Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Longmire: “Unfinished Business”

Illustration for article titled Longmire: “Unfinished Business”

The music on this show is driving me nuts. At first, I liked it; I dug how it played against the grain, how it didn’t quite fit with the Western backdrops and wide open spaces. It was like nerves jangling on a sunny day. Something is wrong, and you won’t be able to rest until you figure out how to put it right. But the past few episodes, and particularly in tonight’s season finale, it stopped being an effective way to add texture, and became symbolic of the many ways this show has failed to live up to its promise. The score is far from the worst of Longmire’s problems, but in trying to force a tone on a world that simply can’t sustain it, those guitar chords and sudden DUN DUN DUN stings are a prime symptom of what might be an incurable disease. This is a show that doesn’t understand what it does best, and keeps trying to force itself toward a style that undermines all of its good points. The death of Walt’s wife, the twist that she was murdered, the fact that Walt either killed or had a hand in killing that murderer (or maybe he just strangled some other meth addict, who knows), the fact that he lied to his daughter, the rivalry with Branch—the finale throws a lot of big, dramatic beats at us, but none of them are effective. None of them are as powerful as just watching Longmire do his job, balance the needs of his community, and embarrass his deputies.

Let’s get this out of the way first: While I continue to think Lindsay, Walt’s near love interest, is a few cows short of a ranch, at least having the two of them hook up makes a certain basic sense. She’s pretty, and she’s forceful, and I’m assuming Walt is attracted to both these qualities; besides, watching the two of them awkward their way through a morning after conversation at Walt’s ranch (after a “G-rated” evening, no less) was one of the episode’s better scenes. What doesn’t work for me is trying to create some kind of half-assed romantic rivalry between Lindsay and Vic for Walt’s affections. The scene between Lindsay and Vic at the sheriff’s office was fun because Katee Sackhoff in just-barely-restrained-fury is always fun, but Walt and Vic make a horrible match—their chemistry has a friendly, father-daughter vibe, and the thought of that turning romantic is uncomfortable and weird in all kinds of ways. Watching characters on a show get forced together because the writers decide they want to create some tension is always a drag, and when that choice would threaten the best relationship the series has right now, it’s downright criminal.

Speaking of criminal (eh? eh?), this week’s case, a series of bow murders tied to a teenage rape trial, wasn’t all that compelling. At its best, Longmire has tried, with some small success, to use the presence of the reservation beside Walt’s town as a way to bring in new stories about a culture that isn’t often represented on television. Given that, at its heart, this is just one more show about police officers and murderers, that texture and uniqueness could serve as a way to make the series stand out more, and tell stories we haven’t heard a dozen times before. Keeping that in mind, the plot of “Unfinished Business” is especially disappointing, relying on hackneyed cliches like the failures of the legal system, revenge killings, and the torments of the innocent, to sustain itself. It’s not enough that the boys killed by bow and arrow are accused rapists who were acquitted at their trial even though everyone knows they did it; it’s not even enough that their victim is a Native American. No, the poor girl has to have developmental problems, which made her testimony unreliable in court. It reduces the interactions between the Native Americans of the reservation and the outsiders in a way that other episodes have tried to avoid. A bunch of rich white kids are monsters, and the Native Americans are victims. No more, no less.

That the murders all turn out to be the work of one of the original rapists, driven to near madness over his guilt and rage at being forced to commit a horrible crime, is only shocking if you’ve never watched one of the countless Law & Order episodes that have used this sort of story. Of course it’s not the brother of the raped girl, and of course it’s not a Native American looking for revenge, not because neither of those are improbable, but because the dictates of episodic mystery demand that there be enough twists to see us through to the last 10 minutes. I’ll admit that I was a little surprised that Rich was the killer, and not Jake, the supposed leader of the gang; I was also surprised that Jake was apparently so keen on group rape that he forced Rich to assault their victim at gunpoint. But these weren’t the sort of surprises that revealed hidden depths of a generally unimpressive storyline. I can’t imagine Rich’s accusation about Jake’s behavior is going to hold up too well in court, and it’s all basically a lot of drama that we only get to hear about from the sidelines. There’s no impact here, and it’s handled in such a unimaginative (well, apart from the bow), subtext-free way as to be laughable—and that’s a problem.

As for the revelations about Walt’s wife, I remain uninvested. The show keeps going in directions I don’t care to follow, and while this week’s confrontation between Walt and Cady at least had a reason to be overblown and dramatic, the dialogue was still didactic and dull, and this relationship is still too underdeveloped to justify this much angst. The fight between Branch and Walt at least had the benefit of being largely word-free, but throughout all of these scenes and far too much of the episode as a whole, it was hard to shake the impression that the writers were doubling down on storylines that brought out their worst impulses. Could Branch’s team up with Jacob bear fruit? It could. Do I like Charles S. Dutton? I do, although his detective character’s forced quirkiness played like a bad Columbo imitation. But all of this is clutter, on a show that desperately needs to simplify its focus and figure out its true strengths. There are still elements of a solid, watchable series here; Walt is a great character, the cast is good and occasionally great (although wow, a lot of the guest stars are embarrassingly amateur-ish; I wonder if that’s a function of budget or something), and the setting is gorgeous. Just get rid of the forced conflict, try and do some smaller, more thoughtful cases, and for god’s sake, knock it off with those damn guitars.

Stray observations:

  • Katee Sackhoff is trying so hard to make this work. Maybe someday she’ll find a show that deserves her.
  • Turning the death of Walt’s wife into some kind of mythology bullshit is just an awful choice. It makes it that much more difficult to understand Walt’s behavior, it turns an emotional event into a mystery whose resolution can’t possibly satisfy after all this build up, and it makes scenes like Cady’s confrontation with Walt, or Walt’s “No” to Dutton at the end of the episode, ring hollow. Sure, something dramatic is happening here, but we haven’t been given the information we need to give a damn about it.
  • “This is the spot that changed everything” is a horrible, horrible line. It almost works coming out of a teenager, but still, ugh.
  • I don’t know if we’ll be covering this show again next year, but it’s been a pleasure, folks.