“Dark Winds” is set in the early 1970s, and the new AMC drama series feels like a throwback with its simple storytelling and measured pacing.
But the reasonably entertaining six-episode show â which debuts this week on the cable network and its sister streaming platform, AMC+, which will drop installments a week earlier in the future â may be more interesting in behind the scenes.
According to an article by The Hollywood Reporter, executive producer Robert Redford acquired the rights to Tony Hillerman’s novels centered on Navajo tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee in 1986. Much more recently, the film industry giant has recruited the novelist George RR Martin. â the mastermind behind the book series that spawned HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and a huge Hillerman fan â to finally help bring the work to the screen.
Perhaps more remarkable: As the THR piece explains, a sizable collection of talented people with Native American roots helped make this show â both behind the camera and in front of it â from showrunner Graham Roland to star Zahn McClarnon, a part-Lakota actor who’s a big reason why “Dark Winds” holds your attention.
After showing us the heist of an armored car in Gallup, New Mexico, which ends with the criminals escaping in a helicopter, Roland’s first scripted episode, “Monster Slayer,” introduces us to McClarnon’s Leaphorn.
He watches a man dig a hole.
âPut them back,â he orders, the man below him then lowering several Native American cultural objects into the dirt. “If I catch you stealing artifacts again, the hole you will dig will be much bigger.”
Leaphorn’s attention is soon drawn to the mysterious murder of an older man and a younger woman in a nearby motel room. He knew the young woman â as well as her blind grandmother, left alive at the scene â from Monument Valley, which is part of the large Navajo reservation.
Leaphorn is supported by Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten), an assistant whose character would have been strengthened by the novels. However, more help comes in the form of another deputy, Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), who grew up on the reservation but hasn’t lived there since leaving for college.
Chee, who arrives at the station in costume, after refusing to stop to help a motorist stuck in the way, immediately bumps into Bernadette. And while that dynamic shifts in this first season, it’s Chee’s developing partnership with Leaphorn — who finds reason to be wary of his young underling — that drives the show.
“Dark Winds” is boosted by appearances by Noel Emmerich as FBI Special Agent Whitover, who wants Leaphorn’s help in solving the case involving the armored car because the helicopter was spotted heading towards the Navajo country. (Emmerich, the former “The Americans” regular, is apparently the first call you make when you need to cast an FBI agent, the actor recently played one in the recent Apple TV+ series “Suspicion.”) Whitover and Leaphorn have, at best, a rocky working relationship, with the former being comfortable calling the latter “Kemosabe” on more than one occasion.
The second episode, “The Male Rain Approaches,” begins to tell us more about the men behind the heist and their connection to a controversial Native group, The Buffalo Society.
While “Dark Winds” largely focuses on its two cases, which may be related, there’s plenty of time for character-driven drama, including Leaphorn’s marriage to Emma (Deanna Allison), which was tested after the tragic death of their young-adult son. Unsurprisingly, this loss also sometimes affects how Leaphorn interacts with Chee.
“Dark Winds” is never an edge-of-your-seat thing, the series instead simmers to a satisfying simmer, its flavors also including some fun appearances by a former “The Office” favorite, Rainn Wilson, as a used colorful car dealership – who, when we meet him, has a moving van.
With apologies to Gordon (“Roswell, New Mexico”) and Matten (“Tribal”), who are both solid, the show hinges on McClarnon’s performance, and the veteran of shows like “Westworld” and “Hawkeye” book. In his hands, Leaphorn is both admirable and relatable, a man who doesn’t try to be perfect in an imperfect place but strives to improve the world around him.
Know that the series holds some hard-hitting secrets, revealing one in the first episode and another at the start of the finale, the satisfying “Hozhoo Naashaa.”
As the aforementioned Hollywood Reporter also points out, the arrival of ‘Dark Winds’ contributes to a moment for Indigenous content on television, started by FX on Hulu’s ‘Reservation Dogs’, which features the director of ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ Taika Waititi among its main creators, and the pleasant “Rutherford Falls” by Peacock.
We would certainly welcome more such fare, as well as a second season for “Dark Winds.”