Thursday, December 21, 2017
December 21, 2017: Longmire Lessons: Hector and Henry
[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!]
[Also: serious Season 6 SPOILERS in these final three posts!]
On an iconic but mythic Native American character, and how a flesh-and-blood human one took a different path.
For the first few seasons of Longmire, one of the show’s most interesting and ambiguous characters was Hector (Jeffrey De Serrano), a Native American former boxer turned vigilante who brought a rough but fair brand of justice to the Cheyenne reservation and its residents and community when the white legal system failed them (as it so often does). As such, Hector sometimes found himself on the wrong side of Walt Longmire’s Sheriff’s department; but Walt certainly did seem to understand and respect the need Hector filled and the role that he played, and they not infrequently ended up being complicated partners in Walt’s own evolving, tortured relationship to law and justice. Yet despite these multiple important and interesting contributions to the show’s plots, I would argue that Hector never quite became a character in his own right, at least not a three-dimensional human one (the character traits that we did learn all tended to connect to his specific role, such as his refusal to kill any of his victims). That is, Hector remained fully and purposefully a mythic figure, a legend, a folkloric avenger for whom the larger-than-life stories seemed to line up more or less directly with the reality.
When Hector was murdered in season 3, his death left a void in both the show’s storylines and the Cheyenne community, and for at least the next season and a half (really more like two and a half seasons in total) it was Lou Diamond Phillips’ Henry Standing Bear, one of the show’s main protagonists, who stepped in to become “the new Hector.” On the one hand this made a great deal of character and narrative sense, not only because Henry and Hector had been friends (as much as anyone can be friends with a myth) and frequent allies, but also and especially because of Henry’s own clearly defined role as a protector of the Cheyenne community (as I discussed in that last hyperlinked post). But on the other hand, Henry is also one of the show’s most multi-dimensional and fully developed characters, with a voice and personality and identity and backstory (and wonderful catchphrase, and total inability to use contractions, and etc.) that make him as recognizably and deeply human as the best characters always are. So turning our Henry into a legendary vigilante was at best a fraught endeavor, and one that threatened to derail the broader character arc of one of the most interesting and compelling characters and performances I’ve seen on television.
The showrunners seemed to recognize that potential effect as well, and eventually moved Henry away from his role as the new Hector. In the aftermath of that shift, and for much of the final season, Henry didn’t have much to do, other than serving as the continual sounding board and friend for Walt that he had always been. But by the season’s and show’s end Henry had found a new role, as an even more unexpected replacement for another character: this time for Jacob Nighthorse as the owner of the Four Arrows Casino on the Cheyenne reservation. Henry’s general aversion to the casino, and his friendship with Walt who was thoroughly opposed to it, made this a surprising development (although his time owning a bar made it perhaps a more logical transition). But at the same time, whatever we might feel as individuals about casinos, there’s no doubt that they have become of central importance to the survival and success of Native American tribes and communities, a fact that both Jacob and the show itself seemed to recognize. By taking over the casino operations, then, Henry could be said to be fulfilling his role as a Standing Bear for the tribe in a more 21st century and future-oriented way than the legendary Hector ever could; and in his final scene in the finale he looked proud to be standing tall on that casino and communal floor.
Last lesson tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other texts you wish we’d all check out?