Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Neumayer on Longmire

Let’s just say up front that I love Longmire. And yes, I think the most recent episode was the season’s strongest to date. A lot of action and suspense, which is great, but what I always find most appealing in the series is the interplay of characterization and setting.

Longmire is the brain child of Craig Johnson, my newest favorite mystery writer (I have a long, long list), who I discovered after watching the first tv episode three seasons ago (has it really been that long?)and immediately felt compelled to go out and read every book he’d written.

(Johnson’s personal history in creating the novels is fascinating, but too much to go into here, as are the differences between the tv show and the books. For example, little of the novels’ plot lines are featured on tv; and the Branch Connally supporting role played brilliantly by Bailey Chase is much less prominent in the novels.)

Anyway, Longmire’s become my favorite tv show.

As anyone paying attention knows, Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire (played by Aussie Robert Taylor), the laconic introspective protagonist with the dry wit, is a throwback to the iconic lone hero of classical Westerns but also a master of contemporary law enforcement.

The entire recurring cast is wonderful, but to me the show turns on Walt’s friendship with Henry Standing Bear (played perfectly by Lou Diamond Phillips), which goes back to their early school days together. Henry, a Cheyenne brave, is Walt's best friend and confidant, an expert tracker, and the proprietor of the Red Pony Cafe, a local tavern and restaurant.

Yes, it is to some extent a Lone Ranger and Tonto sidekick kind of relationship, but one which pays great respect to the Cheyenne and their traditions. Henry is a fully-developed human being whose strength of character, intelligence, and warrior prowess equals Longmire’s. One of the show’s great strengths is its ability not to take itself too seriously; Walt and Henry’s relationship always reminds me of Spenser and Hawk in the late great Robert Parker series.

(An aside: I hate that phrase, the late, which is applying to more and more of my favorite authors. Thank God Craig Johnson is still in his early 50s and presumably will be around to add many more Longmire novels to the 11 he already has penned.)

Of course, what Longmire most closely resembles is the late great Tony Hillerman's Navajo mystery series featuring tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. I could go on and on about those 18 books, in which Hillerman’s appreciation of the natural wonders of the American Southwest and its indigenous people is a major element.

Longmire features a similarly vivid sense of place, set in the fictional Absaroka County (pronounced ab-suh-ro-ka) in northern Wyoming. (The tv series actually is shot in Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Eagle Nest, and Red River, New Mexico, but it looks like the rugged landscape, wide open spaces, and big skies of Wyoming to me.)

Hillerman’s heroes are Navajo tribal policemen, one of whom (Leaphorn) is a rational thoroughly modern American while the other (Chee) is an intuitive investigator and sometime shaman. Like Hillerman’s characters, Walt and Henry occasionally delve into the spirit world, including sweat baths and peyote visions.

But in Longmire, the Cheyenne tribal policeman get an entirely different treatment than Hillerman’s Navajos, being both corrupt and just plain obnoxious. Malachi Strand, the former chief of the tribal police, who Walt arrested prior to the start of the series, is a nasty and corrupt villain. And his replacement, Chief Mathias (played somewhat quirkily by Zahn McClarnon), is not much better.

(The Cheyenne nation, however, is carefully peopled with all kinds of upstanding and sometimes not so upstanding citizens; the point here is that stereotypes are avoided and even mocked occasionally.)

When I first saw the Longmire tv show, I wondered why the amazing Graham Greene, who has played a host of Indians in tv and movies including Hillerman’s, was not cast as Henry Standing Bear. But I must say that Lou Diamond Phillips has completely won me over. I am happy that Greene is in the show, though, and he does a great job with the Malachi Strand role.

(Note to the annoyingly politically correct: many tribal people prefer the term Indian to Native American since it is no less inaccurate but less stuffy. Henry Standing Bear prefers to think of himself by his tribal identity rather than some white man’s appellation.)

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