It’s no surprise that A&E’s new modern western lawman show is fetching comparisons to that other western lawman show, FX’s wildly successful Justified. But watching the premiere episode, there were moments when our hero, Sheriff Walt Longmire, reminded me—rather unexpectedly—of another TV leading man entirely: Tony Soprano.
I know, I know. What would a Wyoming sheriff whose personal motto is “Honesty and Integrity” have in common with a mob boss from New Jersey? Both Tony and Walt are men “in psychic repair,” as the Longmire press materials coin it. They’re struggling with internal strife, wounded spirits with a nostalgia for the way things used to be, as life clamors on noisily around them.
While Walt would have no love for Tony’s ethics, one can imagine the mob boss who lamented in his own pilot episode what had happened to all the strong and silent types, the men like Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood, would indeed be a fan of Sheriff Longmire. Ironically, one is hard pressed to imagine a better man to embody a classic sherriff of the American West than Australian actor Robert Taylor (The Matrix). He is both iconic and laconic, as masculine as the Marlboro man, yet with a dry humor and an easygoing nature—a Harrison Ford on a basic cable pay grade.
There’s a beautifully shot opening montage that introduces us to Walt. He showers, he dresses, he boils water, he reaches for a wooden tea box but then switches to coffee, he contemplates. Walt moves thoughtfully and methodically, a man in no particular hurry to start his day. We hear a warm female voice on his beer can-flanked answering machine, offering that you’ve “reached the Longmires” and we hear the increasingly irritated messages his deputy Vic is leaving, as he fails to pick up. As he listens, Walt stares out his window and becomes transfixed by a majestic great owl staring back at him. (Remember those ducks that came to roost in Tony’s swimming pool?)
The plaintive tones of Steve Earle’s “Transcendental Blues” strike up on the soundtrack, and by the time it fades into the drums and jangling spurs of the Longmire theme music (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo”) and we see Walt steering his sheriff’s truck through town, I half expected New Jersey Turnpike exit signs and the Lincoln Tunnel to loom up out of Absaroka County’s dusty roads.
We follow along as Walt meets up with Vic, the luminous Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) who makes up for in spitfire attitude what she doesn’t have in the Italian-by-way-of-South-Philly coloring of her literary counterpart. Victoria Moretti is a talker with a temper, the direct foil to Walt’s take-it-all-in-stride nature. They have an easy bantering camaraderie (minus the novels’ romantic sparks) as we learn Vic has only been here six months, but previously worked five years as a homicide detective back in Philly and isn’t thrilled to be investigating the death of a sheep—on her day off at that. Luckily, or unluckily, a human body pops up to complicate things. Expecting a familiar Absaroka face, Walt is visibly jarred when he sees the dead man . . . and doesn’t recognize him. It’s a wake-up call to Walt to find out exactly what’s been going on in his neck of the woods.
The mystery for this first episode is only very loosely adapted from Craig Johnson’s first Longmire novel, The Cold Dish. (Read Craig Johnson’s take on the wondrous weirdness of seeing his characters come to life.)What at first appears to be a murder motivated by scandal or sex, turns out to be a relatively straightforward case of greed, the killing a direct result of a criminal’s livelihood being jeopardized. As one would expect, Walt solves the case, returns the missing girl to her mother, and serves up a little justice. There’s some action, some humor (a lineup-turned-striptease, for example, as several ranch hand suspects must try on a pair of pants found at the scene) and plenty of old-fashioned red herrings along the way. The procedural parts of the episode are just fine, but it’s the relationships and character development that truly shine, as we watch Walt slowly find his footing again with the help (or motivating hindrance) of his friends.
The casting for this series is top-notch across the board. The effortlessly charming Lou Diamond Phillips plays Walt’s wise and good-natured best friend, Henry Standing Bear. For readers who expected someone more imposing both physically and temperamentally as Henry, there’s a scene halfway through the episode where he angrily, albeit quietly and with dignity, confronts Walt for accusing him of being involved in some nefarious dealings. That one should go a ways to allaying any concerns that Phillips isn’t commanding enough for the role. Like Taylor, he exhibits a strength and quiet dignity without needing to grandstand that makes it easy to see why Walt and Henry would be such good friends for nearly four decades.
Throughout the episode we get lots of reminders that Walt has been absent, checked out emotionally if not physically on the job, drinking a bit too much, and definitely not yet over the death of his wife. But this case with its loose ends and uncertainties is striking a chord, reviving the detective within who likes to hone his skills by reading some Sherlock Holmes. In great contrast to Walt is the younger, handsome, perfect-toothpaste-smile-sporting deputy Branch Connally (Damages’ Bailey Chase). Branch prioritizes glad-handing and politicking over detective work, which raises Walt’s ire. Especially when the man goes behind his boss’s back to challenge Walt for the sheriff’s position. The bristling conflict between them nicely sets up a plotline that one imagines holds potential for a seasonal arc.
Smallville’s Cassidy Freeman, who recurs as Walt’s lawyer daughter Cady, also does a lovely emotional job with a brief scene, where she beseeches him to scatter her mother’s ashes or put them in a mausoleum, because she won’t watch him wallow for another year. (Dispatcher Ruby, played by Friday Night Lights’s Louanne Stephens, and newcomer Adam Bartley as “The Ferg” round out the sherriff’s crew.)
Great supporting cast aside, Taylor is undoubtedly the MVP here. Walt’s the heart and soul of the show, and thankfully he’s not just a cardboard cowboy stereotype. When he visits the dead man’s wife to break the bad news, we get a glimpse of that wounded spirit. He can barely choke the news of her loss out, and the camera, rather ham-handedly, pans away to give us a shot of tears literally splashing on his cowboy boots. (Unnecessarily so; Taylor’s anguished face and halting delivery more than spoke for itself.)
The question going forward is whether Longmire can offer enough interesting character development, not just for Walt, but for his friends and family as well, to elevate this above a crime-of-the-week procedural with some particularly gorgeous landscapes. There are hints here of a more interesting kind of show—a distinctly cool visual style (some witty soul on Twitter called it an “Instagram show”), great musical cues, and a pacing that allows scenes to have depth and weight. (I imagine it’s this last one that may be a hurdle for folks used to faster cuts and trickier plot twists in their crime dramas.)
As someone who’s read all the novels, I’m most interested in seeing how the television show broadens Walt’s universe and expands the secondary characters’ roles. I’d like to see Henry and Vic and Branch and even the Ferg get their own episodes to shine. And I’m curious to see what kind of long-term arcs and obstacles Walt and the gang will face.
The pilot episode closes with our hero out on the open highway, methodically banging what looks to be a cross into the ground. A bit of clever misdirection perhaps, as viewers assume Walt has taken his daughter’s advice and is finally letting go of his wife’s ashes. A beat passes and then he staples his own modest re-election sign on to the cross, and climbs into his truck, the box of ashes still safely riding shotgun with him. The message is clear: he’s just not ready to let go yet. Walt’s on the road to repair and to quote the excellent Robert Frost poem used in the Longmire promos, he still has miles to go before he sleeps.
We can only hope that road will ultimately lead to something more than a fade out on an order of fried onion rings.
Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and Internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.
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