The July 29th episode of A&E’s Longmire, the 9th of its second season, gave another example of the strength of the mystery series as a contemporary Western (i.e. a Western set in the time it is made). “Tuscan Red” was an episode that engaged a number of current issues within its Western/Wyoming-based context. Among the issues, the process of “fracking” was examined within the story-line.
Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a contentious issue both in the West and North America at large. Energy companies seeking natural gas or oil that would be conventionally unreachable will inject a high-pressure mixture of (usually) water, sand and chemicals to create fractures in rock holding the gas or oil. The fracturing of the rock is done to draw the gas or oil to a well. Opposition to fracking cites a number of concerns as listed by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: contaminated ground water, the use and depletion of fresh water for energy extraction, contamination from spills, air quality issues and related health effects.
In addition to the above concerns, opposition includes the argument that the growth of fracking in the American West puts pressure on already limited water resources in areas technically classified as semi-arid. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that currently the 35,000 fracking operations in the US consume from 70 billion to 140 billion gallons of water per year. Such water use puts fracking in direct conflict with agriculture and municipalities in the West. In Colorado, it is estimated that 92% of fracking wells are in high-stress areas for water. Some Western municipalities are responding to the concerns that fracking raises – Longmont, CO, has banned fracking within its city limits.
Concurrent to a number of the character-driven plot-lines developing in Longmire’s second season – the contest between Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) and deputy Branch Connally (Bailey Chase) for sheriff, the investigation by a Denver detective into the murder of Longmire’s wife’s killer, the on-off relationship between Connally and Cady Longmire (Cassidy Freeman), and the back-story of Western transplant deputy Vic Moretti (Katee Sackhoff) – the “Tuscan Red” episode looked at the effects of fracking upon a local Cheyenne reservation. The Cheyenne people argued that the fracking company set up outside their reservation boundaries was contaminating their drinking water with methane. To add an additional layer of conflict, Moretti’s husband works for that company.
Sheriff Walt Longmire (Robert Talyor) and Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips) at Fracking Protest
Within the Indigenous opposition to fracking, Longmire referenced the contemporary Idle No More movement, a grassroots effort led by Indigenous peoples who, along with their non-Indigenous allies, seek to honor treaties, achieve social justice and ensure environmental protections. The episode did well to discern the difference, as voiced in dialogue by Walt Longmire, between the peaceful Idle No More movement and other types of social justice actions.
The writers and actors also ably demonstrated the issue of how opponents to unchecked resource development can be labelled. The fracking company sought to categorize the character of Dolan Lone Elk (Eric Schweig), a lead Indigenous protestor against fracking, as an enemy of the state and thus subject him to extrajudicial treatment by federal authorities.
Finally, another question examined by this multi-faceted episode was that of Indigenous identity in post-contact North America. In fact, that issue is a key thread within the story-line.
A&E’s Longmire is continuing to demonstrate a mature and reflective approach toward contemporary issues within the West and beyond. In the view of this writer, to do so within an engaging dramatic framework, with characters that continually reveal increased shades of complexity, marks this contemporary TV Western as an important show worth watching.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)