Dark Winds gives the doomed American West of Yellowstone one last shot at redemption

Zahn McClarnon in the AMC series ‘Dark Winds’  (Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC)
Zahn McClarnon in the AMC series ‘Dark Winds’ (Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC)

The story most commonly told about the American West is its swansong. The novels of Cormac McCarthy. The movies of John Wayne. On TV, Yellowstone’s soapy ode to the diminished cowboy. All are love letters to a rugged existence that’s prevalent theme is certain doom.

Dark Winds, a taut new tribal-cop noir based on Tony Hillerman’s best-selling novels, decentres the worn-out tale of the white man’s desolation. It’s set in 1971, about a hundred years after the US government forced the Navajo people into a New Mexico internment camp, before returning a small portion of their homeland in the form of an Indian reservation known as Navajo Nation. Yet this Navajoland drama feels more urgent and less plaintive than most of the frontier canon. The acting is impeccable; the writing is crystal and tight. But it’s Westworld’s Zahn McClarnon as Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, as solid and severe as the Arizona reservation he polices, that emblemises the series’ stalwart outlook. The story of the American Indian is a story of heartbreak and perseverance. Maybe this time – just this once – the West can outrun its inevitable end.

The first episode starts with an extravagant helicopter bank heist, quickly followed by a double homicide with two indigenous victims. Dark Winds is, first and foremost, a moody crime drama, like Mare of Easttown or True Detective. Lieutenant Leaphorn is fundamentally a small town cop; it’s just that his “small town” comprises 27,000 square miles of dusty Navajoland. To help, he has two deputies: reservation lifer Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten) and Jimmy Chee (Kiowa Gordon), a university grad who’d rather not be back on tribal land.

It’s immediately clear that criminals make up a fraction of what Leaphorn is up against. His constituents, who speak a combination of English and the Navajo language Diné, don’t trust the US government or anyone else who knocks on their door in uniform. But it’s the local FBI – commanded by Agent Whitover (Noah Emmerich) – who pose the biggest impediment to catching a killer. Even on the reservation, homicide is a federal crime, and the feds’ reputation for racism precedes them. “Since when do the FBI give a damn about a dead Indian?” a victim’s mother asks, not expecting an answer.

There’s a striking moment in the third season of Yellowstone, which is set 1,400 kilometres north and 50 years after Dark Winds, but shares this new AMC drama’s hardscrabble milieu. In that show, John Dutton’s (Kevin Costner) Native American daughter-in-law looks at the white patriarch grappling to save his ranch from land developers and private equity sharks. “You’re the Indian now,” she tells him plainly.

Dark Winds rewinds the clock to the 1970s, when the Indians were still the Indians, and the white man was the bad guy. But as a foe, Whitover seems almost quaint. Surely he’s no match for Leaphorn or, for that matter, capitalism’s brutal indifference. “I’ll pretend your bank robbers are Navajo, if you pretend my two murder victims are white,” the lieutenant tells his FBI counterpart as he bargains for justice. If the American West is dying, it’s not the Indian who killed it.

In fact, even if the Navajo families we meet aren’t thriving, Navajo culture persists in ways that enrich Dark Winds without it becoming a series gimmick. Whoever committed the double murder, for example, gouged out his victim’s eyes. In a lesser show, missing eyes might point to a witch doctor killer. Here, on a show with an all-indigenous writers’ room, they’re a clever red herring, efficiently decoded by a cop who knows his constituency. The Navajo believe speaking about death brings more death, and the killers want witnesses to be afraid to talk.

Kevin Costner in ‘Yellowstone’ (Paramount)
Kevin Costner in ‘Yellowstone’ (Paramount)

In other moments, Navajo life goes almost under-explained. When Bernadette finds out Jimmy doesn’t carry a Navajo medicine bundle, she urges him to at least get a pouch of juniper ash and corn pollen. The series doesn’t pass judgement on Bernadette’s beliefs or even bother to explain why pollen is important. The world is simply allowed to stretch beyond the viewer’s understanding in the best way possible.

It’s this expansiveness that lends the series a resilience that’s missing from Yellowstone, a show that’s insisted since it started airing in 2018 that the end of ranching is as assured as the sunset. The world of Dark Winds is compact, but the landscape is infinite. Against the reservation’s hot, craggy and massive plateau, even the worst of men’s troubles loom small. The people who live with Joe Leaphorn in Navajo Nation are bound by community and tradition – everything that’s missing from the life of Yellowstone’s “last cowboy standing” agenda.

Dark Winds isn’t a cop show set at the end of the world, but a series that breathes life into a world most often portrayed as terminally languishing. By this logic, Joe Leaphorn can’t play the hero, because it’s not his people who are in need of rescue. He’s an avatar for a way of life and a patch of land that manages to persevere in the face of its enemies. If anyone can make a home on the range, it’s him.

‘Dark Winds’ is airing in the US on AMC