Dark Winds review: A pulpy thriller led by a stellar cast

If there’s anything that the great detective thrillers of the past have taught us, it’s that setting is everything. In a genre that so often tackles themes of corruption and brutality, it stands to reason that a detective thriller will only ever be as rich and compelling as the place it’s set in. It’s for that reason that classic Golden Age noirs like Sunset Blvd. and The Third Man, for instance, make their cities just as integral to their stories as the characters in them — if not more integral.

Dark Winds, AMC’s new pulpy detective thriller, understands this. The series, which is based on the Leaphorn & Chee novels by Tony Hillerman, is set on a Navajo reservation in the early 1970s and goes to great lengths to depict its setting as respectfully and authentically as it can. The series is primarily directed and written by creators of Native American descent, and it stars an impressive cast of Native American actors, including Zahn McClarnon, a performer who has spent the past several decades building a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most dependable and compelling screen actors.

The show’s commitment to telling an authentic Native American story pays off impressively. The figures that populate Dark Winds’ central Navajo reservation are all treated with the kind of empathy and interest that Hollywood has long denied Native American characters. The reservation itself, meanwhile, feels distinct, rich, and vast throughout the series’ six episodes, and it proves to be the perfect backdrop for a show that is so interested in issues of Native American representation and the ways in which the indigenous people of America have been taken advantage of and mistreated by this nation’s government.

Unearthing the truth

joe leaphorn marks his face in dark winds.
Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

As is the case with any great mystery, Dark Winds’ themes and moral questions only gradually become clear over the course of the series’ six episodes. The show’s premiere opens with both a thrilling bank robbery and an unexpected double homicide. The latter crime takes place within the borders of Dark Winds’ Navajo reservation, which means it falls on the shoulders of the reservation’s lead police chief, Joe Leaphorn (McClarnon), to discover the truth behind the shocking and disturbing murders.

Joe is joined in his investigation by his second-in-command, Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten), as well as Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), a rookie cop with a complicated past. The trio is forced to look into the reservation’s double homicide while also contending with an FBI Special Agent named Whitover (Noah Emmerich), who makes it immediately clear that he cares little about the people of the Navajo reservation that Leaphorn calls home. Unfortunately, the further into the investigation he gets, the more Leaphorn is forced to consider the possibility that the bank robbery and pair of murders that kicked off Dark Winds’ story may not be as disconnected as he initially assumed.

Dark Winds dives into its mysteries at a fairly leisurely pace across its first three episodes. However, in the final half of the show’s first season, its various threads begin to grow more connected and a sense of real danger quickly emerges. For some viewers, the uneven momentum of Dark Winds‘ first half may be too frustrating to put up with, but the surprisingly breakneck pace of its second does a lot to make up for the scattered structure of the show’s opening episodes.

A pitch-perfect ensemble

jim chee and bernadette manuelito lean against a car in dark winds.
Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

The impact of Dark Winds’ odd pacing is lessened by the strength of the show’s characters. McClarnon’s Joe Leaphorn, in particular, makes a lasting impression. McClarnon has always had an undeniably magnetic screen presence (see: Fargo season 2, Doctor Sleep, Longmire, etc.), but he is given his biggest and best role to date in Dark Winds. As Leaphorn, a Native American man struggling to protect his people while simultaneously dealing with his own, intense personal losses, McClarnon is astonishing. He’s stoic but vulnerable, honorable but strategic, and loved but lonely. In other words, Dark Winds is the kind of showcase for McClarnon that he has long deserved.

In addition to McClarnon, Jessica Matten turns in a confident, potentially star-making performance as Bernadette, a loyal police officer who manages to exude confidence even when she’s grappling with her own insecurities and fears. The show does Bernadette a bit of a disservice in its middle section when it comes dangerously close to her reducing her role to that of a lonely love interest, but Matten’s performance imbues the character with a constant, sometimes contradictory depth even in her lowest moments. As an arrogant FBI agent and an egotistical car salesman, respectively, Noah Emmerich and Rainn Wilson also turn in a pair of reliably sleazy performances.

To say much more about the rest of Dark Winds’ performers might risk spoiling important details about some of the show’s various late-season twists. That said, it is worth noting that Deanna Allison gives a movingly empathetic performance as Emma, a caring nurse who also happens to be Joe’s wife. Kiowa Gordon also does a commendable job as Jim Chee, a character who sometimes comes across as one-dimensional and stiff when surrounded by Dark Winds‘ largely well-drawn supporting players.

A worthwhile story

joe leaphorn stands in the desert in dark winds.
Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

As for the two mysteries at the center of Dark Winds, it may be disappointing to hear that they aren’t quite as complex as the show’s early episodes might have you believe. However, the series makes the wise choice to reveal certain key details about Leaphorn’s two cases early on in Dark Winds’ six-episode run. That decision helps turn the show into less of a convoluted murder mystery and more of a cat-and-mouse thriller, which helps heighten the series’ drama and tension in its back half. That’s true despite the fact that some of the show’s villains do, unfortunately, turn out to be fairly one-note antagonists.

Dark Winds also makes a few strange structural choices throughout its run, and there are times when its editing and directing feel surprisingly unfinished and rough, which may be the result of certain budgetary constraints more than anything else. Fortunately, Dark Winds’ rougher edges all seem to be smoothed out by the time its first season comes to an end. Therefore, should it be renewed for a sophomore season, it seems more likely than not that the series will return even stronger than it is now.

But even if Dark Winds doesn’t get renewed, its first season still tells a story that’s engaging and worthwhile, and McClarnon’s Joe Leaphorn is sure to stick around in the minds of viewers as one of the most compelling TV detectives of the past few years. His steadfast desire to find justice for his fellow Navajo citizens is not only powerful in its own right but made even more so by how it’s mirrored by the show itself, which stands as a testament to the results that can come when artists are actually allowed to tell their stories — and the stories of their people — on-screen.

Dark Winds premieres Sunday, June 12 on AMC and AMC+. Digital Trends was given access to all six episodes of the show’s first season.

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