This week’s powerful episode, penned by Tony Tost, delivers intensity and mystery in spades, tackling the real-life tragedy of Native American children being taken from their homes by social services. At one point, Cheyenne advocate Jacob Nighthorse (played by soap star A. Martinez) says, “For years, the county has been taking Cheyenne children off the reservation and placing them in homes run by white men and white women. But we expect that, don’t we?” He goes on to say they’re not protesting about the children being taken, but the children being “misplaced.” His matter-of-fact delivery brings home the tragedy of this observation (rendered even stronger by the fact that it’s not just a construct for an episode of television).
When Neil Cody, a Cheyenne boy, goes missing from his temporary foster home, Walt is called to investigate. At first it seems as though the boy’s biological parents, rumored to be junkies and miscreants, might be behind it. But after a quick visit to their home, he concludes that the Codys’ “only real crime was being poor.” Then a sobbing woman comes to the station, confessing that she fears her 35-year-old son, Jeremy, who’s gone missing and is an unregistered sex offender, may be involved.
Walt and his team follow a lot of paths, as always in their quest to find the wrongdoer. But the mystery is tightly constructed and unfolds more organically this week, relying on less coincidence and more solid plotting than in previous episodes. They suspect, in turn, the families, the pedophile, and the county children’s group home supervisor, who soon disappears along with two more Cheyenne boys.
A visit to the boys’ social worker, Crystal, even manages to throw a bit of suspicion Henry’s way for a moment when she reveals that a Cheyenne gentleman came in to her office recently and became enraged. Cut to the Red Pony and Henry protesting he was insistent, not enraged. He points out that the truth is being twisted about the families of these children.
Walt and Henry have a brief tense moment at the Red Pony before Henry apologizes, saying the situation is very upsetting on the res. He offers that there used to be a saying among Whites who settled the west: “Kill the Indian, save the man,” and that sometimes it seems like nothing has changed. The culture clash and racial tension between the Whites and the Indians are compelling distinctions that set Longmire apart from the other procedurals cluttering the airwaves, and the focus on that key element makes this episode the strongest one yet.
Woven in amongst the current-day crime are some intriguing flashbacks. Walt gets a letter from the Denver Police Department and we see him intently driving at night in the pouring rain on a highway. Later, he looks at the envelope again and we see a shirtless Walt with an unscarred back staring at himself in a mirror in a starkly lit motel bathroom. Another intriguing piecemeal clue to the mystery of what he did regarding his wife’s death that he can’t tell Cady about?
Back at the station, Cady’s got her own secrets to keep. She and Branch subtly flirt (they seem to have kissed and made up from last week’s fighting) while Vic finds a potential connection between Shank and Jeremy. Then Ruby comes in and says their Amber Alert snagged a suspect. Turns out, it’s Jeremy who seems innocent of all but failing to register as an offender. As Walt takes care of that, Jacob Nighthorse comes into the station to point out that the foster families get double the money to take in Indian kids. Walt calls Branch in to deal with Jacob’s “politicking” while he runs out to question the kids at the group home again. One of the boys finally confides that he did see something—a Dog Soldier.
A Dog Soldier is basically the Indian equivalent of the boogeyman who spirits naughty children away, we learn. This actually marks the first time that the TV series approaches the mystical thread that runs through Craig Johnson’s novels. In the books, Walt often has Native American dreams or visions, and tends to be guided by spirits in some near-death scenarios. TV-Walt is a bit more pragmatic though, and instantly suspects a man named Hector, a former boxer and enforcer on the reservation with a scarred cheek like the kid described. Cheyenne who don’t trust the court system hire Hector to “right their wrongs.”
Things switch into high gear. Shanks turns up in the next county, dead from being run over, and then the social worker also gets run off the road. She describes the driver: Hector. Walt sends Branch to round him up on suspicion of murder and kidnapping. But Hector finds Walt first, putting him into a choke hold (proving there are at least some men Walt Longmire can’t take down in a fight) and then trying to explain his innocence. Walt, looking pretty roughed up, hauls him off to the jail, then Cady comes in to tell him the abuse and neglect complaints lodged against the boys’ families all came from one man on the reservation—a man who was recently beaten to unconsciousness and is in the hospital. It’s not looking too good for Hector, but then Henry calls: miraculously, the missing boys were returned, unharmed, to the Red Pony.
When Walt questions them, they stick to their tale of the Dog Soldier as their captor/rescuer, and Henry questions whether Walt will return them to social services. The show’s been walking an interesting tightrope with Walt’s moral decisions. We’ve seen him disregard the law on a few occasions now, arresting a woman for her protection, turning a blind eye to a medical marijuana dealer, and now his response to Henry: “Just cause it’s lawful, don’t mean it’s right” as he takes his leave of the Pony.
When Nighthorse comes to confront Walt about keeping Hector locked up, he relents (much to his deputies’ confusion) and lets Hector go, saying there’s no way the families had the money to pay what Hector charged for enforcement. Vic and Branch persist that he should arrest Hector for assault at least, but Walt tells them sometimes you have to let a killer believe he’s free to catch him.
It’s a nice bit of misdirection because when we next see Walt, he’s paying a visit not to Hector but to Crystal, the social worker. He’s figured out that she was skimming the extra money the county paid to foster families who take Native American children. The unconscious man in the hospital was a plant, working for her to report abuse when there was none. Crystal turns mean quick, and says a jury will believe her over Hector any day, especially since he kidnapped the boys. Walt says that the kids say it wasn’t him. Then Robert Taylor delivers a pretty fantastic monologue with steely-eyed aplomb:
Walt: They say a Dog Soldier abducted them. The Cheyenne believe in an avenging warrior spirit, that can take on any form, animal, human.
Crystal: And you believe that?
Walt: I believe we become vessels, for forces we cannot control or understand. When you drove over Ryan Shank maybe it was the spirit of the Dog Soldier that guided you. Perhaps that spirit guided me once upon a time as well. So, congratulations, without your confession we have no case against you. The Dog Soldier knows what you’ve done Crystal. And when he comes for you, I’m just a phone call and a twenty-minute drive away.
Walt gets up and puts on his hat.
Walt: I’ll come as fast as I can.
The hard-pounding Sail by Awolnation strikes up on the soundtrack, as we see some stark flashbacks of Walt taking his sheriff’s badge and putting it in a safe, then taking a gun and tucking it into the back of his jeans. Back in the present, Crystal comes out of the house, and Walt goes to arrest her. The children are returned to their homes, and Walt burns that letter from the Denver Police Department. The final images are of one of the boys looking out the window at the group home as a Dog Soldier, in full headdress and costume, howls to the sky.
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Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and Internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.