[This is a review of Longmire season 4, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
There has been a fair amount of drama regarding Longmire in the interim between seasons 3 and 4. The modern-day Western, adapted from the series of mystery novels by Craig Johnson, was canceled by A&E at the end of its third season, only to be resurrected by the sometimes-necromancer of television dramas more commonly known as Netflix. But in considering the journey Longmire has made from being an offering of a basic cable channel to one of the many bingeable options bestowed upon subscribers of the streaming giant, it's worth noting the actual drama of the series' narrative doesn't skip a beat. Sure, the poster promoting the second life that is season 4 uses the tagline: "It's how you come back that matters," but that is about the extent of any difference fans of the Wyoming-set series will see when their favorite Rainier-swilling lawman is finally back on screen.
In other words, even though it exists in a format with fewer restrictions and with little conventional concern over something like ratings, this is not a dramatically different drama. And for those who have stuck with the series from the get-go, it will be clear that the lack of change or, more precisely, attempt to adapt to its new environment, is something of a double-edged sword. The show that fans know and love is still the same, and yet, it's still the same show that had to be resurrected by Netflix.
To that end, there is something equal parts fun and frustrating in a series that so frequently utilizes a dramatic formula wherein the audience must wait for the other shoe to drop. Now, a lot of that has to do with the fact that Longmire is, in its heart of hearts, a mystery series, and one that, more often than not, sticks to the structure of your average police procedural. As such, by virtue of its genre and format, and the expectations of both, shoe dropping is a fundamental part of every episode's narrative. But it's what Longmire does with its dropping of the shoes that can sometimes create a troublesome spot for the series. And it is never more apparent than in the surprising turn of events, which take place early on in the premiere episode, 'Down By the River.'
The death of Branch Connally (Bailey Chase) may not come as much of a surprise, considering the way things played out at the end of season 3. And while the episode does its level best to make it as compelling as possible, there is an undeniable sense that nothing is as it seems.
Again, this is all part of building a good mystery, and the premiere structures its questions in just the right way, so when Walt finally does come to the conclusion his nemesis is likely involved somehow, it reads like an appropriate revelation. And yet, throughout the episode, questions of whether the body is actually that of Branch Connally, and if pointing a finger at Nighthorse and Barlow is merely some sort of sleight-of-hand, lingers in an uncomfortable way.
This is likely the result of some of the more outlandish plots the show has utilized in the past – mostly concerning an assassin who was previously presumed dead and the elder Connally's involvement in the murder of Walt's wife (and possibly his own son). But it's also a reminder of the show's penchant for cliffhangers involving Branch at the business end of someone's firearm. Essentially, given its history, it's a little like the boy who cried wolf. And the consequence of that is: Longmire has to do some overtime in convincing the audience that a major character is actually dead. The close-up of the scar on Branch's abdomen helps – though it felt more like a "shut up" moment to the skeptics in the audience than anything else – but these are the risks a show takes when it dabbles in such duplicitous territory so often.
Still, despite having to (over) compensate for past storytelling decisions, 'Down By the River' manages to make Branch's death a compelling narrative engine for the season. And it's not like season 4 is left wanting for a driving force, mind you. What with Barlow still around and Jacob Nighthorse stopping by Walt's for a little late-night chat session, the show has plenty to keep it occupied along with its inevitable murder-of-the-week format.
Like most shows that develop a loyal fan base, though, Longmire works because it takes the time to explore the moments in between the murders and the other crimes Sheriff Walt investigates in this highly fictionalized version of Wyoming. Which is why the premiere seems to find its stride not in the investigation of Branch's death, but in the emotional reactions of Walt and the supporting characters.
In that sense, Katee Sackhoff and Lou Diamond Phillips continue to be the series' MVPs when it comes to giving the storylines some emotional weight. Walt's trials and tribulations dealing with his wife's murder work to give the show the structure it needs, but Sackhoff's ability to make an eye roll feel as significant as a full-on post-opossum-squishing breakdown, and Phillips' skill at silently carrying the burden of having lost his bar, while also tending to pleas for help written to the late Hector, are a large part of why this show continues to have as passionate a fan base as it does.
It may not be taking full advantage of its new format as of yet, but Longmire wasn't necessarily a show that needed to change its ways in order to reach a larger audience. Maybe now that all of its seasons are available on Netflix, the series can continue doing what it's doing and let the audience come to it.
Longmire season 4 is available in its entirety on Netflix.
Photos: Lewis Jacobs/Netflix