There were high hopes from Dark Winds when the details about its production were announced. A completely Native Indian cast and writing team with full creative license tendered an exciting series of television ahead.
The first season certainly delivers and dare I say, exceeds expectations. Dark Winds intricately combines the investigation of two gruesome murders in the Navajo reservation area, the progression of which presents confusing and hard-hitting revisits to traumas of the past.
The show’s universe offers us broken characters looking for closure and affection from unyielding places, as they grapple with the strange events in town.
From the very first episode, Dark Winds never feels like a consciously “native” show. Basically, it is self-aware of its setting but isn’t afraid to shed that identity to take on a more traditional form. It operates as a normal story about local police solving a double murder/heist mystery that sent shockwaves in the community.
The point about its cultural representation isn’t driven home forcefully. Whatever the writers want to introduce us to isn’t stuffed down our throats, but instead organically manifests within the narrative itself. The focus on the plot is never lost and that is a huge relief.
Joe Leaphorn is a taciturn, respected veteran in the force, ironing out issues across the town as any small-town sheriff does. Under him, Bernadette Manuelito is the only other active officer in the tribal police force.
Leaphorn is confronted with the dead body of a familiar face in Anna Atcitty, who is found murdered in a motel room along with another local, Hosteen Tso. Matters are further complicated as the FBI sticks its nose in the investigation to look for perpetrators who executed a bank heist in Gallop in the same time frame.
Agent Chee (disguised as a new joining in the force) joins the party to assist in the search for answers. His introduction kicks off the cat and mouse game of looking for the pieces to solve the marauding jigsaw puzzle. The first season’s plot and characters are based on the Leaphorn and Chee series by Tommy Hillerman, who has written extensively about these characters.
At just six episodes, season one isn’t too stretched out. Creators took the right executive decisions to condense all of it in so little time. As a result, the episodes feel perfectly paced and have cutting-edge editing, barring patches of melodramatic snippets.
The vast expanse of the reservation serves as a beautiful backdrop for the story to unfurl. It has an almost majestic feel and atmosphere that calls you out from the screen. For once, we do not see a series about a particular culture and community not being whitewashed with details. Everything is preserved in the original form to let the viewer experience something new.
The Dine language is spoken extensively in the episodes. We are introduced to almost all descriptive elements of their traditions. Dark Winds also features an entire episode dedicated to the rooted ceremony that is akin to a quinceanera in the Hispanic culture.
Right from the costumes to the makeup and styling, everything is Native in taste. The cultural flavor is a natural attraction for viewers bored with the monotonous details of everyday television. They wear their Dine colors with pride and aren’t afraid to show them off. But despite the notion’s uniqueness, it is still in the passenger’s seat. The story, plot, and quality of the production are well looked after. The writers place them firmly in the driver’s seat and allow the narrative to define the show.
Despite their toughness, almost all characters have a vulnerable side that is shown deftly by the team. Not to process them as weak but to allude to their longing desire to be heard and seen. The show walks a fine line between confrontational and intrusive really well. There are no unnecessary, soapy lookbacks or voyeuristic pressing in the present to explore the cracks.
Even when pushed, the trauma is gently revisited, in a subtle way that is respectful. Leaphorn puts out too many fires around the Rez that he has forgotten to take care of himself. He is busy with the problems of others that he can’t figure out a way to go back to the way things were. He hasn’t healed yet from his son Joe’s loss. Nor has Emma. But the two are afraid to let the feelings out. Instead, they spend an unhappy domestic life without the enthuse and living.
They aren’t alone in this trap, Guy and his wife are the same. So are many characters, who are looking out from the hopeless pit of apathy and helplessness. It is the very core of the story that humanizes them and gives them an identity.
As far as the acting is concerned, the ensemble is emphatic as a whole. Zahn McClarnon relishes as Leaphorn in the lead role, making poised inroads into his characters’ skin to win you over. The universe mostly revolves around him and he is up to the task of shouldering the burden. There is no dearth of dramatic performances in season one, but Zahn clearly stands head and shoulders above everyone else. His evocative close-ups and all-season qualities make him the perfect action man. Jessica Matten is the unexpected dark horse too, turning in a performance of the highest quality.
Bernadette is a complex character to pull off. Her easy-going personality is only a facetious barrier that she builds around her real face of angst, insecurities, and the deep feeling of love she has for a few. Matten looks the part too.
With her uniform off, she is even more revealing as a person and that comes through as a winning quality. Jeremiah Bitsui has a mostly one-dimensional role in season one though. We only see his vulnerability and fear in the very last moments of the season. I talked about this point in the review for the last episode and it’s definitely something that stands out. Some more effort to expand his background and motivations would have elevated the show. He makes the most of the few moments he gets in the finale to showcase his potential but a bit more would have been welcome.
Regardless, Season 1 of Dark Winds delivers compelling television that you must watch. It has a great balance to its story and ticks all the boxes of technical nuance. While not necessarily a slow-burn, the execution isn’t too hasty either. This one gets a thumping thumbs up from us!
Verdict - 8.5/10