Clearly, this blog attracts folks who love a good televised mystery – the enduring popularity of the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries post is a testament to that. Really, it isn’t that surprising. Mystery is a genre, whether in books or tv shows, that seems to appeal to wide range of tastes. We all seem to like uncovering the dark secrets of a tiny seaside town, or the corruption at the heart of our own government – or at least we like watching someone else do it.
Mr. Menace and I watch a lot of these sorts of shows together, and I thought I’d seen just about every variation out there. The Sherlock Holmes retellings, the sassy lady detective, the stuffy fish out of water who solves crimes, the world-weary DCI looking for redemption. What kind of detective was even left?
And then, Smalerie’s friend Bree was talking to my husband, and mentioned a show I’d never even heard of, and yet another kind of detective was added to my list. The cowboy detective.
In retrospect, this makes total sense. You can insert a mystery into any setting. But Westerns in general have been in a popularity downturn for a while now. They were incredibly popular from the dawn of filmmaking until the 70’s, and it’s easy to understand why – the original Westerns are the ultimate American myth, stories of rugged individualists battling harsh landscapes, shady desperadoes, and of course, “savage” natives. Women in these stories were generally victims or someone to be killed to provide the protagonist with motivation. These stories fit into our self-image as a nation at the time quite well, and their fading popularity is at least partly due to that self-image changing a bit, to something sleeker, more modern and industrial.
Longmire takes what was appealing about those original Western tales – a rough-and-tumble protagonist, stark and beautiful scenery – and updates it for in some badly-needed ways, jettisoning the racist and misogynist tropes. Our protagonist may still be a rugged individualist and tough guy, but he also has a degree in English literature. He’s got layers, you know?
Sure, as the sheriff of the smallest county in the US, he’s a bit of a stereotype. He’s taciturn, blunt, and he’s very willing to solve problems with his fists when the need arises. But he’s quite good with his brain, too, and he solves the (in the way of all mystery series, excessive in number) crimes in his county with skill and sensitivity. Beneath the dour surface lies a complicated man who just wants what’s best for his county and the people he loves.
When the series opens, Walt is grieving the recent death of his wife, Martha. Nearly everyone, including his daughter Cady, believes that Martha died from the cancer that sent her to Denver for chemotherapy treatments. Only Walt and his best friend, Henry Standing Bear, know the truth – that Martha was murdered in an apparent botched mugging. Something about the crime nags at Walt, however, and the show, while having a murder of the week format, also explores a longer story of him solving the mystery of Martha’s death. It makes for a great, intense drama beyond the typical “whodunit.”
The casting in the show is top-notch, with a combination of familiar faces like Gerald McRaney as one of Walt’s antagonists, and lesser-known actors. Robert Taylor is the epitome of an American cowboy lawman as Walt – which is no mean feat when you consider the fact that he’s actually Australian.
Fans of the Battlestar Galactica reboot will recognize Katee Sackhoff, that show’s Starbuck, playing Vic Moretti, one of Walt’s deputies and the only woman working for the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department (besides Ruby, Walt’s long-suffering secretary). Sackhoff’s character, like Starbuck, is tough and physical, but is a bit more tender-hearted and feels like a progression, rather than a retread.
Since the show is set in Wyoming and the fictional Absaroka County borders a Cheyenne reservation, there are also numerous roles for Native actors, and the show has been widely praised for its mostly authentic portrayal of modern Native American life – both on and off the reservation. Lou Diamond Phillips as Walt’s best friend Henry is a bit quirky – but you get the sense that it has nothing to do with his being Cheyenne – that’s just who he is. (And every time he answers the phone at his bar – “It’s another beautiful day at the Red Pony and continual soiree” I laugh with delight.)
Don’t get me wrong – this series is still, at its heart, a drama – and that’s a good thing. The soapy twists and outlandish mysteries are what make the show fun. If you don’t like a good mystery show this probably won’t change your mind, but if you do and you’re looking for something a little different, give this one a shot – and then tell me what you think in the comments!