Second episodes of new shows often find themselves trapped into repeating what happened in the pilot. Which makes sense, really; as TV writers, you can’t be sure everyone caught the premiere, and you also don’t know exactly what kind of stories your world is best suited for. You have an idea, sure, but a second episode is there to shore up the base, to make sure the foundation is strong enough to move forward. Anyway, my point being: “The Dark Road” mostly escapes this trap (no one reminds us that Walt’s wife is dead, for one), but it does have certain passing similarities to the pilot, most notably in the fact that our hero is once again at odds with a sub-culture inside his community, one with its own goals and rules and dangers. Instead of Native Americans, we’re dealing with Mennonites, but the end result is roughly the same. Walt pursues justice doggedly, patiently, and with unexpected wit, and if the justice turns out to be a little hard to come by in the end, he at least closes the case. Hell, he even finds himself at odds again with Branch, although he doesn’t know it yet; his daughter is dating his rival, and from the brief glimpse we get of their relationship, it’s probably serious.
For a stretch down the middle, I wasn’t sure if I liked this episode quite as much as I liked the last one. Nothing serious, mind you—this show is aiming pretty clear for a middle of the road, satisfying professionalism, and if that means getting a straightforward, or even middling, hour every now and again, I still like the world well enough that there’s no danger of me losing interest. And regardless of the case at its center, “The Dark Road” has a lot of the smart touches that endeared me so much to the pilot. There’s a fine cold open, which ends with a little boy snatching money out of the air by the side of the road before stumbling over a woman’s corpse. Or the way Longmire figures out Cady has a new boyfriend because there’s a new lock in her door, and whoever installed it didn’t do a professional job. (Another fault to Branch’s list: He’s not a great handyman.) In general, Walt is the best kind of protagonist for a show like this, in that he comes with a decent amount of personal drama to drive the longer narrative, but he’s sharp and good enough at his job that his presence alone helps make the incidental cases more interesting. Just dropping him into a strip club is good for some laughs, and his laconic, stone-faced delivery works well for dry humor and tragedy in equal measure. (I especially liked the bit where he forgot his coat at the strip club. It’s a such an odd, human thing to do.) Apart from a brief flashback—see the Stray Observations—we don’t get a whole lot more about Walt in this episode, but he works fine as is, distinctive enough in his way from all the other brilliant-but-troubled heroes on TV to be memorable. It helps that he’s an older man. There’s not a lot of that going around.
As for the mystery itself, well, it had some moments, and some of those were fine, but it was by and large boilerplate stuff, with a dash of exotic religious fanaticism for spice. In all likelihood, this is going to be a show that does a fair amount of boilerplate, and if I criticize that from time to time in these reviews, I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no room in a procedural, or on TV, or, hell, in art in general for the functional. There’s just enough here to make me hope for more. Using the Mennonites as source material for a murder mystery isn’t a bad idea at all, and the episode does a fair job of trying to evoke the culture, even if it doesn’t quite succeed. We learn early on that Hannah, the dead girl, was a Mennonite on her Rumspringa with her brother and a few other young people—it’s a period of time when the kids act out, get a taste of life outside the community, and decide if they really want to commit to a full life of bonnet wearing and horses. So there’s already drama in their situation even without the dead body, and things get more tense when Walt goes to see Hannah’s father. Ephraim Clausen first tells Longmire not to talk to his wife (she’s not allowed to speak alone with strange men), and then, when he learns his daughter is dead, doesn’t seem to care much. Clearly, Hannah had a lot going on.
Unfortunately, after making a lot of this, “The Dark Road” spends most of its time detailing the specifics of whom Hannah was sleeping with, where she was keeping her money, and whom she argued with her last night alive. It’s not bad, really, and the victim’s heritage is critically connected to her fate (she wanted to leave, and in trying to bring her back to the fold, her brother accidentally got her killed), but the episode never quite manages to give us a sense of the community Hannah was running from. Clearly, it’s restrictive, as Hannah’s mom is so terrified of being caught by her husband that she was sending messages to her kid on the sly (although I’m not sure writing them in Pennsylvania Dutch would’ve helped in this regard), but hey, she comes out on the porch at the end of the episode, so I guess everything’s okay with her now, even with one child dead and the other probably going to jail. But the story’s treatment of Mennonites never goes beyond the surface, and the most evocative images—the “dark road” of the title, the half mile the teens have to walk when leaving home—lie dormant.
Still, the resolution works, sold as much as anything by the expression on Robert Taylor’s face, and while it’s not a shocking twist that Cady is sleeping with Branch, it’s a good one. After watching this episode, I’m convinced as ever that this is a world I want to spend time with, and I’m impressed at how solid that world feels even now. There are corny places and soft spots; Henry is going to be a much more interesting character once he stops being the Native American sidekick who keeps making sarcastic jokes about being a Native American sidekick. But there’s an easy camaraderie around the sheriff’s office, and the intimations of Walt’s checkered past hold promise. And there’s all that open space everywhere anyone goes. In the daylight, it looks promising, colors stretching out as far as the eye can see. But at night, it’s just dark, and that means you need someone there, watching out for shadows.
- So, the flashback: Walt’s getting his back sewed up by a Native American woman, while Henry looks on. Walt makes Henry promise he’ll never tell Cady what happened. I’m guessing this might have something to do with the death of Walt’s wife—maybe he got some revenge?
- I still love Vic, because Katee Sackhoff is delightful. The scene where she strips in the strip club to get information from the customers was awful, though. Sackhoff mostly makes it work, but man.
- “A stripper makes more in two months than I do in an entire year. Do you know I can dance? And I always thought I had a really nice ass.”