‘Dark Winds’ Creators Break Down the Tense Season Finale and Why You Can’t Make a Western Without Natives

·12 min read

Spoiler Alert: Do not read if you haven’t watched “HózhóoNaasháa,” the Season 1 finale of “Dark Winds,” streaming now on AMC+.

After a slow boil first season, “Dark Winds” ends with a bang — quite literally. The finale wraps up the case of the armored truck robbery that underlaid the six episode first season of AMC’s neo-noir series, which took its plot from Tony Hillerman’s 1978 novel “Listening Woman.” The episode ends with Navajo police officers Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) and Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon) in a tense stand-off in a cave where the two robbers were hiding their money and their hostages. And after plenty of twists and turns — including the revelation that Joe’s FBI ally Witover (Noah Emmerich) was actually allied with the robbers the entire time — the stand-off concludes with Jim and Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten) setting off explosives to bury the money and the bodies in the cave.

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But while the show’s robbery plot wraps on a fiery note, the real key to the ending is the emotional arcs of Joe, Jim and Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten), which are on full display in the episode. Bernadette and Jim, who developed a romantic flirtation that ended bitterly when Bernadette learned Jim was secretly an FBI agent, begin to repair the rift between them by allying against Whitover in the stand-off. Joe — after a dramatic conversation with one of the robbers that ends with his suicide — is able to begin living with the pain of the loss of his son Joe Jr., burning his varsity jacket in a Navajo ceremony. And in the quiet final scene of the short but action-packed episode, Joe and Jim come to silently acknowledge how much their bond has come to mean to them in the short time they’ve known each other.

Ahead of the finale, series creator Graham Roland and finale director Chris Eyre spoke to Variety about adapting Hillerman’s original books, where the show will go in its next season and why you can’t tell a Western story without Indigenous voices.

When you set out to adapt the Leaphorn and Chee novels, what were the biggest alterations you wanted to make?

Graham Roland: As you saw in the first season, the books provide a pretty good spine for a plot of a season of television. So the narratives held up fairly well, mainly because we kept them in the time period that they were written. What I focused on was the character work. Kind of “How do you take these characters and make them compelling enough to sustain a TV show for many seasons?” Out of that came the idea that Leaphorn had a deceased child, which was not a part of the books and also, in Tony’s books, I think Jim Chee had applied to the FBI but he was a Navajo tribal police officer. I just took that and made him an FBI agent first, coming into the Navajo tribal police department, and keeping that secret from from the rest of his contemporaries. That made their arcs a little bit meatier. You had a guy trying to investigate a case while also still  processing his own child’s death and this guy who’s returning to the reservation, caught between two worlds. Now that we have that, I kind of see who these two characters are, now we have the makings for a long term television arc.

Over the course of the season, there are a ton of nods to classic Westerns like “Stagecoach.” What is the relationship between the show and classic Westerns?

Chris Eyre: You can’t have one without the other. You can’t have the Native American Buffalo society without the U.S. government. And you can’t have the Western without both sides of the West. I know people do make Westerns without natives and I’m always like, “How can you do that?” But you have to have both of them. Zahn wearing the cowboy hat embodies the same thing, he’s an Indian cowboy in a certain way. We hearken to all these things that we recall from classic cinema, it’s just part of an inextricable marriage of two cultures that are colliding. And basically, you know, that’s what this world is about, there wouldn’t be the reservation without the over-culture. It creates a richer conflict.

Talking about the final episode, it begins by revealing that Whitover has been lying to Joe and Jim the whole time about his motivations. How did you balance that twist, making it genuinely surprising while also feel earned?

Roland: It was a very difficult task. Noah Emmerich, when he came on to play the role, he had been told “Hey, it doesn’t read this way in the pilot, but you end up being the big bad.” And his big concern right out of the gate, which was all of our concern, is you don’t have a lot of white characters in the show. How do you make his character, which is the force of antagonism, not immediately come off as “Oh, he’s the bad guy.” It was a delicate dance, and we owe the actor for playing it that way. One of the ways that we really tried to do it was making him have real affection for Chee. That wasn’t manufactured. He was sort of using him but at the same time, had it all worked out in his favor, I think he would have taken Chee with him into Washington, and he would have fulfilled all the promises he made. He genuinely did like this kid and wanted to see the best for him. But at the end of the day, that didn’t trump his own motivations

For the final episode, did you shoot in an actual cave or was the interior a soundstage?

Eyre: We had a practical cave entrance. And then we shot some of the more complicated stuff in a cave that we we created.

Roland: I love the fact that you even asked that. That it doesn’t look totally fake, that makes me feel very good.

The climax of the episode is the scene between Joe and the robber in the shed, which leads to the robber dying by suicide. How did that feel like a natural ending to Joe’s story?

Eyre: For me, when I think of Joe Leaphorn, he’s living in these two worlds, and he’s law enforcement, but he aches for this guy who’s so damaged that he does the act that he does, which is horrible. Indian country, there’s some high suicide rates. When Leaphorn goes to the door, and he tells him not to do it, he puts his head down and all he can do is really pray. And it turns into this beautiful prayer that the writers did, that transmuted it into something more. It’s kind of cathartic for me.

Roland: I know the prayer was something that went through a few iterations. I think I’m right about that, Chris, in the sense that there was the first version that came out. I know that the writers worked very hard on that scene in particular. It was very much a group effort to get that right. And not only get it right but to get it as authentic as possible.

Eyre: To me, it shows everything we’re talking about, Leaphorn walking between these worlds and he sees the duality of his job and he puts it into this prayer.

How much consulting did you get from the Navajo community on the show?

Eyre: We had Navajo consultants on set for language and culture. And then we had the benefit of having Navajo elders as background extras and people like Betty [Ann Tsosie] who plays the grandmother, and Harrison Lowe, who’s in the beginning of the show. So we had the benefit of people that were fluent Navajo speakers. The problem with that sometimes is the dialects are different. And generationally language has a tendency to become more slang as it moves along in generations. So there’s traditional Navajo, and there’s a looser Navajo. And there was a lot of different influences, but we’re lucky to have all those people as contributors that helped us. And the Navajo people that I’ve talked to love the series. There’s always room for us to improve every season, which we’ll do.

Roland: We also had Navajo writers in our writers room, which was very helpful because they not only could they answer a lot of our questions, but if they didn’t know they had a community of people that they could go to to ask so at every point in the process.

What do you think it is about the journey that Joe went on that he was able to begin the process of moving on from his son’s death?

Roland: I don’t want this to come across as he’s found Chee, so he’s found a replacement for his son. But I think Chee filled a big hole in his life, so that’s one part of him being able to move on. And I think another part of it is just realizing that holding on to the grief was hurting him and hurting the people that he loved. And so trying to let go of that is for his own sake and for the sake of his wife and the people that cared about him.

Eyre: I don’t think he’s moved on. I think that he’s learned to live with it. And the poetry of it is that he gives up this jacket finally, that he’s taken one step. And it’s very poetic that, you know, we opened with the jacket in the first episode, and at the end, he’s able to do what he’s supposed to do. At one point he even says “She’s not supposed to be wearing that jacket” when he’s talking about Anna. It is just emblematic of letting go and he just decides to burn it like he’s supposed to or bury it culturally. And he does what he’s supposed to do finally, after the season and arcs, and it’s just the poetic act of believing he is going to move forward.

Roland: I think that’s a very interesting point, Chris brought up. Most Americans, or most people in the audience, would think that if you somebody dies you want to hold on to those things that remind you of them. But the Navajo culture is the opposite of that. I remember hearing that for the first time and finding that really fascinating that it was such an expression of letting go of your grief, to have to get rid of the belongings of the person that you lost. There’s something really beautiful about that.

The last scene with Joe and Jim, Jim almost tells Joe something and Joe just says “I know.” And then the episode cuts to credits. Why did you want to end the season with that conversation still hanging?

Roland: So what happened was the the writers had written the first draft of the finale, and I read it for the first time and liked it, but it didn’t have a scene that ended with the two leads. And I felt it was missing that, so I went back to pitch that scene because I felt like we needed to have some sort of resolution after this journey that they had been through that was very emotional for both of them. But in terms of that specific line? it really wasn’t meant to be some sort of mystery. It was more meant to be an emotional thing. These two guys, neither of them were very quick with their emotions or their words in terms of expressing themselves, especially Joe held a lot of things inside. In that moment, I think Jim, had he continued on, would have given his version of an apology, about lying about all the things that happened. But I think Joe saying “I know” was his way of letting him off the hook and saying, “It’s not necessary. We did this together, we’re in this together. And you don’t have anything to apologize to me for.”

In general, how did you think about developing their relationship together since it’s really the core of the show. From both a writing and directing perspective, how did you develop that chemistry?

Roland: We got lucky in the sense that Kiowa and Zahn had known each other prior to the show, had worked together, and already had a friendship. So we had that going for us, the chemistry wasn’t necessarily something that needed to fake because they already had it as two working actors and two people. It was very important to the show and I think it was something we were all hoping would come through on screen. We never intended this to be a buddy cop and I don’t think this is a buddy cop show, but when we started to get some of those dailies back of their first scenes together, I remember thinking “Wow, this is a whole layer of the show that I hadn’t been looking for.” It really jumped off screen immediately to me as soon as the two actors were together at a scene. And then for me, trying to walk that line between the father son dynamic that they had, to cops investigating a murder together, while also keeping their points of view about their own culture and their own history and their own community.

Season 2 of the show is already confirmed. Will you be tackling a specific book again? Do you have one picked out?

Roland: We do. We talked a lot about the second season, even during the first one, and what book we would tackle next. We have one picked out. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say what book it is. I don’t want to step on the new showrunner’s toes. But that’s kind of our model, one book a season.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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