#NativeNerd review: Dark Winds, Season 2

A deeper, more brooding side to Zahn McClarnon’s role as Navajo Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn

“There is no behind, there’s only through,” Emma Leaphorn

By Vincent Schilling

Is it possible the brooding furrowed brow and intensity of Zahn McClarnon could get an even higher Fahrenheit rating? With the second season of Dark Winds now premiering on AMC and AMC+ my answer to you, dear readers, is a simple, “Yes.”

I sat down over the weekend to watch the season that will be unfolding over the next six weeks and am pleased the say the audience is sure to enjoy some critically well-done performances by the likes of Zahn McClarnon, A. Martinez, Kiowa Gorden, Jessica Matten, Deanna Allison and Elva Guerra.

Who would have thought that in 2023, I, as a Native American critic, could be calling out a list of great Native actors sharing their skills on the same network that produced such hits as The Walking Dead? 

In addition to the long list of incredible performances, I marvel at the fact that Native people are also in the cast and crew, including directors, executive producers and writers. Hats off to directors Chris Eyre, and Billy Luther, and writers Steven Paul Judd, DezBaa’ and Rhiana Yazzie and so many more.

I have seen during the course of my career as a journalist these Native stars shine, and I am so incredibly proud of them all.

Dark Winds Season 2

We come into the story a few years after an explosion that killed six men, and Zahn McClarnon, as Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, is struggling to come to terms with an event that changed his family forever.   

Kiowa Gordon, who portrays Jim Chee, is wearing a bit of a different hat in season two, taking on private investigative work for a local rich white family. Jessica Matten, who portrays Navajo police officer Bernadette Manuelito, is looking to advance her career, but is the Navajo police department, funded by the Burea of Indian Affairs, enough for her?

Deanna Allison as Joe’s wife, Emma Leaphorn, and Elva Guerra, as Sally Growing Thunder, struggle with the new life in the Leaphorn home, Sally’s baby boy, at a time when Navajo women were forcibly sterilized by family planning doctors.

Dark Winds Season 2 description from AMC

This season, Lt. Joe Leaphorn (McClarnon), reunites with Jim Chee (Gordon), his former deputy turned private eye, when their separate cases bring them together in pursuit of the same suspect. They find themselves in the high desert of Navajo Country chasing a killer who’s turned his sights on them to protect a secret that rips open old wounds and challenges Leaphorn’s moral and professional code. With the help of Sgt. Manuelito (Matten) and Valencia County Sheriff Gordo Sena, Leaphorn and Chee must thwart their would-be assassin and restore balance not only to their own lives, but to the reservation that depends on them.

My review

A thoughtful season with an impressive Native cast. A deeper, more brooding side to Zahn McClarnon’s role as Navajo Police Lt. Joe Leaphorn, A Martinez also deserves a big nod

In my view, Season 2 of Dark Winds is a little bit of a gentler ride in terms of the story it tells. 

The story unfolds much like the way a cross-country trip in a car might feel. I am not talking about the major highway route, this journey takes an intentional detour through the roads of the desert. And, of course, this journey goes through Indian territory. The roads are sometimes bumpy and unkept, and the air can be unforgivably frigid, or unbearably hot. 

The road unfolds in front of you when you don’t expect it to, and oftentimes, something shows up, causing you to veer off the road, or the driver, unaware until the last moment, crashes into it.

McClarnon, portraying Lieutenant Leaphorn, knows these roads better than anyone else, and if I were ever to get lost, it would be his police truck, raised up on overly-massive tires, that I would be looking for. 

The desert, in the midst of its beautiful landscapes and colorful geography, can be a terrifyingly unforgiving and deadly place.

This is Leaphorn’s territory. Don’t mess with it.

Time slows in the desert. And this is the ride the viewers embark upon. When a gun goes off in this world, it is not like the world of the big city where guns go off like firecrackers. 

When a gun goes off in Dark Winds, it is with one powerful booming shot. Shots here are not wasted, they are meaningful, and thought-provoking. You feel the devastation of every bullet.

In the show, there are several times simple conversations that carry massive weight. Some of the on-screen interactions between McClarnon as Leaphorn and A Martinez as Sheriff Gordo Sena were my favorite parts of the show.

There were also some unexpected small moments of cheer and subtle hilarity in the show, including a large group of Navajo community members charging merrily into the tribal police station to watch TV after a power outage in another building and Matten as Manuelito yelling at two community members to stop looking through confidential police files. In another scene, Navajo actor Loren Anthony, playing a tough-looking community member mending a fence, hilariously jokes about horse dung.

Indian humor works really well in this series, and I find it extremely welcomed, and in no way out of place. I hope we can see more moving forward.

Throughout the second season, Kiowa Gordon, as Tim Chee, carries an undertone of mischief within his character, which I really enjoyed. Though I must say my favorite time on the screen with him was the interaction between himself and a young actor he brings to reunite with the boy’s mother following a family tragedy. I liked the sincerity of the moment. 

I also appreciated the interjections of Native sentiment. I felt incredible discomfort at the rich non-Native man adorned in buckskin, wearing a bolo tie with turquoise, his fireplace mantle decorated with a broken papoose, conducted his business dealings, unaware as to the sacredness around him, nor what he was covered with. 

I caught a lot of the Native sentiments immersed in reality, the Native American elder telling the astronaut to deliver a message to the moon to be careful about the white man and land, the references to the tragedy of Fort Sumter and the Long Walk, involuntary sterilizations, uranium mines and more.

Something that was great to see was the women taking their power. There is a reality of history that hits hard regarding those Native women who may have wished to have more than one child, or in many cases, any children at all. 

Scenes between Deanna Allison, as Emma Leaphorn, and Elva Guerra, as Sally Growing Thunder, were so powerful in their subtlety, I struggle to describe them now. My heart ached with the reality they brought to their moments on screen.

Overall, I appreciated the complexity of the story, though I think it might have hit the arc a little too soon. I also have a few unanswered questions regarding a protagonist’s mother and another issue surrounding a three-horned sheep, but perhaps those storylines might be addressed later.

This criticism is a small one, and the ability of McClarnon to continually bring smoking intensity to the screen is currently unparalleled. This man can masterfully go into the dark side of humanity, and somehow miraculously come back out — albeit a bit torn and tattered — to live another day.

In short, ‘man, can that man act.’ 

Watch out for sheep on the road. 

More about Dark Winds Season 2 via AMC Networks

Dark Winds Season 2 sees the return of series regulars Deanna Allison (Accused, Edge of America) as Emma Leaphorn and Elva Guerra (Reservation Dogs, Rutherford Falls) as Sally Growing Thunder. They are joined by previously announced guest stars Jeri Ryan (Star Trek: Picard, Bosch) who stars as Rosemary Vines, Nicholas Logan (Dopesick, Creepshow) who plays Colton Wolf, A Martinez (Longmire, Days of Our Lives) as Valencia County Sheriff Gordo Sena, and Joseph Runningfox (The Politician, Valley of the Gods) who portrays Henry Leaphorn, Lt. Joe Leaphorn’s father.

Based on the iconic Leaphorn & Chee book series by Tony Hillerman, Dark Winds is created by Graham Roland (Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, The Returned, Almost Human, Fringe). John Wirth (Hell of Wheels, Hap and Leonard) serves as showrunner. The series is executive produced by Roland, Wirth, McClarnon, Robert Redford, George R.R. Martin, Anne Hillerman, Chris Eyre, Vince Gerardis and Tina Elmo.

Now on AMC and AMC+

Correction: I previously listed Maya Rose Ditloff and Anthony Florez as Season 2 writers. They wrote for Season 1.