After a slow-burning first season, “Dark Winds” concludes with a literal boom. The six-episode first season of AMC’s neo-noir series, which drew its storyline from Tony Hillerman’s 1978 novel “Listening Woman,” culminates with the resolution of the armored truck theft that served as its backdrop. The episode concludes with a tense standoff between Navajo police officers Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) and Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon) in a cave where two bandits concealed their money and captives. The standoff culminates with Jim and Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten) detonating explosives to bury the money and the dead in the cave.
But while the show’s heist narrative concludes on a heated note, the emotional journeys of Joe, Jim, and Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten) are the actual key to the episode’s conclusion. Bernadette and Jim, who had a passionate fling that ended abruptly when Bernadette discovered Jim was a covert FBI agent, seek to mend their relationship by forming an alliance against Whitover. After a dramatic debate with one of the thieves that culminates in the latter’s suicide, Joe is able to begin living with the anguish of his son Joe Jr.’s death, burning his varsity jacket in a Navajo ritual. And in the calm last scene of the brief but action-packed episode, Joe and Jim admit how significant their relationship has become in the little time they’ve known one another.
Before the end, series creator Graham Roland and finale director Chris Eyre spoke with Variety about adapting Hillerman’s original novels, where the next season of the show will go, and why it is impossible to portray a Western tale without include Indigenous perspectives.
As seen by the first season, the novels provide a decent backbone for the storyline of a television season. Consequently, the narratives have held up rather well, mostly because we have preserved them in their original context. I concentrated on character development. Similar to “How do you make these people fascinating enough to support a lengthy television series?” In addition, in Tony’s novels, I believe Jim Chee had applied to the FBI, although he was a Navajo tribal police officer, which was not mentioned in the original books. I then made him a former FBI agent who joined the Navajo tribe police agency while keeping his past a secret from the rest of his contemporaries. This made their arcs somewhat more substantial. You had a man who was investigating a case while still grieving the death of his own kid, as well as a man who was returning to his reservation and trapped between two worlds. Now that we have this information, I have a general understanding of who these two people are; we have the makings of a long-term television storyline.
One cannot exist without the other. The Native American Buffalo civilization cannot exist without the United States government. And the Western cannot exist without both sides of the West. I am constantly perplexed by the fact that certain Westerns do not feature native characters. However, you must own both of them. Zahn, while wearing a cowboy hat, embodies the same characteristics as an Indian cowboy. It is part of the inextricable union of two cultures that are clashing that we hearken back to all these elements of classic film. And, you know, that’s really what this world is about; there would be no reserve without the over-culture. It intensifies the dispute.
Regarding the last episode, it opens by showing that Whitover has lied to Joe and Jim about his objectives the entire time. How did you ensure that this twist was both really startling and deserved?
It was an extremely challenging assignment. When Noah Emmerich was cast in the part, he was told, “Hey, the pilot doesn’t read this way, but you end up being the antagonist.” And his initial issue, which was shared by all of us, was that there are not enough white characters on the show. How can you avoid the quick impression, “Oh, he’s the nasty guy,” while referring to his antagonistic personality?
It was a delicate dance, for which the actor deserves credit. One of the ways we attempted to accomplish this was by fostering genuine attachment between him and Chee. That was not fabricated. I believe he would have brought Chee with him to Washington if everything had gone out in his favor, and he would have kept all his promises. He sincerely liked the child and desired the best for him. But ultimately, that did not override his personal goals. For the last episode, was a real cave used for filming or was the inside a soundstage?
Eyre: We had a viable cave entrance. Then, we filmed some of the more intricate scenes in a cave that we constructed.
Roland: I appreciate that you even posed the question. That it does not appear completely false makes me feel extremely wonderful.
Eyre: When I think of Joe Leaphorn, he lives in these two worlds, and he’s a law enforcement officer, but he hurts for this man who is so wounded that he commits this horrific deed. In Indian country, the suicide rate is rather high. When Leaphorn gets to the door and he warns him not to, he bows his head and can do nothing but pray. And it becomes this lovely prayer that the authors prayed, which transformed it into something greater. It’s rather therapeutic for me.
Roland: I am aware that the prayer went through several revisions. Chris, I believe I’m correct in this regard, as there was an earlier version that was released. I am aware that the authors worked extremely hard on that specific scenario. It took a collective effort to get that right. And not just get it correct, but also as authentic as possible.
Eyre: To me, it demonstrates everything we’ve been discussing: Leaphorn travelling between these realms, recognizing the duality of his position, and incorporating that into his prayer.
How much consulting did you get from the Navajo community on the show?
Eyre: We had Navajo language and cultural advisors on set. We also benefited from having Navajo elders as background extras, as well as Betty [Ann Tsosie], who portrays the grandmother, and Harrison Lowe, who appears at the opening of the episode. Thus, we had the benefit of Navajo-speaking individuals. Occasionally, the difficulty is that the dialects diverge. In addition, as generations go, language tends to get more slangy. Thus, there is traditional Navajo and a more relaxed kind. And there were several inspirations, but we’re fortunate to have all of these folks as collaborators. The Navajo folks with whom I’ve spoken adore the series. Every season, there is always room for us to improve, which we will do.
Roland: We also had Navajo authors in our writers room, which was quite useful because not only were they able to answer many of our questions, but if they didn’t know, they had a network of individuals to whom they could turn at any stage of the process.
What do you believe it was about Joe’s experience that allowed him to begin the process of moving on after his son’s death?
Roland: I don’t want to give the impression that he has found Chee as a replacement for his son. But I believe Chee filled a significant void in his life, and that is a factor in his ability to move on. And I believe another factor is the realization that hanging on to his sadness was harming him and those he loved. Therefore, he is attempting to let go of it for himself, his wife, and the others who cared about him.
I do not believe he has moved on, Eyre. I believe he has learnt to accept it. And the poetry of it is that he ultimately gives up this jacket, taking one step forward. And it’s rather poetic that we began the first episode with the jacket and that he’s able to complete his mission by the conclusion. When referring to Anna, he even states at one point, “She’s not allowed to be wearing that jacket.” It is only symbolic of letting go, and he decides to burn or bury it in accordance with cultural norms. And ultimately, after the season and arcs, he does what he’s meant to do, and it’s simply the beautiful act of thinking he will go on.
Roland: Chris brought up a pretty intriguing argument, in my opinion. Most Americans, or the majority of the audience, would agree that when someone dies, it is natural to wish to keep their belongings. However, the Navajo culture is the exact opposite. I recall hearing this for the first time and found it really intriguing that getting rid of the deceased person’s stuff was such a statement of letting go of sadness. There’s something rather lovely about that.
In the final moment between Joe and Jim, Jim almost says something to Joe, but Joe just responds, “I know.” The show then cuts to the end credits. Why did you want to leave the dialogue unresolved at the end of the season?
Roland: The authors had created the first draft of the ending, which I read for the first time and enjoyed, but it lacked a sequence that concluded with the two main characters. And I felt it was lacking something, so I went back to pitch that sequence because I believed that we needed some type of conclusion to this emotional trip that both characters had just had. But what about this precise line? It was certainly not intended to be a mystery. It was intended to be more emotive. In terms of expressing their feelings and thoughts, neither of these two men was particularly fast to do so; Joe, in particular, kept a great deal to himself. If Jim had kept speaking at that time, I believe he would have apologized for lying about all that had occurred. However, I believe that Joe’s response of “I know” was his way of letting him off the hook and saying, “It’s not required. We’re in this together because we did this together. And you have nothing for which to apologize to me.”
Given that their connection is the central focus of the episode, how did you approach building their dynamic? How did you establish this chemistry from both a writing and directorial perspective?
We were fortunate in that Kiowa and Zahn already knew each other, had worked together, and had a connection before the event. As two working actors and two individuals, the chemistry did not need to be faked, as they already possessed it. It was crucial to the play, and I believe it was something we all hoped would translate to the screen. We never planned for this to be a buddy police show, and I don’t believe it is a buddy cop show, but when we began seeing dailies of their first moments together, I remember thinking, “Wow, this is a whole depth of the show I wasn’t expecting.” As soon as I saw the two performers in a scene together, it just leaped off the screen for me. Then, for me, it was a matter of walking the line between the father-son bond they had and their roles as police officers investigating a murder together, while maintaining their perspectives on their own culture, history, and community.
The show’s second season has already been confirmed. Will you be revisiting a certain book? Do you have one in mind?
Roland: We do. Even during the first season, we frequently discussed the second season and what book we would tackle next. We have selected one. I’m not sure if I’m permitted to name the book. I want to avoid treading on the incoming showrunner’s toes. However, this is essentially our approach, publishing one book every season.