The season 2 premiere of Longmire was both familiar and exciting, as we reunited with our favorite sheriff and deputies for an episode of high drama. Walt and a very bored Vic are transferring a dangerous serial killer, Wayne, to an FBI drop-off point when they encounter the Absaroka version of traffic…in the form of a massive buffalo in the road. The majestic (and territorial) beast is protecting the roadway for a baby white buffalo—as rare as one in ten million, as Wayne helpfully points out. In fact, he insists the sighting is actually a sign, with a meaningful look at our Sheriff. A little later, when they reach the drop-off, Wayne insists that Walt is something of a kindred spirit telling him “You hear the voices too. You have an unquiet mind.”
It’s interesting to see the show dabble once more in the mystical and supernatural themes that underscore Craig Johnson’s books. Though the books and TV show don’t always dovetail, this episode’s plot hews pretty closely to the premise of Johnson’s seventh bestselling Longmire novel, Hell is Empty. TV Walt has such a grounded, no-nonsense vibe, that it’s harder to imagine him placing stock in signs and superstitions as the book version of the character does. But it’s well done here, with enough gravitas to avoid it seeming silly or out-of-character.
In fact, this episode really showcases just how very well the showrunners John Coveny and Hunt Baldwin (who also penned this premiere episode) know each of their characters. After the drop-off, Wayne manages to stage a coup, killing FBI agents and innocents, and escaping into the mountains with most of the convicts and the pretty FBI psychiatrist, with whom Wayne has a strangely intimate bond. When Walt insists on charging into the wooded mountains after him, just as a brutal storm threatens to approach, his trusted deputies Vic, Branch, and Ferg, and his friend Henry all react in pretty much exactly the ways we’d expect. It’s all fun and satisfying, and really quite impressive for a mostly procedural show that’s only eleven episodes in.
Of course, lone wolf Walt will forge into a dangerous situation without backup to rectify a problem, even if it’s somewhat foolhardy behavior when you get right down to it. And naturally, Vic is upset and concerned for Walt, so she kind of hilariously and righteously rants at everybody and even punches out the FBI agent who tries to commandeer the operation from the sheriff’s office. And yes, Branch (who’s still, always, busy campaigning—now with fancy TV ads for the election) is a bit of a kiss-ass to the FBI at first. But eventually (after Vic prods him that Cady, who’s MIA, wouldn’t be too happy if he did nothing while her father died), he does the right thing… joining forces with Henry, who’s quietly formulated a plan to ride up the impenetrable mountain terrain on horseback to find his friend. Oh, and the Ferg? He’s going about his business and trying to support everyone. (His gleeful “That’s awesome!” when Vic confesses she punched the agent, was a great humorous moment in a fairly intense episode.)
It’s a great showcase for each of the major characters’ strengths (and weaknesses), and we even get a lot of fun in-character cameos. Omar, the local gun expert, pops up again to give Walt a little shelter overnight at a key point in his hike, and there’s a nice bit of deduction from our Sherlock-in-a-Stetson in that scene about who might have helped Wayne with his great escape. As the weather worsens, Walt starts hallucinating friends and enemies who alternately taunt and encourage him, including Henry, Cady, one of the young victims of Wayne, and most surprisingly, Charles S. Dutton, reprising his role as the Chicago PD officer, Detective Fales, who showed up in last season’s finale.
In addition to that ongoing mystery surrounding what culpability Walt actually has in the death of his wife’s killer, the hints that Vic might have more than boss-employee feelings for Walt continue, as she’s distraught to near tears at being helpless while he’s on the mountain. The running why-doesn’t-he-have-a-cellphone gag from season 1 also recurs with a particularly funny and triumphant outcome as Walt uses Vic’s borrowed cellphone to ultimately subdue the escaped con, after a grueling bear-wrestle of a fight. Finally, the horned owl that played such a pivotal part in the season 1 premiere and finale, and in the promos for the show, returns here, as a sign to bolster Walt’s spirit at a particularly low point. (It’s also a timely tie-in to the recent Longmire e-novella Messenger, which featured… a great horned owl.)
The slow, measured pacing the show thrived on in season 1 is exchanged for some high stakes drama in this premiere episode, but it’s nice to see that characterization wasn’t sacrificed to cram in plot. There’s a very good balance with just enough complexity to the procedural storyline to really weigh it against the emotions it evokes in the gang. No doubt, things will be a bit calmer next week as we get into a bit more about where Cady’s gone and where Branch is getting the money for those fancy TV campaign ads. With an expanded thirteen episodes this season (compared to last year’s ten), the show should have a lot more room to delve even further into each character, which will help prove how much more than a straight procedural this somewhat unpolished gem of a drama can really be.
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