By Rowan Kaiser | Press Play June 11, 2012 at 9:58AM
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.