Sheriff Walt Longmire: An Old-Fashioned Hero in a World of TV Antiheroes

In the days of TV antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Don Draper, Sheriff Walt Longmire serves as a throwback to old-fashioned heroes like Marshall Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke.” In fact, the series “Longmire” reminds me of that classic TV western in a couple of ways.

“Longmire” – which premiered on A&E in June 2012, and is based on Craig Johnson’s book series – introduced viewers to Walt Longmire, sheriff of Absaroka County, a fictional community in Wyoming. Though he’s the chief law enforcement officer, his head has been a little out of the policing game for the past year due to his wife’s death. His deputies – Victoria “Vic” Moretti, Branch Connally and “Ferg” Ferguson – have picked up Longmire’s slack during that time, but as the show begins he is renewing his focus on doing his job to the best of his abilities.

Longmire, as played by Australian actor Robert Taylor, reminds me of James Arness’s Matt Dillon not so much in looks, but attitude. He’s an imposing figure with a strong sense of justice along with a compassionate heart for the victims he’s trying to help. He’s also a man grounded in the past. Longmire’s stubborn refusal to carry a cell phone as a statement against modernity is repeatedly played for a chuckle – and yet you can’t help but admire him for it. And when faced with some of the crimes he has to solve, he laments the fact that this is no longer the Wyoming he knew, suggesting that criminals – and maybe the world – have gotten more mean and corrupt since he was a young cop.

Longmire has his flaws, but overall he is a character grounded in traditional American heroism: he treats his friends and fellow officers like family, always looks out for the little guy, and puts his life on the line in the pursuit of his duty.

Longmire is running for re-election as sheriff, faced by none other than his deputy, Branch. Yet Walt lacks the self-aggrandizing ego we’re used to seeing in people who run for office and can barely be bothered to show up at one of his own campaign rallies. The bread-and-circuses part of electioneering clearly don’t appeal to him. He simply wants to be re-elected if the people believe he’s done a good job.

“Longmire” also reminds me of “Gunsmoke” in the sense that its stories can be dark. If you haven’t seen “Gunsmoke” in a while – or ever – and think it depicts some idyllic vision of the Old West, think again. By the end of most episodes (at least the old black-and-whites I’ve seen), there was usually a dead good guy and a dead bad guy, if not more. These were not endings in which everybody lived happily ever after. The price of evil and injustice were paid by the innocent and the guilty. In that sense, “Longmire” is no different. The wages of sin are always present.

Another element that makes the show work is the supporting cast and characters. As Deputy “Vic” Moretti – a fish-out-of-water transplant from Philadelphia because her husband’s job got transferred – Katee Sackhoff brings the attitude, edge, humor and heart that defined her portrayal of Starbuck on “Battlestar Galactica.” Bailey Chase, as Longmire’s deputy and opponent Branch Connally, comes across as cocky, yet never to the point where he’s unlikably so; he realizes that there are things he can still learn from his older and sometimes wiser boss. Lou Diamond Phillips as Henry Standing Bear, a Cheyenne who is Walt’s best friend and liaison with the local Indian reservation, conveys dignity, intelligence and a stoic humor. Adam Bartley as Deputy “Ferg” Ferguson often brings the semi-Barney-Fifeish comic relief.

“Longmire” became A&E’s highest rated scripted drama when it debuted in 2012, suggesting that America may want some regular heroes along with its antiheroes. I began watching the show on Netflix a few weeks ago and am currently up to episode eight of season one, which is what this review is based on. But “Longmire” is currently in the midst of its second season with new episodes airing Monday nights at 10/9C.

“Longmire” is a basic cable series so the crime scenes can be a little graphic, the occasional expletive is thrown around, and adult themes and sexual situations sometimes arise. But if you’re looking for a modern Western/crime-drama with an old-fashioned heart, you may want to give “Longmire” a try.

About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.

  • pickaname

    I am a huge fan of Johnson’s series and I love the television adaptation. If you haven’t read the series, I highly recommend it. It’s much richer than the TV series can be, although the TV series nails the characters, especially Henry. There was a good discussion going at Criminal Element re the translation of book to series, if I recall correctly.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    From a Wyoming perspective, I would also recognize Walt’s lament about it not being the WY he knew as a common one in the state. Though the series often misses the culture here by a little, this one is dead on. It isn’t what it used to be. The world is more connected than even when I was young–and I’m not even headed for my 20th reunion yet–and so even that ranch kid living ten miles from the nearest neighbor is clicking into rap and Hollywood. We are less isolated, and so we change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

    As a critique, though, I think it would make more sense for them to have him investigate one major case per season. There would be more time for the character development and, frankly, they’ve killed nearly an entire county already! If it runs for ten seasons, the state will be empty :)

  • Chad Beharriell

    A nice write-up. I teach a college level course on the Western genre – and write about it at http://www.westernsreboot.com – and my students study Longmire as an example of a current contemporary Western. In one particular episode this season (2), the show did an excellent job of weaving together components of both the “Old” and the “New” West. If interested, here is a link to my analysis of that episode: http://westernsreboot.com/2013/06/19/longmire-cattle-rustling-in-the-21st-century/

    Thanks!
    Chad

  • priest’s wife

    I watch almost no television- but Longmire is a show that I look forward to (I watch it on Hulu)- the casting is perfect!


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