AMC’s Dark Winds is Exactly What Mystery Series Need
A Breath of Fresh Air to A Genre Going Stale
If you born, say, in the late 1990s and have been watching TV since then, you could very well believe that there’s no such thing as an American mystery story. There are police procedurals, to be sure — they seem to be our number one export — but you might believe that British mysteries are the only kind out there. You’d certainly have that impression if you watched PBS.
And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. For decades, British mystery novels seem to have glutted the television market at the expense of anything else. There are entire streaming services that only seem to show variation on Agatha Christie novels. There are British police procedurals; British mysteries with attorneys as the protagonist; period British mysteries; God help us, there have been entire franchises based on medieval British mysteries. You would be forgiven for thinking that the only jobs in Britain are being killed and detectives, amateur, professional or otherwise.
This is particularly galling because half the New York Times bestseller list is devoted to American mystery writers. Yet if there have been half a dozen adaptations of American mystery novel series) for any television format in the past twenty years, I’d be stunned. (The only ones that come to mind are Sundance’s Hap and Leonard, Justified, Bosch, Rizzoli and Isles and Big Sky.)Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and Richard Price have written some of the greatest American mysteries of all time. Why is it there only contribution (albeit a critical one) to television has been their work for David Simon? We’ve had series where a fictional mystery writers works for the NYPD. Those same writers I mentioned have gotten more work in cameos than adaptations of their work for TV. The mystery novel is tailor made for the limited series, so why does only True Detective seem to be the only series where mystery writers get work (and that was an original series?) Big Sky is the only mystery series in recent years to be adapted for TV, and as I’ve written in numerous essays, that’s an adaptation in name only. The police procedural has been under intense scrutiny recently, but it doesn’t change the fact that there’ve been almost none in the twenty years previously.
Is it possible that AMC’s most recent limited series Dark Winds might be a step in the right direction? AMC has chosen one of the best possible writers for such a world: Tony Hillerman, a writer whose mystery novels take place in the Navajo Tribal Reservation in 1970s New Mexico. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee were part of a series of twenty-five best-selling novels, but because they were set entirely in the world of Native Americans, they have basically been ignored for any form of adaptation (save a PBS version awhile back). Cast entire with Native actors, and coming on a cusp of the success of Reservation Dogs, it’s hard to argue that the time couldn’t be more right.
The series surrounds two seemingly unrelated events in 1971: an armored car robbery where a helicopter flies away into the west and a Navajo farmer who witnesses the event and comes to motel for a spirit reading. When the teaser ends Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) finds the farmer and a young girl dead and the only witness an elder, who is blind and traumatized. Leaphorn knows the dead girl and her family who seem to loathe him for reasons more than the fact that they consider him a stooge for the White Man. Leaphorn knows that this is federal business, and that the Feds will give this case no interest at all. When he meets with Agent Whitover (a delightfully slimy Noah Emmerich) Whitover is infinitely more interested in solving this bank robbery and wants to recruit Leaphorn even though there’s no evidence as he insists on believing that they are Navajo “I’ll pretend your robbers are Navajo if you pretend my murder victims are white,” Leaphorn says to him a perfect deadpan.
The day of the investigation Jim Chee shows up as Leaphorn’s new deputy. (This is out of order as Dark Winds is the fifth novel in this series, but most viewers will not care.) Chee left the reservation and has returned to his home, something most Navajo don’t do. He’s sharp and nobody’s stooge, but we learn early on that Whitover is using him as a pawn to get him to federalize the investigation for the bank robbery. Whitover views Chee with the same prejudice he does Leaphorn: they have a dinner in a place that he thinks Chee will like because so many Hollywood westerns were shot there. Chee asks simply: “Where were the Navajo in these movies?” Whitover doesn’t even go through the motions of understanding the question. “Don’t forget what tribe you really belong to, Chee.” he says dismissively.
Dark Winds also has the fundamental benefit of being shot, like so many AMC smashes, in New Mexico. Leaphorn and Chee have a far great understand of just how unfriendly the desert is and how futile it is to try and patrol it. Leaphorn tells Chee that if he goes missing, it may be as long as a day before anyone notices. And there are darker undertones in play then this. Leaphorn’s wife, Emma (Deanna Allison) is a nurse at a doctor’s office where her main job is to act as a translator to an unfeeling white physician. She’s worried about one of her patients and when Leaphorn sends Chee and another deputy Bernadette to investigate, Bernadette senses something is wrong. Bernadette is very spiritual in a way that her male colleagues aren’t. “You have to rely on your medicine” she says to Chee at a critical moment in the series premiere. She has a reputation among even her fellow Navajo of being, well, spooky. But there might be something to this we don’t know.
I don’t know yet if Dark Winds will end up being a ratings boon for AMC, but I really hope it does. It’s superbly shot and acted all around, and showrunner Grant Roland, mostly known for his connection to sci-fi adjacent series like Fringe and Lost has a superb grip on the mood and story and the rare art of not being patronizing to a culture he is not a part of. As both a mystery series and exploring culture Americans have gone out of their way to pretend isn’t there for centuries, Dark Winds is exactly the kind of series that TV — and AMC in particular — needs right now. There’s a pretty supply of future stories from Hillerman takes off, and if it does, maybe we can find room for other mysteries being adapted. Can we finally find work for Easy Rawlins and Kinsey Keene?
Note: It is possible I’m wrong in the central conceit of my article. If any reader can think of any other successful television adaptation of an American mystery novel in the past twenty years, limited or otherwise, please comment and tell me what and if you can, when it aired. I think, however, everyone can agree that the Brits have completely overwhelmed us in this department. They do have a tendency to do it better than us, but that doesn’t mean TV should act like they’re the only game in town.
My score: 4.5 stars.