Booking crime drama ‘Dark Winds’ gives Zahn McClarnon an overdue spotlight: TV review

At the start of the first episode of AMC’s new series “Dark Winds,” Zahn McClarnon’s Joe Leaphorn advises Kiowa Gordon’s Jim Chee on a way forward as he investigates crimes on a Navajo reservation. Leaphorn has been doing this for some time and is unimpressed with his new deputy’s credentials or his naked ambition; sometimes pragmatic approaches are best, so Leaphorn advises Chee to keep a carton of cigarettes handy. On the reserve, people will say more for a package, he says, “than in an interrogation room.”

It’s a well-chosen detail – one that speaks to its setting, its time period (the show is set in the early 1970s, when the series of books written by Tony Hillerman on which it is first based were published) and of the dynamic between the pair. Leaphorn is the source of law enforcement knowledge among the Navajo. And Chee, possessed by more ambition than street smarts, and happily settled in white America before being called home, needs help regarding community. Both men went to college, but Leaphorn went home, while Chee, eyes open and his assimilation well underway, had to be called back.

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McClarnon is a tight, intuitively calibrated coil of frustration throughout “Dark Winds”; the actor, familiar with roles in “Reservation Dogs,” “Westworld” (on which he anchored the standout episode “Kiksuya” in 2018) and “Fargo,” gets a well-deserved round in the center of the frame, and gets a shot the most out of every minute on screen, including in effective acting duets with Gordon and with Deanna Allison, who plays his wife. The script demands a lot from McClarnon, who serves as a guide for viewers through a web of mysteries that includes an armed robbery with crooks escaping by helicopter, as well as bodies found dead in the storeroom – where the involvement of the FBI, in the person of Noah Emmerich’s Agent Whitover, is not welcome.

It’s not a mistake that you can’t spell ‘Whitover’ without ‘blank’: it comes to represent a brutally authoritarian approach to policing a community it doesn’t try to understand. , and he represents an endless source of temptation for Chee, appealing to the latter man’s vanity by presenting an entirely different view of how to relate to Native life as a law enforcement officer. (Emmerich, for many seasons the ultimate nice FBI agent on “The Americans,” relishes every bit of scenery he chews on here.) .

Produced by a team including Robert Redford, George RR Martin and filmmaker Chris Eyre, and written by a room of all-Indigenous writers, “Dark Winds” has an admirable approach: it’s quick to explain itself to viewers. , confident that his midfielder will be heard loud and clear. In the wake of last year’s very different and low-key comedy ‘Reservation Dogs‘, ‘Dark Winds’ provides further proof of the power of high-quality representation, allowing natives to contribute their point of view and their story to the kinds of stories that are fundamental to American entertainment. Seen in a certain way, Joe Leaphorn is an archetypal cop, as familiar as Perry Mason; seen another, it represents something that is unfortunately new to our screens, and welcome all the same.

“Dark Winds” will premiere on AMC and AMC+ on Sunday, June 12 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

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