I end up watching the first seasons of a lot of different series, most of which I never write about. I’m always looking for that elusive next show, the one which makes me look forward to watching the next episode, the next season, or all of the seasons. This doesn’t happen often.
I didn’t expect it to happen this time. A police procedural set in Wyoming, near a Cheyenne reservation, seemed interesting enough on the surface. Certainly, it was different from the other series I was watching.
I recognized a couple of the actors on the show. I’ve been familiar with Lou Diamond Phillips since his La Bamba and Young Guns days. Katee Sackhoff was Starbuck in the Ronald D. Moore reboot of Battlestar Galactica, and she’s been showing up in other genre work like the Arrowverse shows on the CW and in Star Wars properties as Bo-Katan Kryze, both in animated voiceover work and in live-action.
I put the series on my TBW list a while back. Series don’t always remain on the list. Sometimes I decide not to watch them. Or I keep choosing something else to watch instead for a long enough stretch of time that I have to wonder why I’m making the choices I am. If you looked at “My List” on Netflix at this very moment, you’d find the series Lilyhammer, Narcos, and House of Cards there. They’ve been on the list for a long while now. At the moment, I still think I’m going to watch these series. Someday. The whole Kevin Spacey drama has kept me away from House of Cards, I’ll admit, but I’ve heard enough good things about the series that I still want to watch it.
However, it’s also possible that I never will. Too many choices; too little time.
I took a chance on the first season of Longmire. It was time well invested. Although I didn’t binge these episodes, I had the urge to do so at times. Plus, I’m looking forward to watching the next season. I can’t honestly say I feel this way about all of the series that I watch. That makes Longmire one of those special shows to me.
In many ways, Longmire is the polar opposite of all the tech-heavy police procedurals on air these days. This is no CSI or even one of the Law & Order shows, really. This is a show that hearkens back to the heyday of Western lawmen on television. Sheriff Walt Longmire eschews fancy tech and science in favor of knowledge gained through experience, reading and wilderness experience. He doesn’t even own a cell phone. While Longmire isn’t immune to bursts of intuition, the sheriff solves most cases through common sense and whatever the mountain version of street smarts is known as.
Longmire exists on the spectrum of mystery detective series somewhere midway between Murder She Wrote and NYPD Blue. Not a cozy by any means, the show isn’t always an action-packed adrenaline fest either.
A couple of my friends have suggested that the series moves a bit too slow for them. It does have a languid pace at times, I’ll admit, but I think of this pace as deliberate and measured rather than “slow.” It’s part of the show’s appeal for me, in this age of smash cuts and music video style of editing.
The true strength of the show lies in its deft characterization and worldbuilding. If you’ve ever read my posts before, you already know that I consider these two of the main pillars of story construction. Plot is important also, of course. To me, it is of lesser importance than the other two. You have to care about the characters and the world they inhabit before you care about what happens next.
Any observations I make are about the television series and not the novels, which I haven’t read.
All talk about characterization begins with Sheriff Walt Longmire himself. The sheriff is a western story archetype, the strong man of few words who does what he believes is right without needing to form a committee of people who agree with him. This is his name on the series, and he is the central viewpoint character. This is his story.
Robert Taylor, the actor who portrays Longmire, is Australian. I mention this fact only because I didn’t know it until I looked him up online. I looked him up because I didn’t recognize him from any other acting role. Perhaps I should have recognized him, because he played the shapeshifting Agent Jones in The Matrix and was in the 2000 motion picture Vertical Limit, alongside Chris O’Donnell. But I didn’t. Taylor has a long list of acting credits on IMDb, most of which were Australian or United Kingdom productions.
My unfamiliarity with Taylor’s previous work is actually an advantage for Longmire. It was easy to accept him as the character, and I had no idea, even, that he wasn’t American when I watched the first season.
As the series begins, we learn that Sheriff Longmire has been a widower for a year. He seems to be a bit disconnected from the duties of the office, delegating much of the work. Early on, we notice the scars on his back while he showers. Ah, a mystery. In the second episode, during a flashback, we see Longmire having his back stitched up, with his friend Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips) also present. Walt tells Henry not to tell his daughter Cady (Cassidy Freeman) about the incident. Throughout the ten episodes comprising this season, the audience is being spoon-fed clues about whatever it is that the sheriff is trying to keep secret. Turns out there are major things that Walt hasn’t told his daughter, things which come to light when Detective Fales (Charles S. Dutton), a homicide detective from Denver, shows up looking for Longmire in Absaroka County, Wyoming, in the final episode.
Speaking of secrets, Cady Longmire is having a secret relationship with one of Walt’s deputies, Branch Connally (Bailey Chase), who has also begun a campaign for sheriff himself, running against Longmire in the next election. Branch’s father, Barlow Connally (Gerald McRainey), is apparently a big shot in the county and is encouraging his son to run a dirty campaign against his boss.
I can’t continue without mentioning that I also recognized these characters from other roles. McRainey was, of course, Major Dad. And Cassidy Freeman played Tess Mercer, Lex Luthor’s half-sister on Smallville, and Bailey Chase was a member of the Initiative on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a small world for genre fans.
Victoria “Vic” Moretti (Katee Sackhoff) was a homicide detective in Philadelphia, PA, but moved to Wyoming six months before our story begins, becoming one of Walt’s deputies. It’s apparent that she’s already risen to the top of the deputy pecking order, especially after Walt learns about Branch’s campaign. The only other deputy is Archie “The Ferg” Ferguson (Adam Bartley), a well-meaning but hapless officer who initially seems to be the Barney Fife of the group. He grew on me as a character.
Vic has her own secrets, too. The viewer doesn’t even discover she’s married until the sixth episode. Most of the other local characters seemed surprised by this fact as well. The marriage seems to be a shaky ground. That may not be the only secret Vic isn’t sharing, though.
Walt’s close friendship with Henry Standing Bear presents a bit of a mystery as well. Henry is a member of the Cheyenne reservation, and the owner/operator of the Red Pony tavern. Both actors adroitly sell the fact that these two men have been friends for a long time. It seems like there is a story behind their connection, but we’re not going to get much of it this season.
These characters, and sheriff’s station dispatcher Ruby (Louann Stephens), represent this show’s found family, even when their purposes seem to be at odds. Other characters crop up as story needs dictate. Some characters appear only in a single episode. Others are recurring, such as Chief of Indian Tribal Police Mathias, a role played by Zahn Tokiya-ku McClarnon, an actor I recognize from several television series, including Westworld and Fargo. Also, A Martinez has a recurring role as Jacob Nighthorse, a successful Cheyenne businessman who seems to be a main antagonist for Sheriff Longmire.
It’s a chicken-or-the-egg argument as to which comes first, worldbuilding or characterization. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two, in my opinion. All of our characters are products of their environment. Even Vic Moretti, who as a transplant from the East Coast often serves as the fish-out-of-water stand-in for those viewers who may not be familiar with Wyoming. She gets to ask all of the questions we want to ask without it seeming like awkward exposition.
While our setting is a fictional county in northern Wyoming, most of the series was actually filmed in New Mexico. Regardless, the scenery is beautiful and rugged, and sets the tone for the types of stories told. In spite of a few serial elements, Longmire is very much an episodic show.
Our setting invites stories about the Native American reservation, the rodeo, weird cults, bearbaiting, Mennonites and illegal cannabis growing in national parks. Along the way, we learn things about horses and tracking and other typical Western stuff, as well as the fact that Sheriff Longmire’s preferred beer brand is Rainier.
I enjoyed this season. I guess that’s no secret by this point. I’m looking forward to watching the remaining five seasons.
Firewater’s I-Told-You-I-Don’t-Need-a-Cell-Phone Report Card: A
I know this show isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But if you like westerns and feel a need for a little less pseudoscience technobabble with your police procedurals, this one may just be right up your mountain valley. I found it to be a refreshing change from the same-old.