Sheriff Walt Longmire doesn’t own a cell phone.
It’s practically the man’s motto, as fans of TV’s Longmire can attest. An old-fashioned cowboy through and through, Walt doesn’t truck with new-fangled technology. But when news of Longmire’s renewal for a second season on A&E came down the pike, life imitated art, explained show staff writer Sarah Nicole Jones in a recent phone interview.
“The network made the announcement on the last day of shooting and the funny thing is that [executive producers Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny] were in Pecos, where we film the scenes at Walt’s cabin and they had no cell reception, so everyone was texting them frantically. We were like “Ah, so this is really what the Wild Wild West is like.”
Fully and authentically capturing that “Out West” lifestyle is one of the hallmarks of the job for the production team who bring Longmire to life. The writing team, which consists of executive producers Baldwin, Coveny, and Greer Shephard, as well as Jones and freelance script writers Daniel C. Connolly and Tony Tost, aren’t all natives. While Baldwin and his family hail from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Connolly and Tost are from New York and Michigan respectively. Yet they share an affinity for the Western lifestyle embodied by Longmire. Though originally a New Orleans girl herself, Jones was raised on family ranches and “knows her way around a shotgun,” she admits. “I spent time growing up in Big Bear, California, so I know that small town life where the sheriff is best friends with your dad, so you better be on your best behavior.”
Formerly a writer’s assistant on Syfy’s Eureka, Jones joined the team as they began staffing shortly after the pilot’s pick-up. “You read so many scripts during pilot season, and when you find an amazing one, you just want to fist pump and do a victory lap. I called my manager immediately after I finished it and said, “My God, I have to get on this show.” It may have been kismet; back in film school, Jones had chosen Longmire’s executive producer Greer Shephard as the subject of an academic paper on someone she admired in the industry—a fact she hasn’t shared with her boss just yet. (Whoops.) “Maybe I’ll give it to her and let her read it someday,” Jones laughs. “She’ll probably find it anyway, she has a nose for that kind of stuff.”
The love of detection and a good mystery is another common trait among the staff, and in addition to the script and Shephard’s involvement, Jones credits Craig Johnson’s stellar source novels with further cementing her interest in the show. “My grandfather is a huge lover of crime and mystery novels. I was visiting and he had The Dark Horse on his shelf and I just devoured it.” She’s since read all the Longmire novels and plans to re-read them during the summer hiatus before the writing team goes back to work on season two in October.
Though they do have Johnson on standby for consultation, as well as gun and legal experts, the writers tend to do their own research to come up with stories that are typical of the culture. Jones’s first episode was the second ever aired, #1.02 The Dark Road. It stemmed from research on the population makeup in Wyoming, which included a sizeable Mennonite community, as well as a magazine article about new booming oil towns paving the way for a modern-day gold rush, and the strippers that were making big bucks working there.
“You’re not going to see that on your average crime drama. There’s not going to be Mennonite strippers or pot growing in national forests,” Jones says. “There’s no other show on TV like this, this setting hasn’t been seen, the crimes are different, the people are different.”
And the most different of all is Walt Longmire himself, she points out. “What’s so amazing about him and Craig’s books versus the protagonists of other TV cop dramas is Walt’s humanity and the place he comes from. He’s just a good guy.”
It’s a novel approach on television these days to have a genuine hero rather than an antihero as your protagonist, and it’s one the Longmire team embraces. Jones cites classic cowboy dramas like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Ox-Bow Incident as inspirations. “In any Western movie, comedic or serious, I think there’s this dichotomy that there’s good people and bad, and the choice to be good—to do good—is hard. But Walt needs that,” Jones says, “he needs good to happen in this world.”
Fans of the novels will note that the TV version of Walt is often beset with more moral quagmires than his book counterpart. The sheriff doesn’t always follow the letter of the law, favoring a bit of Wild West justice from time to time. The season-long flashbacks we’ve been getting to Walt possibly having done a bad, bad thing following his wife’s death are part of a new mystery for the character that will pay off in spades as we approach the finale, Jones hints. “He has his demons, like everyone. Walt is still very much reeling from the death of his wife. He never expected to start over in life. He’s taken a huge blow, the kind that rocks you to the core. That he can be the strength in that storm is really beautiful.”
Walt’s great sense of moral integrity being thrown into conflict is what makes for such a strong dramatic arc to this first season, Jones adds. “He’s had to stare down something terrible, but he has to try to do the right thing and we’ll see how far he can go down that breach and still come back and be the strong, good man that he is.” She promises that while the challenges make for higher TV-style drama stakes, “We won’t ever stray too far from the kind of man Walt is.”
This first season, Jones says, is about Walt rebuilding himself as a person, and how everyone around him is affected by him, and how they affect him and each other as well. “Whether he’s a dad to Cady, or a rival to Branch, or a boss to Vic, or a father figure to the Ferg, Walt is that guy, that one teacher or boss that taught you something, for better or worse. He’s that one guy who sticks out in your mind, and you always remember.”
The stellar supporting cast also helps to set Longmire apart from your typical CSI or Law and Order franchise. Jones describes the show as a great hybrid of both character drama and procedural shows, and says the final stretch of episodes will highlight lots of different interactions between the secondary players. “Every character just sings on the page. Whether it’s Cady and Vic, or Vic and Branch, or Branch and Ferg, they’re all so dynamic and so fun to write.” Even the tertiary characters like Ruby and Lucian get their moments to shine. “We never do filler on our show. No one’s going to come on screen just to hand Walt a sandwich.”
Longmire’s emphasis on character is what elevates the show’s standard procedural elements. For example, while the episodes often end with the common technique of the lawman confronting a criminal, with any confession, there’s a personal resonance for Walt, whether it’s in a parent’s love for his daughter, or an older man’s struggles with being replaced in a modern workplace. “Each episode you get to learn a little more about Walt’s dynamic, with the way he confronts the criminal or handles the victims, and where he’s coming from.”
Although the show is a bona fide success, it’s merely six episodes into its run, and still keeps a fairly quiet profile, as an older-skewing show (though rising, the ratings are still a bit low in the coveted 18-49 demographic) on a basic cable network not known for scripted dramas. There are questions as to whether Longmire will have the depth or longevity to break out and become a water-cooler, zeitgeist-seizing show.
“The next four episodes bring the show to a whole new level,” Jones teases. “I’m thrilled with where we’ve been able to take the characters and where we will leave them at the end of this season. I think the audience will find it very interesting to see how the dynamics change between friends, between couples.”
As for challenging the likes of a Justified or Breaking Bad—shows that emphasize the outlaw or antihero, it must be noted—well, maybe it’s a moot point. In true Walt Longmire-style, Jones attests the show is pretty content being exactly what it is: a character-driven procedural drama with a whole lot of heart.
“Our mythos is the cowboy and this western lifestyle. Westerns are so steeped in history and lore, and the quintessential American figure is the cowboy. It’s such a great pool to draw from. Besides, what little boy doesn’t want to grow up to be a cowboy?”
Read more of this exclusive interview with Sarah Nicole Jones, as she weighs in on the cast and characters of Longmire, life on the set, and fan response to the show here.
And, of course, there’s even more Longmire in our feature section, including episode recaps!
Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and Internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.