Based on the novels of Tony Hillerman, Dark Winds is another welcome addition to the recent spate of Indigenous American stories on television. Given his bravura turns on Fargo and Reservation Dogs, it’s unsurprising Zahn McClarnon kills it yet again in this western noir, which serves up a compelling mix of criminal intrigue and cultural drama.
McClarnon stars as Joe Leaphorn, sheriff of the tribal police in the Navajo Nation, who catches a double homicide. The case has personal ramifications, since one of the victims is the daughter of a man with whom he has a contentious history. Along with his sergeant Bernadette (Jessica Matten) and newly arrived deputy Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), Leaphorn begins to investigate. Unbeknownst to him, though, Chee is actually an ambitious FBI agent, who has been sent back to the Navajo Nation where he grew up to locate the proceeds of a high-profile bank heist that took place in Gallup, New Mexico. Chee has designs on making a big case and taking a promotion elsewhere, but develops a grudging respect for Leaphorn and a romantic interest in Bernadette as they work together to untangle a treacherous conspiracy.
Dark Winds a well produced, multifaceted period crime story with an engrossing plot, given unique flavor by its seventies, southwestern milieu. Its classy production values and bright, vibrant look are worthy of prestige TV, but the show has something of a conventional network vibe—one that contributes somewhat to its one downside: that at six episodes, its emotional beats feel rushed. This is especially true in the relationship-building; both Leaphorn’s paternal feelings toward Chee and the romance between Chee and Bernadette could have used more time to develop. But overall it’s a solid procedural mystery that ramps into thriller territory in the final three episodes, when the clues coalesce into exciting confrontation. The principals are terrific, and there’s a great supporting cast, with Jeremiah Bitsui, Eugene Brave Rock, and especially Noah Emmerich as Chee’s shifty FBI superior Leland Whitover. It’s definitely encouraging news that a second season is out and a third is in the works.