Grieving is a slow and agonizing process. The question for Longmire as it approaches the midpoint of season one, is whether or not it’s too slow to make for compelling television. Like last week’s episode, “The Cancer” is a predominantly procedural offering about a pot-growing turf war, with only a few heavy-handed metaphors that remind us of Walt’s wounded spirit and cover no new ground.
Walt’s strong sense of reverence for the dead is lovingly displayed once more. Last week he laid a medicine bag on a dying horse, this week he cuts growths from a bush and places them on the victims’ chests. The music swells and it’s somber and Walt’s soulful, yes, but . . . it’s not particularly deep. There’s nothing further to examine or unpack; the grief is just there, permeating things. If this was a 22-episode season on network TV (and really, no one can tell me this show wouldn’t be a perfect fit for CBS), that’d probably be just fine. Parceling things out slowly when you have so much mileage to cover works. But since we only have six episodes to go before a long hiatus preceding a second season (I’m assuming, thanks to the gangbuster ratings so far), it does feel a little bit like they’re wasting some valuable time here.
Great episodes—and great shows for that matter—need forward momentum. Better still, they need an arc. We need to see Walt start to heal, even if in very small doses. Instead, we’re seeing a man flatlining, steadfastly choosing to cling to the past. When a pretty woman he’s questioning about the case blatantly flirts with Walt and Vic gleefully points it out, he snaps at his deputy that she’s imagining things. If we were a little further along in Walt’s process, the episode would end with him agreeing to the date. Instead it ends with him dismissing the woman as just a “registered voter.”
If his personal life is stagnant, though, his work life is not. The theme of Walt being out of touch is reiterated a few times. “What the hell is going on in my county?” Walt asks. Then later, he talks to Henry about the rising crime rate in Absaroka. “It’s a cancer, Henry. And you know, the thing about cancer, by the time you find it, it’s often too late.”
When Walt discovers the bodies of two boys trussed and drowned in a river, it turns out that one of them is a local Cheyenne boy and the other . . . is a member of a Mexican drug cartel? The cartel was growing marijuana on reservation land, and Freddy was dealing it, working for a mysterious “El Lupo.” There is a fair bit of misdirection and red herrings before the revelation that the cartel is only half the story.
There are small hints here and there of further character development. The Ferg proves Walt was right in refusing his resignation last week, when a Google search he does pays off with a major break in the case. Though it does highlight Walt’s resistance to cell phones and the Internet, and makes one wonder when such a thing just becomes irresponsible for a lawman? (Luckily for Walt, it’s very convenient that one of the main suspects gladly hands his cell phone over to Walt when Henry calls and provides a crucial clue pointing to that suspect’s guilt.)
Lou Diamond Phillips also gets some scenes to shine in as he processes the death of the Cheyenne boy and asks Walt to let him do the notification to the boy’s grandmother. His sense of obligation to the boy lends a weightiness and thread of rich emotion that plays out clearly and touchingly on Phillips’s face.
On the other hand, the Cady-Branch relationship is still under covers (though we learn they’ve been fighting in one tossed-aside line) and Vic still needs something to do other than provide comic relief and exposit about evidence. Sackhoff hasn’t gotten anything emotional to chew into yet—and more’s the pity; as BSG fans can attest, she’s at her best playing vulnerability. But her East Coast impatience this episode was in entertaining abundance as she sassed folks that they walk too slow, tried to search a hotel room without waiting for a warrant, and bashed in a car window after multiple attempts to slim-jim the lock didn’t work.
As a viewer, it’s hard not to share Vic’s impatience at this stage of the show. Like the cancer that’s riddling his county (as it did his wife), is Walt a lost cause? Is he too mired in his grief to be effective as sheriff? Are his efforts too little, too late (especially with Branch running against him)? At this point, it looks like they’ll keep exploring those questions until the season finale, in these same kind of heavily procedural episodes. Right now, Longmire is a good show, a solid hour of entertainment with emotion, humor, and a few twists and turns. However, one suspects if there was a little bit more momentum and development each week, it could be a great show.
Possibly—hopefully—Longmire is still finding its balance. Some shows don’t hit their stride (or pick up the pace on their longer arcs) until the last two to three episodes of a season. With ever increasing competition (Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom debuted in the same time slot this week) and ever-decreasing audience attention spans out there, let’s hope by the time they find it, it won’t be too late.
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Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and Internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.