No Comment, Cowboy
by ALICE BOLIN
In the first episode of A&E’s new series Longmire, the show’s cowboy detective Walt Longmire asks his sidekick, Victoria “Vic” Moretti, “You know what they call a flock of ravens?” She confesses she does not. “An unkindness,” he says. “And what the hell is wrong with ‘flock?’” she says. “Unkindness is just a little more apropos,” Longmire says, and a second later they discover a frozen corpse in the snow-covered sheep field they were walking through.
The combination of the ham-fisted and the self-satisfied is inherently funny. I know this can’t just be my problem.
When something is utterly derivative, it is easiest to attribute this to creative exhaustion. But when something is well made, as Longmire is, and utterly derivative, the question of intention becomes murkier. The “why” of parody is defined: humor, commentary. The “why” of pastiche is harder to pin down. When something is as replete with clichés as Longmire is, and as totally serious, and as lacking any hint of the meta, maybe then the conventions of the purposely unoriginal do not apply? Maybe then it’s just stupid?
Longmire is woven from clichés on both large and small scales. In true detective-show form, Longmire is tormented by the tragic death of his wife and has a loving but complicated relationship with his daughter. He is also a Sherlock Holmes-style polymath who reads widely, speaks German, and has a magical ability to tell whether a gun has been fired. He gives his rival Branch Connally The Hound of the Baskervilles so that he might pick up a few pointers.
Branch is also a familiar figure, the young upstart deputy who is challenging Longmire for sheriff but whose skills and priorities — glad handing and outfitting that the sheriff’s department with current technology — are trifling compared to Longmire’s intelligence, toughness, and perfect drive to protect the citizens of the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. Vic, Longmire’s wisecracking girl Friday, is the show’s resident city mouse: she spent five years working homicide in Philadelphia and then became one of three deputies in a tiny sheriff’s department in the wilds of Wyoming, inexplicably. During a shoot-out at a ranch, Vic suggests that in Philadelphia they would have called in a SWAT team, and Longmire laughs in her face.
Beyond detective-genre tropes, the creators of Longmire are also obviously indulging in the cowboy archetype: Longmire is stoic, laconic, independent, idiosyncratic, and brave. He’s obsessed with not having a cell phone. “No comment” is described as “the Longmire yes.” He arrives at the scene of a barn burning and barges inside to look for the body of the barn’s owner. “At least wear my hat,” a firefighter calls after him. “No thanks,” Longmire says, and gestures at his cowboy hat. “I’ve got one.”
And with Longmire’s best friend and informant on all things Native, Henry Standing Bear, there is an inescapable a Lone Ranger and Tonto vibe. Henry is a likeable character, though it is easy to bristle at his ostensible Indian wisdom. When Longmire is going to meet with one of the operators of a prostitution ring, Henry warns that it sounds like a set up. He suggests what he calls an O.I.T., an old Indian trick, which is essentially to go to the meeting place early. “Surprise is a powerful weapon,” Longmire later explains. When Longmire tells Henry about a Mennonite father who was impassive at the news of his daughter’s death, Henry says smugly, “Every culture processes grief in its own way.”
Longmire also resembles The Lone Ranger’s campier descendent, Walker, Texas Ranger. Though there is a mystery solved in each episode, Longmire definitely favors action to suspense, and, like in Walker, its middle-aged protagonist sees his share of combat. Longmire wrestles for long minutes with a fraudulent federal marshal and eventually incapacitates him. He ends the first episode running and ducking from a sniper, timing his movements by how long it will take the gunman to reload. When he goes to the nearby Cheyenne Indian Reservation to look for a missing girl, he is met at the border by the Tribal Police, who surround him and beat him.
It seems Longmire made enemies of the Tribal Police when he busted them for running an extortion racket. This larger cowboys versus Indians trope, particularly with the portrayal of the reservation as an anarchic nether-zone and the tribal police as corrupt and incompetent, is intro-to-cultural-studies “problematic.” But it’s part of what makes Longmire so resolutely western, and its setting is, in some ways, the show’s strength. The pilot, especially, was astoundingly beautiful, with wide shots of sprawling ranchland building into snowy mountains. At one point a herd of antelope arc across a field, in a visual echo of “Home on the Range.”
Absaroka is in a lonesome corner of Wyoming — “That’s practically Montana,” someone says of it — and its rural police force is low on resources and high on vigilante ethic. Longmire actively hates and avoids involvement from the feds, scoffs at computers and cell phones, and, conveniently for the show, has to do most of the work on every case by himself. And the purported lawlessness of the mountain west might help to explain why such bucolic surroundings experience so many homicides: “This is Wyoming,” a character explains. “Everyone hears gunshots.”
And this isolation means that Longmire interacts with cultural enclaves that exist sheltered by the mountains — we might think of the Indian reservation this way. In the show’s second episode Longmire encounters a group of Mennonite kids who are on their rumspringa, the time in late adolescence when they live apart from their families before deciding whether whey want to stay on the Mennonite colony for good. He visits the colony and its inhabitants are wearing full Amish garb, riding in horse-drawn carriages, and speaking Pennsylvania Dutch. The Mennonite girl who was murdered is a stripper in a nearby town, one that has experienced an economic surge thanks to the discovery of oil nearby. The tension stemming from an energy boom on the once-empty range is refreshingly real — this is an issue that people living in this region are actually dealing with, rather than an exaggeration or a product of cultural myth, John Wayne’s western fantasia.
Life in big sky country isn’t as remote as Longmire would have you believe, but in the show’s sweeping views of field, mountain, forest, and sky, there is the sense that true wilderness is startlingly close. Maybe that’s why the lives of the animal citizens of Absaroka County are protected just as strenuously by its police force as its human ones—in the pilot, Vic is sent out to investigate the shooting of a sheep before they come upon the man who was murdered. In the barn fire, two champion show horses are killed and a third is badly injured. Longmire’s father was a farrier, and he takes a shine to the surviving horse — he pays for the horse’s veterinary bills, visits it at the vet’s office and keeps it company.
When it seems like the horse is going to die, Longmire talks to it, and tells it that it doesn’t have to prove how tough it is. “It’s okay to go,” he tells it. This moment is quiet, well acted, and genuinely moving — as are Longmire’s love for his daughter and his grief for his wife. And in this way, Longmire succeeds. It may not be subtle or original, but there is something real working beneath its surface. Like its protagonist, Longmire is plodding, but it’s got some heart.
Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording, a polymath and the finest horse trainer of her time. She is a writer living in Missoula. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
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