Deep end of the desert: 'Dark Winds'

Zahn McClarnon as Joe Leaphorn in AMC's Dark Winds. Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

The explosive cinematic opening of AMC’s original series Dark Winds might strike you as something worthy of summer blockbuster territory, but this series settles into an introspective character study soon after. It heightens the stakes, as the viewer is drawn deeper into the lives of its characters.

In a dramatic and daring heist at a savings and loan in Gallup, New Mexico, a helicopter blocks the path of an armored van, detonates a bomb beneath it, and, after a gunfight, lifts off with the stolen money in tow.

Set in 1971 on the Navajo Nation near Monument Valley, Arizona, the series follows aging tribal police lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, played by Zahn McClarnon (Into the West, Doctor Sleep), who’s investigating an unrelated crime (a double murder of an old man and young woman in a motel room). He’s joined in his investigation by younger deputy Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon, Blood Quantum, The Red Road), who’s recently returned to the reservation after years away.

In Dark Winds, character dynamics, old wounds, suspicions, and prejudices are exposed and explored in ways that are authentic, and the naturalistic acting elevates the series, a showcase for Native talent, above standard thriller fare.

Based on the best-selling novels of crime novelist Tony Hillerman (A Thief of Time, Talking God), series creator Graham Roland invests the characters with fidelity to the books. You feel the weight of years in the character of Leaphorn, portrayed by McClarnon as stoic, intelligent, and humane, and we learn as the series goes on that he and his wife, Emma (Deanna Allison), still mourn the death of their son, who died in an oil-drilling accident. Their son’s former girlfriend was one of the murder victims in the motel.

Chee, a college boy who’s been away so long that he’s regarded as an outsider, is rash, impulsive, and acts on instinct. That makes for an effective dynamic with Leaphorn’s more studied methodology. Leaphorn and Chee are featured in more than 20 Hillerman novels, which gives the series creators plenty of source material to draw from for future seasons.

Director Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals) matches the richness of the characterizations with an intriguing mystery. And as Leaphorn and Chee draw closer to the truth, old wounds and resentments rise to the surface. In the midst of the procedural (the type that also aims for authenticity in terms of the slow, methodical approach to police work) not every encounter is relevant to the case at hand. Not every lead pans out. And it’s in these exchanges — talking with witnesses and following up leads — as well as in the power dynamics at Tribal Police headquarters that Dark Winds finds its moments to skewer long-held cinema tropes that go back at least as far as The Lone Ranger: a dynamic where the Indian plays the sidekick (or the enemy) and the white man takes the lead.

But Dark Winds is more nuanced. Its aim is not the inversion of stereotypes as much as it is fealty to human experience as imagined in a particular place and time. Both men’s spirituality is handled with utmost sincerity and insight. It drives them and weighs on them too. Tantalizing cultural aspects lend Dark Winds a unique flair, but Eyre wisely eschews making the distinct cultural aspects of Navajo life the series’ focus, except when it’s in service to the narrative. In that life, what we outsiders might find unfamiliar and even exotic is taken for granted by those immersed in it. 

Popular in the Community