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.
“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.