“The White Warrior” opens with Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) thundering across the dusty landscape in his SUV with Deputy Branch Connally’s bleeding body in the back en route to the nearest medical service: a clinic on the reservation. He skids to a stop in front of an attendant sitting outside. When the man hurries around and notices Branch’s injuries, he asks, “What did you do to him?” and in a flashback, we see Longmire sewing up the gunshot wound with fishing line to slow the bleeding. The attendant rushes past Longmire, wheeling Branch toward the clinic on a stretcher, telling him he should have called 9-1-1. “I am 9-1-1,” Longmire deadpans. That line is more than amusing; there’s bite in the way the world-weary cowboy delivers it in a gravelly voice edged with tiredness.
And rightfully so. The season two cliffhanger of Longmire had left the Absaroka County sheriff’s world upside down and viewer expectations running high: Besides Branch’s ambush, Longmire’s best friend Henry Standing Bear was being hauled off to jail on murder charges and another of his deputies Victoria “Vic” Moretti (Katee Sackhoff) was being stalked by a manipulating ex-lover.
After Branch’s (Bailey Chase) condition is stabilized, he’s adamant that the late extremist David Ridges, dressed as a warrior covered in white ash, attacked and shot him. But Longmire suspects Branch’s faculties have been compromised; after all, Ridges’ suicide was captured on video though no body was found. Longmire’s suspicions are confirmed when a 4-inch crow feather that had been pulled from under some muscle tissue in the bullet wound is found to be laced with peyote. Hallucinations of the White Warrior continue to haunt Branch while he’s recovering in the hospital, having some dire consequences later on when Longmire’s daughter, Cady, comes to visit him.
At Branch’s insistence that Ridges is alive, Longmire returns to the sacred pyre site with his deputy Ferg (Adam Bartley) not only to collect evidence from the shooting but also to recover the remains Branch had bagged for a positive identification. Mathias, chief of the Cheyenne reservation's tribal police,arrives and confiscates the bag of ashes, which he pours out on the ground, telling Longmire and Ferg to immediately leave his territory. As they head back to the pickup truck, Ferg steps into the ash, which initially appeared to be a clever maneuver on Ferg’s part, but we quickly learn it was purely accidental (or, perhaps plain brazen); when Ferg sits on the tailgate, Longmire lifts the deputy’s foot, explaining to Ferg that he just “stole evidence,” and then, with a jackknife, proceeds to scrape the ash from the boot tread into a plastic bag.
Longmire’s suspicions fall on Jacob Nighthorse, a local businessman who had previously taken Branch to the Rez and threatened him (warned, as Nighthorse claims) not to remove any remains since disturbing holy ground would be dangerous. It doesn’t help Nighthorse’s case when Longmire sees an antique headdress in Nighthorse’s office that’s adorned with feathers similar to the one found in Branch’s wound (which I’m thinking it’s a little too obvious of a red herring, though I could be wrong—we’ll see). But Nighthorse has an alibi—he was at a commerce meeting when Branch was shot.
Meanwhile, Branch’s vocal and racist father, Barlow Connally (Gerald McRaney), is blaming Longmire for not sending backup for his son and demands a suspect name when Longmire shows up at his house to confirm Nighthorse’s alibi, which Barlow does. But the sheriff has a “notion” that changes the tide of the conversation: the real target could be Barlow himself, to which Barlow replies, “Well, if that’s true, the shooter better hope that you get to him before I do.”
Branch guilts Longmire by saying if he believed him about Ridges then he’d go back to the reservation to search for the truth. So Longmire goes. Keeping a good distance, he sees through binoculars a large fire with five individuals in traditional dress dancing around it. This time he seeks out Mathias for permission to proceed closer. Mathias slams the door in his face, but Longmire’s persistence pays off because Mathias reluctantly agrees to accompany him with the understanding that Longmire will take the hit for disrupting a sacred ritual. Longmire gets nowhere in questioning the men, and when the still-recovering Branch is brought in, he clears all of them, so Mathias cuts them loose against Longmire’s conviction that the shooter is among them—the DNA results had come back positive as the remains of David Ridges.
One strength of this show is the vivid portrayal of the ongoing friction between Anglo and Northern Cheyenne societies. I’d like to see actor Zahn McClarnon given a chance to flesh out Mathias in the season(s) to come. Every time Longmire or one of his deputies deliberately breaks the rules by entering the Rez without permission (which is equal, by now, to the number of laps at Daytona), Mathias is justifiably angry and more insight into the reservation chief would bolster this part. Speaking of supporting characters, Longmire’s quiet strength takes shape from pivotal characters like Mathias, The Ferg, and Ruby the dispatcher, all of whom balance the main cast faultlessly. The same goes for the stunning ‘Wyoming’ scenery (actually filmed in New Mexico) and striking music score.
Season three’s opener did not disappoint. It left Henry’s fate to future episodes, which I had anticipated would happen, especially with all the attention on Branch and finding his assailant, which also took away from learning more about Vic’s loony stalker. But based on this episode, I’m looking forward to writers Tony Tost, Hunt Baldwin, Sarah Nicole Jones, and John Coveny weaving some answers throughout the twists and turns this season is sure to bring for Longmire and his team.