I’m not sure what life is like on an actual Native American reservation. I’ve never visited one, and I haven’t done any research; all I know is what I see in movies and TV, and that isn’t much. So take this with a grain of salt when I say that I was surprised and a little disbelieving when “Dog Soldier” played out a thread about the government taking Native American kids away from their homes. Maybe this happens all the time; maybe child services is in the habit of forcing parents to give up their children for adoption without proper cause, and maybe this part of some systematic abuse of the Cheyenne people. But in the context of the episode, which throws in the threat of child molestation at the start to give us a false lead, the idea doesn’t really have legs. No matter how many times people tell us in serious voices that kids are getting taken away, the episode isn’t constructed in a way that makes the crisis real; the res is still just a place we hear talked about more than one we actually understand.
Of course, it turns out that this hour isn’t really about systematic corruption, although we do get our usual allotment of “Man, the white people sure screwed us over, huh?” lines. The episode starts with the disappearance of an adopted boy named Neel. Initially, Walt suspects Neel’s birth parents, two Native Americans who were accused of addiction and abuse but angrily deny both charges. (They have a little girl still living with them, and she seems perfectly fine. She’s into dinosaurs.) Then a more horrible possibility suggests itself, when an older woman comes to the police station to report that her 35-year-old son, Jeremy Thompson, is missing. Jeremy did time for abusing children at his last job, and he’s living with his mother now. He didn’t register as a sex offender because, well, who’d want to do that. As if Jeremy wasn’t bad enough, Vic starts digging around the files of the supervisor at the care facility where Neel lived before he was sent to a foster family, and finds that Ryan Shanks went to high school with Jeremy. The two men were on the wrestling team together. Now Ryan is missing, along with two other boys, and who knows what’s really going on.
In retrospect, the bait-and-switch going on here should have been obvious; there aren’t many shows who would leave a group of small boys in the hands of a pair of child molesters for as long as the kids in this episode stay missing. The actual mystery here is smaller than we’re initially led to believe. The boys are never in any danger, and the corruption that seems to be stealing children away from loving and supportive families is actually the work of just one greedy woman, a social worker named Crystal. If “Dog Soldier” has some deeper point about the system being designed to allow for this kind of abuse, it doesn’t land. Bureaucracy can be a terrible thing, and it’s awful whenever it fails the people it’s designed to protect, but it’s hard to get too angry about an agency whose sole purpose is to protect kids. I’m not saying social services is perfect, but we need more to get upset about than the occasional “sociopath.”
I was all set to despise this hour for most of the running time, as the creepy molester vibe didn’t sit well with me. The constant use of Native Americans as victims isn’t that fun either; it’s one-note and dull, and little effort has been made to expand our understanding of this culture beyond what feel like the barest clichés. The episode goes to great lengths to explain the “dog soldier” of its title, a Cheyenne warrior capable of changing form as needed to fight against great odds, and feels like an effort to embrace a different kind of Native American cliché—this time not of suffering, but of mysticism and magic. Which leads to the image of Jacob Nighthorse tying himself to the earth and shaking a handful of teeth at the sky, which is kind of cool, but the whole construct has a surface feel to it. That could be knee-jerk liberalism taking over, so I’m hesitant to get overly judgmental about the show’s approach; I do know that, as far as drama goes, it doesn’t work. Too much of Longmire still feels arbitrary, introduced in the moment because it fits the story, without much in the way of internal logic to tie all of it together. Given that Henry is friends with Walt, why didn’t he mention the whole enforced adoptions thing before? How does Jacob Nighthorse fit into this? He turns out to be the man responsible for some of what happens in the episode (he hires Hector, an ex-boxer and enforcer, to take the kids, in, presumably an attempt to draw attention to Crystal’s crime), but how does he fit in the community? Walt has been serving as sheriff here for a while, and in everything we’ve seen, he’s honorable with his dealings with the Native Americans. It’s hard to imagine Henry being friends with him otherwise. So why the constant antagonism? This is the treatment you’d expect a new sheriff, one who’d never had a chance to prove himself, to receive, not an old-timer. One of the pilot’s big strengths was its sense of place, but that sense seems further away with each passing hour.
The resolution of the mystery—Walt’s big scene with Crystal—was good enough to keep this episode from being a complete waste, and Walt and the others are still fun to hang out with. But I’m not convinced by the stories the show is trying to tell. At best, they’re dull; at worst, they actively get in the way of all the series does right.
- In Longmire country, kids can play on horses and four-wheelers without adult supervision. Good to know!
- The writers are really intent on making sure we realize that the Native Americans do not particularly trust white people. I get it, guys.
- Ah well, at least we saw Longmire kicking ass twice, first beating the crap out of Hector, and then reminding Crystal that she lives 20 minutes away from the authorities, if anyone wanted to get some revenge.
- Is it really that profitable to hire someone to help you steal children from their homes? Crystal’s scheme seems better designed to piss people off than it does to make her rich.