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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

December 19, 2017: Longmire Lessons: Malachi and Matthias

[I know I wrote a week’s series of posts on Longmire a couple months back. But having now seen the show’s last season, I can say definitively that a central wish for the AmericanStudies Elves this year is for everyone to experience this wonderful American cultural work. So this week I’ll make a relatively spoiler-free case for doing so by sharing a handful of lessons we can learn from characters on whom I mostly didn’t focus in that prior series. Add your thoughts in comments, Longmire Posse and everyone else!]
On a character who generally reinforced cultural stereotypes, and one who wonderfully revised them.
Since at least Magua in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826), and likely well before, treacherous Native American chiefs/leaders have served as a central villainous character type for American cultural texts (especially within the subgenre of the Western, of course). Even a revisionist Western film like Dances with Wolves (1990) utilizes such a villainous Native American character, the bloodthirsty leader of the hostile Pawnee tribe, for key conflicts and plot developments. While of course lots of cultural texts and genres rely on villains to help frame their protagonists and advance their stories, and while it’s important to note that both Cooper’s novel and the film also feature heroic Native American characters (and villainous European American ones), there’s no question that this stereotypical villainous Native American character is a particularly complicated one. That is, as I wrote in this post on Longmire’s Jacob Nighthorse, it’s difficult for those of us with any knowledge of Native American and American history not to sympathize with such Native American perspectives, antagonist to European American heroes and communities as they might be.
While Nighthorse evolved significantly as a character in Longmire’s final seasons, the show did feature precisely such a consistently villainous Native American character, in the disgraced former police chief and thoroughgoing bad guy Malachi Strand. Despite being played by one of the most talented and charismatic contemporary actors, Graham Greene, Malachi was never (for this viewer at least) the slightest bit sympathetic, nor (again, to my mind) did the longstanding and ongoing histories of Native American oppression or discrimination offer any complicating contexts for this genuinely evil character. Indeed, the targets of Malachi’s villainy were most often his fellow Cheyenne, amplifying the effects of his evil deeds and plans that much more. As I wrote in my original post on Longmire, the show found ways to work very successfully within the genres of mysteries and Westerns at the same time that it offered cultural and historical stories, and for the former purpose it’s pretty important to have a great villain or two (a “black hat,” to use conventional Western terminology) against whom our protagonists must fight. But we can’t ignore the cultural side to a villain like Malachi, and on that note he generally reinforced American storytelling stereotypes.
In the show’s early seasons, it seemed that Malachi’s former deputy and his replacement as the Cheyenne police chief, Matthias (played by the great Zahn McClarnon), would serve as such a villainous character as well (he punches Walt in the show’s pilot episode, to cite one prominent piece of evidence). From the outset Matthias also had a different side (in that same pilot he works with Walt to solve the mystery and return a Native American teenager to her mother), but he still seemed like a potential villain for some time thereafter (at least in individual episodes such as one involving the drug trade). Yet that thread disappeared relatively quickly, and by the last few seasons, while Matthias has not always worked happily with the show’s protagonists, he’s become a clear and impressive leader of and spokeperson for the Cheyenne community. Indeed, even his occasional opposition to characters like Walt and Henry has consistently been driven by a desire to do the best job he can in those leadership roles, a perspective that differentiates him from any other character (even fellow Cheyenne leader-types like Jacob and Henry also tend to have more personal needs and goals) and makes him a unique and vital Native American character in American pop culture, one who challenges and revises longstanding stereotypes in favor of something new and inspiring.
Next lesson tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other texts you wish we’d all check out?

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