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Where Does Dark Winds Go From Here?

Navajo police lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) interpreting “protect and serve” on his own terms is Dark Winds at its most intriguingly subversive. Photo: Michael Moriatis/AMC

Spoilers follow for the second season of AMC’s Dark Winds, including the September 3 finale “Hózhó náhásdlįį (Beauty Is Restored).” 

The rule of law ruled on Dark Winds — until it didn’t, and the show got compellingly contradictory. Since its 2022 premiere, AMC’s adaptation of Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn & Chee novel series has been characterized by the steadiness of the Navajo tribal police: Whether facing witches or curses, corrupt white people or reservation exploitation, Navajo police lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) maintains order with calmness and control. In season-two finale “Hózhó náhásdlįį (Beauty Is Restored),” though, Leaphorn interprets “protect and serve” on his own terms, and in doing so adds necessary friction to a series whose straitlacedness was beginning to be a straitjacket.

Although series creator Graham Roland started off with a few somewhat significant changes to the books — like giving Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon) an entirely different backstory and immediately introducing Sergeant Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten) rather than waiting 12 books to do so — other elements of Hillerman’s original vision remain. Leaphorn is soft-spoken but firm, an immensely skilled tracker who knows a fair amount about his Navajo culture and various practices and rituals, but doesn’t assume that he knows it all. The Navajo community puts their faith and confidence in their tribal police, and looks to Leaphorn as a leader. And there is constant tension between the Navajo and the white outside world, whose violence and haughtiness infringe upon the comparatively self-contained reservation.

That setup was in place for Dark Winds’ first season, in which Leaphorn meets Chee, now an on-the-rise FBI agent, and they work together on a case involving violent Navajo separatists called the Buffalo Society, a corrupt FBI agent played by Noah Emmerich, and a mysterious mine explosion that killed Leaphorn’s son. When the second season begins, Chee has left the Bureau to work as a private investigator, Leaphorn and his wife are still grieving their son’s death, and the reservation gets hot again with the arrival of another villain: ghostly assassin Colton Wolf (Nicholas Logan). As the season continues, Leaphorn tracks Wolf to figure out why he’s killing people, Chee gets hired by the flirtatious Mrs. Vines (Jeri Ryan) to find a box stolen from the safe of her wealthy husband, B.J. (John Diehl), and the pair’s cases overlap when they realize that a cult named People of Darkness is involved with both.

These details snap together in the final two episodes, which reveal that B.J., a white man who believes he can co-opt Navajo rituals for his own ends, is the leader of the cult, and he hired Wolf to blow up the oil mine so B.J. could buy it for a low price and then make money off the high-purity uranium inside. Wolf then killed other Navajo who were suspicious of B.J., and nearly murdered a child and Chee before being captured by Leaphorn. “Maybe I just don’t like Indians,” Wolf says when asked to explain his killing spree, furthering the dynamic introduced in season one between white intruders who aim to strip the Navajo of their resources and the Navajo police who are the only obstacle to that infringement.

In this, Dark Winds extends one of the main points of Hillerman’s worldview, or at least of his books: Just because white people act badly doesn’t mean that Native people should. They’re more upstanding and more honorable than that. And so Dark Winds started out with a certain burden of representation — and an accompanying conservatism. Leaphorn is introduced punishing a thief of Navajo artifacts, and he looks down on Chee, a “college-boy cop,” for not serving in the military; Leaphorn’s pride in his heritage and his belief in enlistment are dual motivators. Chee is also not really considered a member of the community because he left for college, and scoffs at mystical Navajo rituals; as love interest Manuelito says to him during a fight, “At least I know who I am. I know where I belong.” The reservation is both a place to stay and a place to protect, but its defenders must act by strict definitions of honor to remain heroic. In the rigid division between good and bad that characterized Dark Winds’ first season, vengeance and irresponsibility are white men’s qualities — and to be avoided.

That stringency continues in season two and is primarily embodied by Manuelito, who becomes, in her professional ambition and desire for respectability, essentially a willing agent of American imperialism. A military veteran, she applies for a job with U.S. Customs and Border Protection because “I have to find my own way”; is only romantically interested again in Chee when he tells her he’s joining the Navajo police force; and, instead of comforting a young man who is drafted for Vietnam, encourages him to accept his fate. “It’s our duty to serve when we’re called,” she says, and the boy’s concern that he’ll be fighting for a country that “doesn’t even recognize me as an American” goes unaddressed. Instead, in the next scene they have together, he’s suddenly convinced that she’s right, and even takes it a step further by aligning himself with her goals: “Maybe when I come back, I can do something, you know. Help people here on the rez, kind of like you do.” It’s a too-quick progression that only serves to valorize Manuelito, who Dark Winds has made so aspirational and so upstanding that she’s also quite boring.

When the series breaks away from that thinking with Leaphorn — Manuelito’s mentor and father figure — abandoning the lessons he taught her to pursue his own revenge, Dark Winds is at its most intriguingly subversive. When Leaphorn captures Wolf, the man he knows killed his son, in fourth episode “The March,” McClarnon transforms the normally even-keeled lieutenant into a man struggling to keep his own fury in check. He restrains Wolf on a rope leash, but that isn’t enough; he snaps the cord to hurt and choke his captive, expressions of violence that we’ve never seen him use before. Gone are the decorum and professionalism that Leaphorn had previously wielded — and that Dark Winds had suggested were not just the right way to regulate, but also essential to Native identity. Wolf knows it, too: “You’re not just a cop. This is personal.” The switch is sold by McClarnon’s unblinking gaze, his physical exhaustion as he yanks Wolf around, and the internal conflict that’s driving his actions provides welcome depth to a character whose goodness sometimes feels like a limitation.

In Hillerman’s book People of Darkness, Wolf kills his boss, B.J., and is then killed by Mrs. Vines; the white people take care of the white people, and the Native cops keep their hands clean. In “Hózhó náhásdlįį (Beauty Is Restored),” though, B.J. — who kills Wolf to silence the assassin, and is then released on bail because of his wealth and his connections — is ambushed, abducted, and abandoned in the wilderness by Leaphorn. Manuelito had disagreed earlier in the episode when Joe’s father, Henry (Joseph Runningfox), guessed that B.J.’s arrest wouldn’t lead to much punishment: “White justice, Indian justice: two different things. It’s as true today as it was in my day,” he said. But Manuelito’s faith in lawfulness is undermined by how the “white justice” of the legal system would have let B.J. get away. It’s only when Leaphorn abandons the “white justice” he’s long upheld for “Indian justice” that he avenges B.J. and Wolf’s crimes against both his family and the larger Navajo community. Leaphorn referencing the Long Walk, the 250- to 450-mile-long forced migration on which hundreds of Navajo died, when he leaves B.J. to his death is a further indication of his agreement with Henry that “white justice” always has a specific non-white target. “Out there lie the spirits of all the people you and people like you have killed. I want them to be the last thing you see,” Leaphorn says, and the lieutenant leaving the soon-dead B.J. in the landscape the mine owner once claimed to control as the “blessed dark” is a bit of poetic irony.

On a character-development level, this choice opens up all kinds of avenues for Leaphorn, if Dark Winds were to be renewed for a third season: What does Leaphorn’s abdication of his job responsibilities mean for him moving forward? Will his secret drive a wedge between him and Manuelito, who so disagreed with the idea of “Indian justice,” or move him closer to Henry, from whom he had previously been estranged? Will Leaphorn ever again be tempted to take the law into his own hands, and what kind of threat against the Navajo would push him there? And on a broader scale, the series complicating Hillerman’s source material with an adaptation choice that moves away from conservatism as positive representation — as well-meaning as that intention was when the books were published — is a subtle rebuke of the idea that morality only exists within the law. “Times have changed,” Leaphorn says to his father in the season-two finale, and Dark Winds chose the right moment to update itself too.

Where Does Dark Winds Go From Here?