Dark Winds Review: Zahn McClarnon Leads A Solid Cast In AMC's Navajo-Centric Foray Into Genre Thrills

Zahn McClarnon should have starred in his own TV series a long time ago. The instinct to make him more of a main character was there toward the end of "Fargo" season 2, where he played the mercurial enforcer Hanzee, and since then, we've seen McClarnon costar or take on a recurring role in shows like "Westworld," "Barkskins," "Reservation Dogs," and "Hawkeye." However, in "Dark Winds," which premieres on AMC and AMC+ on June 12, the actor is front and center in a noir thriller with a writers' room made up of Native American voices.

"Dark Winds" hails from creator Graham Roland and showrunner Vince Calandra, both alums of Prime Video's "Jack Ryan." The show counts George R.R. Martin and Robert Redford among its executive producers, and it's based on the "Leaphorn & Chee" series of crime novels by Tony Hillerman. McClarnon plays the Navajo Tribal Police officer Joe Leaphorn, a role that the late Fred Ward inhabited in the 1991 film "The Dark Wind."

The network has touted this as a series made "with the full support and blessing of The Navajo Nation," and it helicopters the viewer over the buttes of Monument Valley and sets them down in the early 1970s without feeling the need to over-explain aspects of Indigenous culture such as the Kinaaldá running ritual. "Dark Winds" knows what an asset it has in McClarnon, who brings a soulful presence to the Leaphorn character, but the series also makes good use of his "Red Road" cohort, Kiowa Gordon, as well as Jessica Matten ("The Empty Man").

Together, these three actors, all of whom share a natural chemistry, form the magnetic core of "Dark Winds," which overcomes its occasionally pedestrian genre thrills with a unique sense of place and people that keep it watchable for six episodes.

Navajo Nation

"Dark Winds" begins in 1971 with a cold open of a daring armored car robbery, before we meet Leaphorn, who's not about to let any biker dudes steal artifacts off Navajo land. This is one of those shows where the music gives the opening credits a lush quality that actually makes sitting through them enjoyable.

Before long, Leaphorn finds himself wading flashlight-first into the scene of a horrific motel crime. An old man has been left dead on the floor with his eyes gouged out. The walls are spattered with blood and there are claw marks on the door, with another body in the bathtub.

Leaphorn, it turns out, has a personal connection to the case. His backstory is initially somewhat ill-defined, but it crystallizes more as the show goes on and begins swooshing the viewer into flashbacks. In among the allusions to a tragedy from his past, though, it's not always clear why certain characters bear a grudge against Leaphorn. Jim Chee is the role once played by Lou Diamond Phillips in "The Dark Wind," and is played here by Kiowa Gordon. The slow-mo, classic-rock introduction of Gordon's TV version of the character feels like something out of a Martin Scorsese film, or maybe it's just that Scorsese has his own project lined up involving Native Americans and the FBI, "Killers of the Flower Moon."

Chee is Leaphorn's new deputy, a Berkley grad who's been away from the reservation for nine years. As they get to know each other, there's some male bonding that goes on along with the requisite conflict you might expect from a buddy-cop narrative. Since homicide is a federal crime, the FBI has to take the lead on the investigation into the motel murders, so this puts Special Agent Whitover (Noah Emmerich) in their path, as well.

A history of oppression

As Bernadette Manuelito, Leaphorn's second-in-command, Matten provides a strong-willed yet vulnerable entry point into the show's sporadic supernatural leanings. Leaphorn also has a believable relationship with his wife Emma (Deanna Allison), a nurse whose English-to-Navajo translations go beyond surface politeness and cut right to the heart of the matter (in this case, the desire of a white doctor to sterilize a Navajo woman without her permission).

Rainn Wilson brings a dose of comic relief to "Dark Winds" in his brief role as the car salesman Devoted Dan. At times, the show openly confronts white oppression in a manner similar to what "Firebite" did in its Australian setting on AMC+ earlier this year. Though it may sound odd, there's one particular scene in "Dark Winds" that seems to delight in antagonizing Mormons, turning them into cartoon characters with a "puke green" car and "terrible taste in music," to the point where it almost seems like robbing Peter to pay Paul in terms of representation. However, if you start to research Native American history and the slavery that took place in Utah under the early Mormons, it becomes more apparent why that scene might be there.

"Dark Winds" has a few stumbles in terms of dialogue and dramatic effect, such as when it has the old man at the beginning say, "I saw something in the sky, one of the white man's mechanical birds," or when Leaphorn is talking about his assimilation school history in a later episode and he says, "The second I arrived, they cut my hair. Took my clothes. But they could never crush my spirit." Moments like these feel a bit overcooked, but on the whole, "Dark Winds" does not slip into that more than any other network drama.

Season of the witch

"Dark Winds" is a show that gets by on the strength of its cast and setting. It uses mystery as a hook and offers a window into a world of stunning landscapes and rich tribal history. Early on, it introduces the idea of black magic and protection and purification rituals, but while the drama is mostly sturdy, the supernatural aspect winds up feeling somewhat half-baked.

It reminded me of "True Detective" and all its talk of the Yellow King and Carcosa, in that such things were ultimately not that important to the plot, but merely something to add mystique or give background shading. The idea of witchcraft does have a basis in Navajo history, but in "Dark Winds," it's more of a mood that occasionally spills over into something overt that could make a person's hair go white.

AMC+ is a streaming service that might be a stop-and-start subscription for some people, but it's linked to the horror platform Shudder and has carved out a niche for itself by catering to genre fans. "Dark Winds" doesn't necessarily reinvent the wheel, and it's not the kind of series that is going to deliver earth-shattering revelations or cliffhangers, though the first episode does end on an interesting reveal. However, when it was all over, I didn't regret watching it, and I was glad for the time I spent with these characters in this world. If you're looking to go beyond Hollywood Westerns and be immersed in a different time and place, with a culture that has too often gone underrepresented or misrepresented in myths of the American West, "Dark Winds" brings the goods.

The first episode of "Dark Winds" airs on AMC at 9pm ET/PT on June 12, 2022, with it and the second episode being available to stream on AMC+ the same day.