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No One Gets Vulnerable Like Zahn McClarnon

On Dark Winds and Reservation Dogs, the veteran actor shows how much he can do.
  • Zahn McClarnon in Reservation Dogs (left) and Dark Winds (Photos: FX, AMC/Primetimer graphic)
    Zahn McClarnon in Reservation Dogs (left) and Dark Winds (Photos: FX, AMC/Primetimer graphic)

    In our year-end miniseries They Have the Range, Primetimer writers and editors highlight the most versatile TV actors of 2022. 

    From a distance, it might seem like Zahn McClarnon played the same role on two different show this year. On both Reservation Dogs and Dark Winds, he’s a law enforcement officer stuck in the uneasy limbo between his own Native community and the white power structure typically associated with the badge. Both series feature a late-season episode in which his character confronts his guilt about the death of a loved one, and in both, he stumbles upon a bizarre criminal conspiracy.

    But those similarities only help us spot the differences between McClarnon’s two performances. As Big, the lighthorseman (or tribal police officer) who serves his rez community on FX’s Reservation Dogs, he’s a guy with spiritual calm. Because he was visited by the mythical Deer Lady when he was a kid, he knows there are cosmic forces looking out for him, and it gives him the confidence to be both patient and caring with the people he helps, even though he calls them sh*t-asses every now and then. McClarnon makes it clear that Big leads with his heart. He plays him as someone who mostly wants to listen without judging, or better yet, who’s willing to accept that whatever wild story they’re telling might be true. That’s why he’s serious when he says he wants to track Bigfoot as part of his official police duties.

    At the same time, McClarnon plays Big as a rule follower. He’s got a tentative quality, especially when he’s just being social, that suggests he doesn’t trust himself to jump into a conversation. That’s why it’s so funny when he accidentally takes psychedelics in the Season 2 episode “This Is Where the Plot Thickens,” then ends up on a vision quest in the woods with Kenny Boy (Kirk Fox). He can’t stay in control if he’s tripping, and his meltdown at discovering he’s been drugged is a comic highlight of the series. Yet as Big goes on his trip, McClarnon also excavates the shame and guilt that make him so reticent. He’s suddenly raw and helpless, forced to think about his failure to stop a disaster that took his friend.

    But Reservation Dogs is a comedy first. McClarnon touches that pain without wallowing there, and soon enough, he’s spaced out again, trying to wrap his mind around a secret meeting he discovers in the forest, where a cult of white men are doing unspeakable things with fish. His swing back to goofball humor makes the eruption of feeling even more impressive.

    His character on Dark Winds is taciturn as well, but for different reasons. On that AMC crime thriller, Navajo police officer Joe Leaphorn is explicitly positioned as a white-hatted good guy from an old-time western. That requires a gruff, masculine authority, and McClarnon embodies it without making Leaphorn seem like a macho robot. Instead, we see him thinking, assessing everything from the details of a murder scene to the racist anger that the white FBI agents he’s forced to work with might unleash at any second.

    Unlike Big, Leaphorn feels the most relaxed when he’s with his community, especially his wife Emma (Deanna Allison). Those are the moments that McClarnon shows us the character’s wit and generosity, and when he eventually starts opening up to his new partner Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), we can read the shift in his performance as a sign that Leaphorn considers the kid family.

    In the episode “Ha'íínlni”, we learn why Leaphorn might be so happy to befriend the young man. During a fraught conversation with Emma, he reveals his most shameful secret about the death of his child. This is where Dark Winds behaves like a revisionist western, because it requires its archetypal hero to be vulnerable, too. McClarnon swiftly dismantles Leaphorn’s defenses, and the result is one of the most poignant performances of the year.

    And again, while he imbues them both with deep regret, McClarnon makes both Big and Leaphorn specific enough to be distinct. He makes them feel natural in the shows they inhabit, and when those shows return for their next seasons, he’ll no doubt find new contours in both characters.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Zahn McClarnon, AMC, FX, Dark Winds, Reservation Dogs, Deanna Allison, Kiowa Gordon, Kirk Fox