Dark Winds is AMC’s short-run series based on the Tony Hillerman Leaphorn and Chee novels, as well as Hillerman’s daughter’s follow-up to the series after his death. The series is six episodes long, focusing on one of the books, but takes inspiration and direction from a few different ones. It’s a six-episode arc produced by Robert Redford, George RR Martin, and Anne Hillerman. My experience with the books is limited. Many family members, including my father and mother, were fans, and I do remember them reading them when I was younger. However, I have only recently started my own journey with the series, so my Impressions are not from that with a great deal of knowledge of the source material.
The show focuses primarily on Listening Woman and parts of People of Darkness from my research, though some of the direction with various characters and plotlines have been influenced by the whole series, including Anne Hillerman’s own books. Specifically, Bernadette Manuelito became a much more prominent character when Anne took over, and she is very much the third star in this series, which I appreciate. Jim Chee’s own introduction to the series plays out a bit differently than it did in the books, from what I can find as well.
This is to say that if you are expecting a direct translation of Listening Woman, you will not find it here. That is not a knock, though. More and more, I think there is something good about adapting a source material, making sure to keep certain aspects, like important traits of your characters, feeling, tone, etc., but still adding your own details to it. As long as you respect the spirit and some of the details, there is nothing wrong with making it your own.
It can go wrong, naturally, but so can sticking too close to the source material. With that, though, again, with my limited knowledge of the source material from here on out, I would like to just talk focus on the show.
The show opens with a pretty epic robbery in Gallup, New Mexico, in the early 1970s. From there, it jumps to a murder with Joe Leaphorn, greatly saddened by the death of a young woman. When Leaphorn goes to tell the family, it is clear he has a history with them, though the details are hazy at this point. Leaphorn is forced to hand off the murder to the FBI, despite people being against this as the FBI does not care about Navajo deaths. Leaphorn’s relationship with the FBI seems strained at best. The FBI wants Leaphorn to focus on the case of the robbery as the getaway helicopter was last seen flying to the Navajo Nation. Leaphorn wants the FBI to simply give a damn about the two murdered indigenous people.
The series unfolds with Leaphorn actually doing his best to investigate both cases; all the while, we are starting to see how Leaphorn was connected to the young woman that was murdered and his own grief. The show does an interesting job of introducing all these different threads and stories and slowly weaving them together more and more.
Jim Chee is introduced and his own difficulties with wanting to leave the Navajo Nation behind and his connection to Leaphorn, Manuelito, and the people now that he is here. Both his and Leaphorn’s stories are interesting and believably done.
In fact, overall, characters are what this show does right. It’s not just Leaphorn and Chee, but them, of course, but Manuelito, Emma, Leaphorn’s wife, and even many of the background characters. They are all well-written, acted, and just a delight to watch. You want to keep watching for them. A few of the “bad guys,” as it were, are a bit flat, especially against their counterparts. This is not the case for all of them, but it is a bit noticeable.
As for the mystery, because it is, after all, a mystery/crime drama. Well… It’s not a bad one; it’s a really good story and well done. It’s more that it was not all that much of a mystery? I am not sure if it’s my own experience with the genre, as a writer, or what, but I really felt you could predict most things fairly quickly and easily as the story unfolded. This could be that I am different from the audience, a weakness on the part of the writing, or even intentional. Some crime dramas don’t want the audience to have to struggle to keep up. I can’t compare it to the books to know if it matched how the mysteries in the books played out, nor can I put myself in the brain of someone else to know if they also noticed this.
It is a bit of a complaint, but again only a bit. The story is still good. It is still a well-done crime drama. If the only issue is that it’s not too hard to predict, then I mean, that’s not much of one.
It also has some supernatural elements, which I did not expect but liked. This is not just a crime drama, there are some mystical moments to it which I think keep it a bit unique in a world that is starting to get bloated with them.
The climax felt a touch clunky at moments, not bad, just not as smooth as a lot of the rest of the show. That is something they can iron out with the upcoming next season. Also, visually the show looks great. Awesome cinematography, the costuming is great, I love the southwest and all the nature shots. The CGI, though, oof. There isn’t a lot of it, but that almost makes it stand out more when it happens. Again though, it’s nothing that will ruin the experience.
I also appreciate the show being willing to embrace long silences. In my limited reading and what was shown, Leaphorn is a quiet and focused character. The show emphasizes that a lot with him but also uses it at other moments. It is not afraid to just let a moment be quiet and either still or have limited movement. It creates a good feeling with the show, and I appreciate it in the midst of a lot of media wanting to be constantly moving and loud. – Not that being so doesn’t have its place, too, it just would not have fit as well – It makes for compelling scenes that add to the experience.
A few other issues are that apparently, some of the Navajo Nation is not thrilled with some of the depictions of language and culture. The show boasts that the writer’s room is all indigenous Americans, so it seems something is lost in translation. I cannot speak to this, it is not my world, I just felt I would be remiss in not pointing out there has been a mixed reaction to that aspect. I feel the choice to pump up that Rainn Wilson was in it was a mistake because simply put, he is not in it all that much. He is the biggest name they have, but hopefully, now that the show is established and was well received, they can avoid over-hyping a single big name despite the smallness of the part. I am also not 100% sold on the conclusion of the crimes. It is hard to explain without giving away too many details, but I think one other person should have been proven to be a bad guy. Again though, source material?
Overall while I have an issue here or there, they are just drowning in how good this show is. The characters are just great, the development is well done, the story kept me sucked in. Also, as a southwest girl, I just loved the western aspects of it and the setting, history, all of it. It’s a great blend of different subgenres and elements in a really well-done package.
Bottom line? Strongly recommend. If you like the southwest, if you like crime dramas, thrillers, learning about indigenous culture, mysteries, great characters, or any of the above in whatever combination, you have to give this show a watch. It’s only six episodes long, so not much of a commitment, but I have a feeling by episode two, you will want more than six rather than think, “it’s only a few more to go.” Hearing about it started me down the path to finally give the Hillerman books I remember my family reading a try, and this show has only deepened that excitement. I am so excited that we will be getting a second season, and I can’t wait to watch it. Add this to your list if you haven’t already, and bump it up if you have. It’s really a great watch.