‘Dark Winds’ Review: Zahn McClarnon Shines in a Show About Seeking Justice in an Unjust World
In the many archetypal stories about crime that proliferate on television, conflict is derived from the disruption of justice where the police must come in to restore order. A murder is committed, and a culprit must be found. Money is stolen and it must be returned. It is a typically simple succession of events that we are all familiar with. Yet deeper questions remain that can and should upend this formula. What happens if a greater injustice has already been perpetuated and left unaddressed? What if getting to the bottom of the crimes can’t bring true justice? What if there are some grievous wounds that remain impossible to fully heal? These complications serve as the center of the six-episode AMC series Dark Winds. Both a Western and a noir thriller that is at its most interesting when it delves into these deeper contradictions, it often loses focus on a fraught journey towards something more reflective. When it arrives there, it becomes unexpectedly admirable and audacious.
Based on Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels and set in the 1970s Southwest, the series stars a riveting Zahn McClarnon as the troubled Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, the head of the Navajo Tribal Police who has been caught up in a series of seemingly disconnected crimes. One is a bold robbery of an armored truck by masked figures who escape in a helicopter, the other a mysterious double murder. Left with limited resources and the FBI breathing down his neck, Leaphorn will have to piece together what happened while also coming to terms with the loss of someone close to him. Alongside him is his wife Emma, played by a resolute Deanna Allison in her television acting debut, who works at a clinic on the reservation. She challenges and supports him over the course of the show as things escalate, dipping into mystical as well as more straightforward mystery elements the deeper it goes.
The two serve as the anchoring point of a story that occasionally floats adrift though remains engaging when it gets back on course. If there is one thing you’ll take away from the series it is that McClarnon needs to be given a lot more leading roles. He has been on an absolute tear as of late with his solid supporting work. Whether it was his standout characters in the second seasons of both Westworld and Fargo or his recurring role in Reservation Dogs, his commanding presence elevates everything he is a part of. While Dark Winds is not as fully realized as those previous shows, McClarnon doesn’t set a foot wrong in capturing the fraught nature of his character. With Leaphorn haunted by painful memories and the mistakes he makes, the veteran actor imbues every scene with a prevailing grace amidst the growing chaos. When his character and the show come into alignment, McClarnon remains unstoppable. In one devastating scene near the end, the audible pain in his voice cuts deep. In such moments, McClarnon gives a performance powerful enough to stop anyone in their tracks and make them pay attention. Multifaceted and melancholy, he is the best part of the show.
Serving as a counterbalance to Leaphorn is newcomer Jim Chee, played with a sense of snark that masks a deeper sadness and a secret by Kiowa Gordon, who joins the department alongside a dedicated Jessica Matten as Bernadette Manuelito. This trio will set out to figure out what is going on, though complicating matters is the general distrust that the community has of them. It is a prevailing tension that serves as a simmering undercurrent to all the interactions they have. When Leaphorn first goes to notify the next of kin of one of those killed, he is met with scorn and called a traitor. Later revelations show how this is not without cause, as he once used excessive force that left a man seriously injured.
McClarnon delicately captures the turmoil that is at the heart of this dynamic as he works to try to right wrongs when it just may not be possible to do so. He still clings to his role as the arm of the law even as the world around him is lawless, a result of the historic genocide and ongoing exploitation that lingers over the otherwise beautiful landscape that surrounds him. He is a band-aid solution over an open wound, forever fighting a losing battle. This is made explicit in moments like when Emma surreptitiously warns a young woman that is pregnant not to trust a local doctor as he will sterilize her without her permission or when there are references to the abject horror of boarding schools. The show approaches these traumas with a light touch, frankly showing how they are just a part of the everyday lives of the characters. They are things they have to carry with them while still trying to survive the day in a harsh world. Even in moments of peace like when characters sit watching a sunset, pain is looming just around the corner. Soon, it will become unavoidable as it rushes to the forefront.
This is the central theme of the story as the lingering harms of the past crash into the attempts at the healing of the present. Some of these get lost in the machinations of the mystery plot, though remain interesting when made the priority. This comes when Dark Winds puts itself in conversation with the myths we have told ourselves of the past through movies and television. From the 1970 film Little Big Man showing at a local theater in an early shot to a more charged one where Chee looks at himself in the reflection of a photo of John Wayne, the series clearly has much on its mind about the stories we tell ourselves. This should come as no surprise as the show’s executive producer is Chris Eyre who, in addition to directing the pilot, also made the outstanding film Smoke Signals in 1998. While the story of Dark Winds is not quite as compelling as that prior work, often feeling rushed over its fleeting six episodes, there still is much to admire in the approach it takes. It is at its best when it feels like more of a reinvention of the story, holding it up to the light and inspecting the details that are to be found within.
Strangely, the show that feels most akin to what is being done here is one that takes place thousands of miles away: Mare of Easttown. Yes, the settings are completely different and the mystery at the core of that show is more its focus compared to Dark Winds, which reveals its answers rather early. Still, the way both are aware of how the crushing weight of their conflict is unlikely to be resolved by the characters makes it an apt reference point. By the time there is anything resembling resolution in both of them, it doesn’t feel like it was a success worth celebrating. If anything, everything feels like it was made worse by the characters of the law. They seem to know this too as, when faced with what they believe they must do, the weight on their shoulders threatens to lay them flat. Dark Winds is much pulpier in its origins, though it shifts into being more profound when carried on McClarnon’s shoulders. It is often messy and a bit haphazard, speeding through key revelations via flashback that could have used more time to breathe. However, the enduring commitment of the performances from McClarnon and the rest of the cast ensure that the final scenes piece everything together rather poetically.
You can watch the first two episodes of Dark Winds on AMC and AMC+ on June 12, with the remaining four episodes released weekly.