It’s been awhile since we last saw Walt Longmire on A&E. The second season of the series has aired two new episodes, with more to come. Of the two episodes, “Unquiet Mind” and “Carcasses,” I found the second to be the far more interesting. Although “Unquiet Mind” was based on the novel Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson, which I generally take as a good sign, the episode itself ended up being kind of confusing (I thought). In the novel, a serial killer being transported across Absaroka County engineers an escape involving several other prisoners. The first part of the episode follows the set up of the novel closely and effectively stages the escape and the subsequent carnage.
However, it’s perhaps key to the novel that Walt is the narrator, and much of the action, which involves Walt following the escapees alone up a mountain in a snowstorm, is filtered through Walt’s consciousness, as he reflects back on past events and as he meditates on what has become an important feature of the novels: not only does Walt respect the beliefs of his Cheyenne neighbors, he also increasingly (if reluctantly) comes to share them. A number of supernatural (or possibly supernatural) events happen in the novel, with Walt’s narration helping to create some ambiguity. Is Walt hallucinating? Or is he really getting help from spirits?
The episode jettisons the exploration of Cheyenne cultural and religious beliefs that is an important part of Hell is Empty and instead shifts the story to the narrowly psychological. Walt is feeling guilty about past actions, and various characters appear to him as he makes his way up the mountain to make various obscure comments pointing to that sense of guilt. What is effective about the novel—the sense that the exterior landscape and Walt’s interior psychological and spiritual landscape become increasingly entangled so that we can’t quite tell one from the other—does not work very well on television. The spiritual elements of the novel are gone, and the psychological exploration of Walt’s character is clichéd. And since television is not an effective medium for conveying interiority, we have lots of scenes of Walt walking around in the snow, and the episode literally meanders.
The episode “Carcasses” returned to what the series does best: good solid detective fiction (based in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, as suggested by Branch’s revelation of a tattered “Hound of the Baskersvilles” paperback) with vividly drawn and lively secondary characters (both victims and suspects): Holly Whitish, the psychologically troubled (as we discover) collector of roadkill (which she uses for composting) who discovers a dead human body in her (animal) body farm; the (also psychologically troubled) female veteran suffering from PTSD; her bruised husband; a sharp witted prostitute working a Wyoming truck stop. The plot of the episode may have had a few too many parallels to last season’s “A Damn Shame,” but I like the way the episode joins its western rural setting with the sensibilities of hardboiled urban detective fiction, and the episode may ultimately have been more Elmore Leonard than Arthur Conan Doyle (and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing).