictment of how Native Americans have been, and continue to be, cruelly mistreated. Leland views the Navajo land as nothing but means to an end, while Joe’s investment obviously runs much deeper.

Dark Winds is a propulsive mix of genres. It’s at once a crime drama and an outright Western with breathtaking cinematography, and the show even has a major mystical tinge to it. But its most captivating aspect is the “buddy drama” between Joe and rookie officer Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), who comes to town with secrets of his own. Jim left the reservation a long time ago and has somewhat of an identity crisis upon his return. Dark Winds weaves an emotionally weighty journey as he struggles to fit into the place he once called home, putting an emphasis on family and community that balances out the show’s noir elements.

Jim finds allies in Joe, Joe’s wife Emma (Deanna Allison), and, reluctantly, fellow officer Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten, a total breakout). All three cops embark on individual missions. Joe is seeking justice for the Native Americans who were killed. Bernadette, with Emma’s help, is looking out for a pregnant teen who may or may not be connected to the case. And Jim is finding his loyalties tested as he seeps into life in Monument Valley.

Kiowa Gordon and Jessica Matten in Dark Winds

Kiowa Gordon and Jessica Matten in Dark Winds
Photo: AMC

Dark Winds does a lot. It beautifully explores rich Indigenous traditions without pinpointing exactly what they mean. It boasts striking visuals of the geographical isolation of the Valley—there’s an open road, burning heat, and little else—that are diametrical to the sense of community and belonging between its citizens, even as Joe is initially met with animosity. And it even has comic relief thanks to Rainn Wilson, who briefly shows up as Devoted Dan, an eccentric and perverted car salesman tied to the case.

In the end, Dark Winds is a must-watch for its performances, direction, location, and style. But the show falters in answering its mysteries. Sure, the tension-building is phenomenal, but the reasons behind disparate crimes plaguing the town are somewhat disappointing and predictable. Even if all the dots are connected by the end in an edge-of-your-seat-level finale, it still doesn’t feel enough.

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