LONGMIRE RECAP 5: THE WORST KIND OF HUNTER

LONGMIRE RECAP 5: THE WORST KIND OF HUNTER

Last week’s shift of morality, from goodness invested in the law and its enforcers to something more complex, appears to have opened the gates for Longmire to grow as a show. In “The Worst Kind Of Hunter,” Longmire continues muddying its moral waters by separating justice from law. The victim, Ed Crawley, is a convicted murderer, out on parole after 25 years and suddenly found dead, apparently mauled by a bear. Many of the people Walt interviews are delighted that Crawley’s dead, to the point of casting disdain on our protagonist for even bothering to investigate the murder.

nullThis is the flip side of the revelation from last week: if the law is insufficient to provide justice, people desperate for justice will go outside the law. Nobody in the episode questions whether Crawley was a murderer. In fact, there’s not even a significant argument as to whether Crawley committed the murder he went to prison for, or whether he deserved to die for it. But there was a crime, and Walt and the rest of his office are investigating.

The officers, after all, merely make up one cog in the system of justice. Even if the courts or prisons don’t work out every time, the cops can’t stop doing their job. That’s the whole point: there are checks and balances, different people making different judgments, all based on different considerations. Regardless of how just one may believe one’s self to be, it’s still the job of the police to accurately figure out who committed crimes. Justice is an abstract concept, created in practice through the interactions of flawed people and institutions.

But you won’t get that from Longmire. The idea that the police need to investigate the crime regardless of whether it’s justified or not is treated as inherently true in “The Worst Kind Of Hunter.” But the lack of examination of justice proves disappointing this week. At the end of the episode, Walt confronts the killer, Crawley’s former warden, and threatens him into admitting the murder. Walt gets his confession . . . and then the episode ends.

That abrupt ending of the policing section of the case has become normal for Longmire, but for the first time here, it’s a severe detriment to the episode as a whole–partly from the editing of the final scene itself. Walt meets with the culprit, accuses him, and threatens him by dumping beef and its juices and smells on the warden, then Walt threatens to release the bear who was used for the initial murder, its senses apparently inflamed by the beef. Walt gets his confession, and then . . . he releases the bear, “Waffles,” anyway.

I can’t tell exactly what’s going in this scene, which is a major part of the problem. Walt, with the gate to the bear's cage almost open, gets his confession. Then Longmire holds the lock. The warden winces. Walt pushes the latch down, maintaining the lock, and turns his attention to the bear (and we don’t see the warden again). He then gives a brief speech to the bear, used as a tool in the initial murder, asking it to stay away from the town, and lets it go. The bear calmly wanders off. It’s a touching scene, but utterly confusing. It doesn’t appear that Walt has actually departed from the place where he confronted the warden, but the warden is gone. The entire point of the threat—that the bear, with its new taste for human flesh, might attack the warden—is lost. On the other hand, the lighting and background seems slightly different. It’s impossible to tell if Walt had been bluffing or if he was in some totally different geographic region when he released the bear.

This directly ties in to Longmire’s apparent distaste for dealing with the consequences of its investigations. Once the warden confesses his crimes, according to the visual logic of the show, he is literally removed from the world. All that matters is Walt’s victory, and his emotional response to the victory, the release of Waffles. There’s no ethical dilemma. There’s no discussion of how right or wrong the warden might have been. No discussion of how his bail would be set, no trial, no regret, nothing. To put it in television terms, we got “Law” but no “Order.”  This is important because without consequence, it’s very difficult to discuss thematic depth. (It’s also unfortunate that it lacks the intensity of last week’s wonderful confession scene.)

It’s a bit of a shame, because some of the ideas brought up by “The Worst Kind Of Hunter” were especially interesting. In the first few episodes, “foreign” influences were portrayed as leading to a kind of corruption in the rural Wyoming town and county. Here, the villain explicitly wants to represent a traditionalist point of view, making it a point to support Walt in the election as an old guy being forced out by a new guy (before his crime is revealed, of course). There’s also a comic subplot in which one of Walt’s predecessors gives unwelcome, overly old-fashioned advice to hammer the point home.

Yet this this tension of change versus traditionalism is nothing more than window dressing here. It’s an aspect of social complication in theory, but almost irrelevant in practice. Without consequences, the mysteries are just puzzles to be solved, nothing more.

 

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.

LONGMIRE RECAP 4: DOG SOLDIER

LONGMIRE RECAP 4: DOG SOLDIER

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There’s an important development in this week’s Longmire, though it’s not immediately apparent. For the first time, Walt Longmire hits the barriers of what the law can do, and he is willing to work outside the law for justice. Not only that, but he's doing so because of specific corruption focused on the Cheyenne. Given the show’s previous focus on Walt’s heroism for upholding the law in the face of (justified, but difficult) bitterness from the Cheyenne, that’s an improvement.

null“Dog Soldier” is built around the kidnapping—no murders this week, initially—of some Cheyenne boys who’ve been committed to foster care. There’s possible evidence of corruption in Social Services, of pedophilia, of corruption within the reservation, child abuse, or more. As the loose threads are connected or removed, the reasons for the kidnappings become more and more clear: the children were “kidnapped” in revenge for their removal, on false premises, from the reservation.

This culminates in arguably the show’s best scene, in which Walt confronts the Social Services worker involved, Crystal Shoemaker, at the end of the episode. He carefully explains what happened, and why he knows she’s involved. She lays out her points—all of the evidence is circumstantial, she can talk a mean game about doing what’s best for the children, and oh yes, she’s white. She’ll get away, even if she is corrupt, and a kidnapper and murderer. And here’s where Walt lays down the lack of law. She’s right, of course. The system is tilted entirely toward her. The government has designed a mechanism by which the adoption/foster care system benefits—and corrupt utilizers of that system personally benefit—from making the Cheyenne on the reservation look worse and removing their children. This is an accurate depiction of both issues with child service agencies and legally enshrined bias against Native Americans.

And Walt knows it. So he doesn’t try to use the power of the state to do the right thing. He acknowledges what the Cheyenne characters have been telling him throughout the episode—that the system is unfairly and presently irredeemably working against them. They have their own extra-legal ways of achieving justice, through an enforcer named Hector who gets paid by the tooth. Hector, and the other members of the Cheyenne community, have clearly figured out the scam by which Shoemaker and her former partners have profited from taking Cheyenne from their home. And they will come for her, possibly out of control, possibly overtaken by the spirit of vengeance: “I believe in transformation. I believe we become vessels for forces we cannot control or understand.”

Walt can’t win as a lawman. So he wins as a person. This is, I think, what separates a competent show from an interesting, potentially great show. Veronica Mars had slick, entertaining mysteries each week with equal parts comedy and drama, but what made it special was its examination of class. The powerful had the law and institutions on their side, while the powerless and poor generally had only less savory options to them, and the main character was caught in the middle. That’s the case here, and it leads to more drama than previous episodes have possessed.

It also connects Longmire more directly to its setting. “The west” in American mythology—largely gone in as much as it ever existed, though rural Wyoming is as close as anything gets— exists in an odd conceptual place. On one hand, pioneers are supposed to represent the ideals of American self-perception. They’re hardy, pragmatic, pure of heart, and self-reliant. They built society, the story goes, instead of having it imposed on them. “The government” is a corrupting force, bringing laws and rules and regulations and, in the case of “Dog Soldier,” financial incentives for corruption and treating people wrong. Walt represents that frontier ideal, doing the right thing for people, regardless of whose people they are, or whether it’s part of the law or not (a far cry from previous episodes explicitly connecting him with the power of the state.)

Yet there’s an inherent tension within that mythology. Those western pioneers achieved most of what they did over the objections, sometimes violent and violently put down, of the natives of that region. The Cheyenne in Longmire have regularly complained about their treatment at the hands of white Americans, but for the first time, in “Dog Soldier,” those complaints are justified. Likewise, the socially conservative voting patterns of the western states make the idea that individual liberty is the dominant feature of western American society too simplistic. Longmire’s titular character may embody western stoicism and self-reliance in many ways, but to the show’s credit, he’s also demonstrating the complications of the western mythology.

One of the ways that Longmire does that is by continuing its overt serialization about Walt’s past. We’ve seen the flashbacks about him getting healed with Henry watching before. In this episode, a letter from the Denver PD triggers further flashbacks, but still very little information. While I generally dislike the manipulation of having the main character know about something the audience doesn’t, in order to maintain a mystery and keep viewers, I do like the way it was used in this episode. Walt’s apparent willingness to move outside the law in his past, and memory of this during the events of this episode, make his motivations more transparent to us. Likewise, the events of “Dog Soldier” work retroactively to make whatever Walt happened to do previously more understandable, when we understand them.

And I remain impressed with Longmire’s ability to construct a mystery. While it became increasingly obvious that something in the corrupt Social Services structure helped trigger the kidnapping case, who and why was still a mystery up until the very end. The revelation made sense—we had the same information Walt did—but still has some level of surprise. This is definitely not a show where a random guest star appearance clearly indicates who the likely culprit is. If Longmire manages to add effective serialization to the examination of the American west it demonstrates here, as well as keeping its episodes impressively constructed, it could get a lot more exciting.

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.

LONGMIRE RECAP 3: THE CANCER

LONGMIRE RECAP 3: THE CANCER

Longmire’s specific focus on its main character can yield some tense results, as last week’s episode demonstrated effectively. But this approach also leads to difficulties when the scope of the episode is wider. Drugs, Mexican cartels, and veterans of the Afghan war are all big issues, with far more relevance to American viewers than the Mennonites or mobsters of the last two episodes. “The Cancer” opens the door to having larger discussions, but nothing comes through except Walt discussing how the drug trade is a “cancer” that’s usually progressed too far by the time it gets noticed.

nullAnd yet in one scene where Walt meets the local pizza/weed delivery man who also works as a confidential informant, Jamie, the dealer, opens the conversation by describing how sorry he is about Walt’s wife’s death. The two men both note that Jamie helped Walt’s wife as she was sick, presumably by selling her marijuana as a painkiller for cancer and treatment. Yet despite this subjectively valuable (to Walt) use of pot, he doesn’t even consider a possible connection to the weed dealers he’s hunting over the course of the episode. What they’re doing is against the law and a cancer, but what he and his wife did was okay.

Part of the reason for this is that Longmire is Walt Longmire’s show, and it depicts a man who’s a platonic ideal of the manly western hero: all action and expertise, no self-examination or doubt. We know from the pilot that his wife’s death pushed him into a serious depression, but we haven’t seen that. We’ve only seen Walt Longmire, Sympathetic Hero. The show is directed and edited to back up this depiction of Walt. Individual shots are fast, getting to the action and then moving quickly. Instant understanding is assumed for many scenes, which occasionally leaves me disoriented—much like Walt’s deputies, who can mostly follow along, but occasionally get annoyed at being left behind while he’s proceeding with a case.

At times, this makes the show feel crisp and smart. The problems arise when Longmire brings up more complicated subjects that uncomplicated Walt Longmire doesn’t want to deal with—so it doesn’t deal with them. In doing so, it doesn’t just ignore wider potential issues, it justifies Walt’s reaction to those issues. It would obviously be too much of a stretch, for example, to have Walt turn against the Drug War and set up a Hamsterdam or the like, but calling fresh, quality pot a “cancer” when he used it to treat his wife’s illness demands some kind of resolution for the dissonance. And it’s not forthcoming.

The implicit justification of Walt’s worldview points at deeper trends in the show’s world-view, though. “I remember when I could count the number of murders in this county on one hand. Two at most,” says Walt, recalling a simpler time, before his peaceful county was corrupted by “cancerous” outside influences. Every episode so far has had a dead body, two this time. Every single one of those deaths can be traced to influences outside Walt's immediate community: underaged reservation girls as kidnapped sex workers, Mennonites oppressing their women, mobsters from the big city, or Mexican drug cartels.

Meanwhile, the tension between the white people at the center of the show is being resolved respectfully and peacefully via an election—that’s the American way. There are oblique references to the white Americans not being perfect—“When Cheyenne get into business with outsiders . . . never ends well,” says the reservation police chief—but again, this is only a source of drama on the show when he stonewalls the heroes in their attempts to do good for the world.

The number of bodies are also an issue. Not every mystery needs to be a murder, and the darker, grittier tone set by murder mysteries can become repetitious. Why not have an episode of Walt investigating an embarrassing theft? Saving a kitten from a tree? As a small-town sheriff, presumably he’s used to a wider variety of cases, and the show has interesting enough characters to pull off a lighter episode. Longmire could stand a little bit more Veronica Mars and a bit less CSI.

With all that, though, “The Cancer” still worked as a mystery on its own. It did a good job of encouraging suspicion on characters who were red herrings: the reservation chief, and the oddly-behaving woman whose property the bodies was found on. That suspicion seemed just a bit too obvious at first, but when the culprit was revealed to be the park ranger, it made sense without having been obvious. The ranger initially attempts to threaten Walt to gain his freedom, but ends up disarmed by Vic’s sudden appearance. What happens to him? Moreover, what happens to the Mennonite boy who killed his sister a few episodes ago? These things lead to more complex ethical (if not also legal) questions, and go unanswered.

This is my central frustration with Longmire so far. It has the ability to use its setting and characters to examine interesting, difficult questions. But it’s so enamored with the straight-shooting point-of-view of its hero that it doesn’t take that step. Sure, it’s early yet, but we’re almost halfway done with the short, 10-episode season. That’s not much time for it to fulfill its potential.

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.

LONGMIRE RECAP 2: A DAMN SHAME

LONGMIRE RECAP 2: A DAMN SHAME

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.)

nullThe 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.

LONGMIRE RECAP 1: THE LONG ROAD

LONGMIRE RECAP 1: THE LONG ROAD

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While a mystery procedural isn’t the most revolutionary premise for a television series, there were several aspects of the Longmire pilot that indicated that it might be particularly interesting. First, it had a distinct visual style. The opening scene of the pilot, with Longmire in the shower, the camera bouncing around, and messages left on the answering machine conveys character and tone superbly—and simply—through style.

The show’s setting is also compelling, though not in such a positive way. The rural county in Wyoming is not a common location for a TV show, and Longmire effectively conveys how small and interconnected Absaroka County is. The placement of a Cheyenne reservation nearby also adds specificity, but tensions between the reservation police and the protagonist create an uncomfortable dynamic. The heroic white man, unfairly vilified for exposing native corruption, ends up a hero after reuniting a lost Cheyenne girl with her mother. It’s very White-Man’s-Burden, and quite awkward because of it. I’m hopeful that the show will grow more nuanced in its portrayal of the Cheyenne. Given its competence elsewhere, this seems likely, but the focus on the whites as the primary cast members is less promising.

The show’s use of an election as its main hook for long-form serialization mosyt appealed to the part of me that enjoys analyzing structure. Walt Longmire is the show’s hero, the character it’s named for, but he’s a mess. Branch Connally, his deputy, has recognized that Longmire is a mess, and decided to run against him. Connally’s reasons seem entirely valid—Longmire’s been an absentee sherriff since his wife died, a year ago, and has left the running of the station to the deputies. Had you framed most of the scenes from Connally’s perspective, he would have looked like the hero of this story. “Quality television” is often based on male anti-heroes, but Longmire’s not quite there. He’s more of a broken hero, teetering on the edge of failure. And his failure comes from inaction, not from making the wrong choices—at least, that's the show’s premise.

For better or mostly worse, not many of these qualities are on display in the second episode, “The Dark Road.” Second episodes of dramas are usually weak, to be fair. They’re produced well after the pilot, and they generally serve to reintroduce the characters and world for people who are theoretically tuning in based on word-of-mouth after the first episode. This tends to make second episodes feel watered-down, which describes “The Dark Road.”

The biggest component of the pilot missing here is any mention of the election. Branch Connally is shown as a somewhat cocky member of the department; the only visible tension between him and Longmire is a slight young pup-old dog dynamic. This makes the revelation at the end of the episode—that Connally is sleeping with Walt’s daughter Cady—lose most of its impact.

Instead,  a flashback represents the show’s serialization. Walt is having a scar on his back sewn up, as he talks to his friend Henry, saying that his daughter must never know. That’s the entirety of the scene. This is far less auspicious than the election as a hook for viewers. I tend to be quite wary about overarching mysteries like these. Here, the characters have information that the audience lacks. By not allowing us to see it, the show is essentially taunting us, and that’s not a great way to start a relationship.

This episode also doesn’t deal with the Cheyenne, either, choosing instead to focus on another group of people more common in the rural west than most other places in America: Mennonites. One of their teenagers, a girl on her “rumspringa” outside of the community, has ended up dead. She’s also a stripper, which Sheriff Longmire figures out because the show uses the TV shorthand of saying she’s covered in glitter (because as everyone knows, married men who go to strip clubs love coming home with glitter on them, as it spares them even needing to bother discussing where they’ve been).

The Mennonites come across worse here than the Cheyenne did. The only family we see in any detail is ruled by a patriarchal iron fist, which ends up being the cause of the girl’s death. Her father, knowing she was a stripper, doesn’t care about her death. Her mother is more sympathetic, but paralyzed by the fear of the patriarch. And the mystery’s resolution is that the girl’s brother accidentally killed her while chasing her, because he saw her drifting away from the culture by becoming a stripper, and he had been told that he couldn’t go back unless he returned her as well. This is also a traditionally American argument—that secular laws allowing freedom are superior to religious fundamentalism. The show strongly implies that this is intentional, showing the state flag immediately after the scene where the Mennonite mother admits she wanted her daughter to escape the household tyranny.

There’s an essential conservatism to mystery shows, especially those based around law enforcement. Longmire’s focus on “lost girls” as the victims of the first two episodes—helpless, threatened, needing rescue, or dying—instead of telling their stories shows a fear of girls doing sex work. This may be an entirely valid anxiety, but the decision to talk about the sex workers in both episodes, without actually letting them tell their story, says a lot about Longmire. It’s too early to see if that conservatism is a core feature, and I’m not sure if Longmire intends for it to be. But where the pilot involved an examination of those concepts through the struggles of the characters, “The Dark Road” plays it entirely straight, which is a shame.

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.