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.
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.