Only two scenes in “A Damn Shame” don’t depict Walt Longmire. The opening scene depicts a fire in a barn, with horses panicking, dying, and trying to break free. It’s interwoven with Walt in a sweat lodge, in a deliberately artistic style that pays off well here, making it clear that though Walt’s not in the scene, it’s still his story. The threat to the horses also ties the audience and the show’s characters to the case emotionally. (Click on the video above to view this scene.)
The second scene without Walt takes place in the middle of the investigation, when a man claiming to be an FBI agent shows up at the station with the three main cops from the office. The most junior deputy, the bumbling Ferg, attempts to calm the agent, and in so doing, gives him the location of the family he’s looking for as well as the sheriff’s location. This is necessary to the plot, but we haven’t spent much time with Ferg yet at all, and “A Damn Shame” hasn’t given much previous indication that he’s going to get this much attention. More notably, the absence of Walt, Vic, or Branch at the office makes it clear just how dependent the show is on those characters, and how much stronger the narrative is for Walt's presence.
Once that brief break with Walt’s perspective occurs, it becomes much more apparent how much the episode is built around him. Though he’s not the main character, every shot in "A Damn Shame" focuses intently on Walt, or takes his perspective, or both. (Click on the video below to view the scene.)
As the story and characters converge on a ranch house, the most dramatic moments occur. Walt and Vic start to walk towards the house, shots are fired, they take cover behind the police truck. The camera appears to take cover behind them. When new characters show up, he’s shown arriving in the distance, then he moves to the center of the shot. There are some brief wider shots, but the bulk of them are right alongside the show’s protagonist.
The tight focus on Walt and his perception here helps Walt’s tension become our tension. This can be claustrophobic at times, but in a good way. Were this a few seasons down the road, when Longmire has a larger cast of characters and more story threads to deal with, it might seem like a gimmick or worse, a waste of time. But we’re not at that point. Right now, the show really does seem like it’s just Walt’s show, and for the moment it works.
This tight focus also helps build the tension and set the stage for the solving of the mystery. Longmire, quite effectively, gives Walt as much information as the audience has, so when we’re suspicious, he's suspicious. If the audience is smarter than the main characters, a mystery show starts attracting disdain. On the other hand, if the characters are too much smarter than the audience, then the characters start seeming inhuman or the mystery begins to seem gimmicky. This show's respect for its audience’s patience shows up early in the episode, when a note from the apparently dead man in the barn fire appears. Each of the characters reads it, their reactions showing that the most likely reason for the note—suicide—is also what the note seems to indicate. Yet Longmire lets the reactions take precedence over the text, only substantiating those reactions later.
Through impressive technical competence, surprising for a show so early in its run, “A Damn Shame” maintains a down-to-earth tone in the story it tells, the characters’ reaction to the story, the way the story is shot, and the way the story is constructed.
Yet all that competence is put into the service of a story that, well, doesn’t actually say all that much. A local man, Ray, appears to have committed suicide. But there’s just enough oddness in his pre-death behavior and the forensic investigation that Walt gets suspicious. Ray is eventually revealed to have been a mobster who bailed on his family and went on the run, and who then faked his death when he was discovered by the mob. Walt discovers Ray hiding in a basement, and confronts him on his cowardice for hiding while his family has been taken hostage, and refuses to believe otherwise based on his murder of the horses. Ray swears he’s not a coward, and wants the chance to redeem himself. Walt cuffs him, but Ray calls attention to himself anyway, helping Walt save Ray’s family, even as Ray himself ends up dead. It’s a conventional, dull redemption story, and sidelines his wife and son, who had been more interesting in the first part of the episode.
I’m much more impressed by Longmire’s ability to tell a story well than I am disappointed by any lack of creativity in its storylines. That sort of depth should come with time, character development, and world-building. Having a stand-out technical core makes the idea that the show will turn special more likely, and even if not, it should still remain high-quality.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.