The Series That AMC — And So Much More — Needs Right Now
When Dark Winds debuted last summer I was inclined to think highly of it based both on concept and the network producing it. I had been disturbed that, during the era of Peak TV, there had been a surplus of series based on British mystery franchises and a relative scarcity of those based on American writers. This series, based on the long running series based on Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series which involved more than 2 dozen novels set in Navajo country in New Mexico, was a promising step in the right direction, not merely for being an American mystery novel but a series cast entirely with indigenous leads.
I was also encouraged because it seemed like a promising direction for AMC to be taking, considering that the last link to its era of Peak TV Better Call Saul was ending this same summer. And there have been signs that the network might be moving back into the area of Peak TV the last year. In addition to Dark Winds, their new adaptation of Interview with a Vampire has received considerable acclaim and multiple award nominations and Bob Odenkirk’s follow up show Lucky Hank was a minor masterpiece.
I named Dark Winds on my top ten list of 2022 and have been eagerly awaiting the second season. Last week, it finally debuted and it is looking very much like it is worth the wait.
It’s been a nearly a year since the showdown that brought Season 1 to an end. Joe Leaphorn (the quietly brilliant Zahn McLarnon) has to investigate what is quickly revealed to be the bombing the pick up truck of a man who was already dying of cancer. Joe is called to the site because the bombing took place at the clinic where his wife (Deanna Allison) was doing her job as an ob-gyn. Emma believes that there is some kind of black wind surrounding her family. Evidence will soon be clear that she might well be right.
Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon) has resigned from the Bureau and is now working as a private investigator. His most recent job involves Rosemary Vines, a woman chained to an oxygen tank (Jeri Ryan) She tells Chee that she needs him to find a lockbox that was stolen from her home but refuses to tell Chee what was in it. Chee knows that there is clearly more to this than meets the eye but is willing to go along with it because he needs the money.
It’s still not clear what was in the box that mattered so much, but Leaphorn and Chee find their paths begin to intersect. There are pieces that everyone is trying to tie together. There is a group called the People of Darkness (the second season is inspired by Hillerman’s novel with that title) that seems to have some connection with the spiritual that was corrupted. There’s clearly some involvement with the U.S government involving the arrival of strange sheep on the project. There’s a yet unidentified blond man who seems determined to tear a path of violence and murder for a purpose that remains unknown to us. And there is clearly a connection to Joe’s son, whose belt buckle was found not far away and who died mysteriously three years earlier. All of this, as we see in the teaser, will resolve in a confrontation where this same man will empty what looks like an assault rifle into his trailer in which Joe and Bernadette were waiting for him.
It is always difficult to try and judge any mystery series early in a season but there is much that can draw in fans, even if they did not see the first season of Dark Winds. Creator Graham Roland and his writers continue to maintain a good command not only of the era but the subjects being discussed. Bernadette, the female sergeant, is now considering applying to the Border Patrol because she believes her career is stalled in the reservation. She is aware of the institutional sexism in her job — and so is Leaphorn, who gently reminds her that there might not necessarily be advancement there either. Bernadette and Jim, who spent much of the first season dancing around each other romantically before the climax of Season 1 seemed to dash that, are thrown back together when Chee is hospitalized and Leaphorn sends Bernadette to interview him. It takes several awkward moments before Chee choosing to call her on it: “Really? That’s all you have to say?” and Bernadette shows her own way of caring for him by giving him medicine. (Bernadette has always been more spiritual.)
We also continue to learn more about the Leaphorn family. In the second episode we meet Leaphorn’s parents and its clear that the father was also in law enforcement — but it’s pretty clear he does not approve about the path his son has taken, and particularly the woman he married. Nevertheless when Joe is facing a situation where only an expert will help, he still calls Harry out to the scene to help him defuse a bomb. The scene that follows is both tension-filled and amusing, particularly when Joe asks Harry what he should do with the doll. (“A good cop would put into evidence,” Harry says as if it is obvious.)
There’s also a clear demarcation of the era: we are still in the midst of the Apollo missions and much of the second episode shows just how fascinated even the Navajo are with the possibility of men on the moon. That does not mean that they don’t have their own judgment: in a sweet but hysterical moment, Joe tries to tell a young witness to a crime about how an astronaut did some training around New Mexico and that one of the natives chose to have him say something in case the moon was inhabited. The punchline to this joke is something that I would not dream of revealing. There’s also a local reporter who wants to find out what Emma is doing for young women, but Emma has no interest in making her patients the subjects of a white woman’s guilt (it’s teased in a later episode that this woman is dealing with a story of the sterilization of indigenous women that was slowly coming to light at the time — and clearly has even greater ramifications now.)
The performances and writing in Dark Winds are at the same high level as they were last season, this time with the addition of superb character actors such as Ryan and A Martinez in critical roles. It’s also clear that Dark Winds is at the forefront of a new era in American mystery adaptations for television; Will Trent has become one of the biggest critical hits of 2023. It is yet to be determined if Dark Winds will receive a third season renewal (it’s not like there’s a shortage of material) but for American mysteries, indigenous performer and AMC, it is the kind of show that is a clear sign of progress for all three.
My score: 4.75 stars.